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Why We Pop Pimples

Dermatologist Richard Fried Explains Why We're Driven to Pop Pimples

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Updated May 29, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

We know, we know -- don't pop pimples. It can cause scarring and worsen acne. Still, who among us hasn't given in to temptation and squeezed a zit?

Despite the warnings, why do we continue to pop pimples, and is it ever OK to squeeze a zit?

Dermatologist and clinical psychologist Richard Fried, M.D., Ph.D. weighs in on why we're driven to pop pimples, and explains how acne can, just maybe, be viewed as a gift.

We all know popping pimples is bad for our skin, but we all do it. Why?

Dr. Fried: Any of us who say we never, ever, ever manipulate our skin, pick at our pimple, pick off the scab, are one of two things: either a saint or a liar. And last time I counted, there were very few saints that have been anointed.

If people have dogs or cats, [they will find that] they're very instructive. Dogs, cats, hamsters, or guinea pigs, for that matter, lick, chew, or scratch off something on their skin that doesn't belong there.

So, I honestly believe it is part of the absolute basic genetic endowment of all higher-functioning beings that when there is something that doesn't belong on the skin, we are driven to get rid of it.

So, do you think it's OK to pop or not?

Dr. Fried: [Is it] kind of true that if you have a really ripe, oozing pus bump, that expressing pus may help it go away a little bit more quickly? [Yes], that is true.

So, is it sometimes OK to squeeze a ripe pimple if I know that I'm going to do it gently and not get carried away? Probably. Is there a risk [that] squeezing a pimple [could cause it to] rupture under the skin and lead to some scarring? There is.

But it becomes a question of what kind of squeezer-picker are you? If you're the squeezer-picker who takes two Q-tips, after applying a warm cloth, and gently squeezes and gets a little bit of pus out and that's all you do, you're probably fine.

If you're the chronic squeezer-picker (you know once you start until you get a pair of pliers, there's blood coming out, and you can't stop), you're somebody that shouldn't pick. There's a old saying in life: Know thyself.

I think all people are driven to remove imperfections. If you want to very, very gently squeeze, it's probably OK, but there is some risk associated with it. But if you know you're going to get carried away, you probably shouldn't.

Among the most tempting acne to pick or squeeze are blackheads. Their very visibility makes the temptation to pick even greater. Vitamin A-based prescription products containing tretinoin, such as Atralin or Retin-A, are extremely effective and literally help to remove the condition that results in the urge to squeeze.

Advice for acne sufferers?

Dr. Fried: Part of acne care, in addition to getting legitimate care, using legitimate products, taking good care of our skin, is some self-talk. We [have] to give ourselves a break. We're not supposed to be perfect.

When we look in the mirror, it's like going to a carnival and looking in one of the circus mirrors. What we see in the mirror always amplifies everything we hate about our complexion and our bodies, and tends to blur out or minimize the things that we do like.

So, all of us are fearful that we're going to be perceived as ugly, unacceptable. All of us are fearful that we're not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough.

Having imperfections is a wonderful thing. That way you can honestly say, this person's talking to me, this person is dealing with me, this person is hiring me even though I have imperfections, so I guess it must be something about my personality, something about my competence, something about by enthusiasm.

I'm not expecting that somebody should wake up with a big pimple on their chin and jump and celebrate the zits. But I am suggesting reframing a couple zits, or even a reasonable amount of acne, as somewhat of a screening device. It can be a very helpful screen for the people who really have an interest in us as human beings.

Read the entire interview with Dr. Richard Fried:

Part 1: The Mind-Skin Connection

Part 2: The Stress Connection

Part 3: The Emotional Impact of Acne

Part 4: Why We Pop Pimples

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  6. Why Do We Pop Pimples When We Know We Shouldn't?

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