It’s one of life’s sick ironies that zits tend to flourish during your teenage years—that time when your self-confidence is wobbliest. But even as an adult, pimples are a common (and really embarrassing) phenomenon.
More sick irony: Stress hormones—the kind that flood your body before your wedding, your big meeting or some other important event—tend to boost your skin’s oil supplies. That leads to zits.
“Many think pimples are caused by dirt on your skin or by not washing your face enough, but dirt really has nothing to do with them,” explains Marc Glashofer, M.D., a New Jersey-based dermatologist with The Dermatology Group, and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Glashofer says pimples—or “acne lesions”, to use the derm term—are a result of sticky dead skin cells creating blockages in your hide’s follicles. These blockages lead to a backup of oil and bacteria, which leads to inflammation and lesions.
When it comes to managing your zits, one of Glashofer’s most important pieces of advice is one you’re probably heard before: Do NOT pop that sucker.
“If you try to push it out, you’re just going to make it worse,” he says. Trying to pop the zit creates a reaction below the skin that leads to more redness and inflammation, and could also lead to scarring, he says.
That sucks, because few things in life are more satisfying than blowing that annoying POS all over your bathroom mirror. But in most cases, Glashofer says your best course of action is to let the pimple run its course.
In emergency situations—a prom, wedding, a first date—Glashofer says a board-certified dermatologist can perform an “extraction” or inject steroids into the pimple, which will reduce your headlight’s size and redness within a day or two. You could also treat the pimple with a topical benzoyl peroxide cream, which may help dry the lesion out and minimize its appearance, Glashofer says.
If you’re out of time and need to do some quick concealing, he says your local department store sells green-tinted makeup that does a good job of covering up your zit’s redness.
All that said, there is one circumstance when popping your pimple is acceptable: If you have a white head and can see its contents are right at the surface of your skin—just begging to be set free—Glashofer says you can apply very gentle, lateral pressure to your zit using Q-tips. But if the zit doesn’t immediately give, back away.
Bonus note about blackheads: They’re not pimples, and you can’t really get rid of them, Glashofer says. “Your nose has pores that are filled with oil,” he explains. When oxygen hits that oil, it causes it to turn black. The only thing you can do to prevent blackheads is shrink the size of your pores with a topical prescription treatment like trotinoin. If you pop your blackheads or pry them out with strips, they’ll be back again soon, Glashofer says.