When you check your makeup in the mirror, only to spot a giant you-have-no-idea-what lump staring back at you, it’s absolutely tempting to go HAM on your face. But experts agree that when it comes to most skin bumps and blemishes, a hands-off approach is most definitely best.
“Popping anything causes your skin to physically break apart, making it more susceptible to infection and an even bigger problem than what was originally there in the first place,” says Dendy Engelman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York City.
Here are the eight skin bumps you should definitely not pick, pop, or poke:
1. Ingrown hairs
Getty / Biophoto Associates
Frustrating? Extremely. Worth picking—even if you just shaved your bikini line? Absolutely not. “Ingrown hairs occur when the hair shaft becomes trapped beneath the skin’s surface,” says Joel Schlessinger, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf advisor.
“The red bumps that follow are often itchy and inflamed, but it’s never a good idea to use tweezers or manual force to pluck them,” says Schlessinger. Squeezing them will only make inflammation and irritation worse, he adds. (Hello, red marks that last for months.)
Instead, apply hydrocortisone, which reduces redness, itchiness, and irritation—and wash the affected area with an exfoliating cleanser to help the hair reach the skin’s surface.
2. Cold sores
Unless you’re looking to inspire a whole army of these bad boys, don’t even think about touching them—no matter how much that cold sore looks like a pimple. “Picking at cold sores could very easily lead to the formation of another sore, and popping them releases a blister-like fluid that contains the same virus and can easily spread to other areas,” says Schlessinger.
Small sores can heal on their own with the help of OTC treatments. But if you notice cold sores popping up more frequently (or spreading to larger areas), Schlessinger says you should see a doctor for professional help. Also, avoid making out with anyone—S.O. included—until the cold sore has died down to avoid spreading it even further.
If you’ve ever noticed a tiny white bump—known as milia—on your face that refuses to pop (no matter how hard you try), rest assured knowing it is truly un-poppable—at least without a dermatologist’s or esthetician’s help.
Milia is actually not dirt, oil, or grime—it’s a tiny, harmless cyst, says Schlessinger. “Picking at them often has little to no effect and attempting to pop them will likely leave your skin red, irritated, and inflamed, with the milia still intact,” says Schlessinger. Ouch.
“If it’s bothering you, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist, who will likely extract it with a heated, sterilized tool,” says Engelman. You can also use a retinoid cream to help smooth them out faster, although milia generally clear up on their own.
4. Keratosis pilaris
American Academy of Dermatology
Often referred to as “chicken skin,” this genetic condition is caused by a buildup of keratin, the protein that protects skin, hair, and nails from infection and other harmful environmental toxins.
“The buildup forms a plug that blocks the opening of a hair follicle,” says Engelman. “Squeezing or picking at these lesions causes worsening effects like redness and the potential for scarring as well.”
Instead of getting your hands dirty, use a chemical exfoliant that has salicylic acid or glycolic acid to calm the inflammation down and gradually smooth out the bumps over time. “If that doesn’t work, see a dermatologist or an esthetician, who can properly treat you,” recommends Engelman. Treatment options include the topical medication tretinoin (a.k.a. Retin-A) to exfoliate the area and a pulsed dye laser to treat redness.
“Blackheads consist of the same thing as whiteheads—pores that become clogged with oil—except the oil has oxidized after being exposed to the air, giving it a black or brownish hue,” says Schlessinger. “Squeezing them forces the bacteria even deeper and causes trauma to the skin.”
The best ingredients in general for dealing with blackheads are salicylic acid and retinol. These exfoliators promote cell turnover, preventing dead skin cells from plugging up your pores.
To work the oil and dirt out without picking at your blackheads or applying pressure, use an exfoliating face wash like Biore Complexion Clearing Warming Anti-Blackhead Cleanser ($6, amazon.com). “It will work to bring the blackhead to the skin’s surface, leaving you with a fresh face in just days,” says Engelman.
And look for makeup and skincare products that are oil-free and non-comedogenic, to ensure that what you’re using on your face won’t contribute to any future clogged pores.
6. Cystic acne pimples
This type of pimple occurs very deep in the skin, forming a red, tender nodule that’s not only painful but much harder to treat with OTC meds. “The inflammation that accompanies cystic acne can hinder the healing process and often lead to permanent scarring that’s impossible to eliminate,” says Engelman.
Picking at them won’t help, either. “The cysts occur so far beneath the skin that you won’t even come close to reaching the bump and you’ll be left with a bloody spot that’s impossible to cover up with makeup,” says Schlessinger. Instead, book an appointment with your dermatologist who can properly treat the situation (usually in the form of a cortisone shot to instantly kill the swelling) and may even be able to save you from scarring altogether.
These are the easiest (and often, most satisfying) to squeeze, clean up, and move on with your day. But if you really want to limit their stay, avoid giving them any attention. “Whiteheads keep acne bacteria contained to one area while the blemish heals, so when it is squeezed, it releases the contents of the blemish—often a mix of acne bacteria, oil, and skin cells” says Schlessinger. Grosssssss.
If that’s not enough incentive to let whiteheads be whiteheads, consider the fact that a tiny pop can result in spreading that bacteria throughout your face—or deeper into your skin. So leave these guys alone, says Schlessinger, or try a spot treatment if you’re truly desperate for them to go away.
A lipoma is a fatty lump underneath the skin that might feel like a cystic pimple. They’re non-cancerous and generally harmless, although they can become painful if they grow too big.
Even though Dr. Pimple Popper “pops” lipomas for her clients on the reg, you should not do this yourself at home. You’ll just break open your skin and make it red and angry—and potentially introduce bacteria into the area to make your problems even worse. Instead, your best option is to have a dermatologist remove it.
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