DIY Dermatologist? Why you pop your pimples and how to stop

DIY Dermatologist?  Stop acne picking popping now

I know very few people who don’t, at one time or another, pop their pimples. Or pick at the scabs.  OK, hang in there, I don't usually get this graphic, but its important to know why you do this and how to stop.  

Picking, popping, squeezing pimples have physiological and psychological aspects that I'll outline to help you understand why you do it and find ways to avoid this destructive behavior.

So there it is, the offending pimple that shows up at the worst time, of course.  You feel like you have to do something about it.  The internal dialogue, whether we’re conscious of it or not, goes something like this: 

Oh no! Its horrible… everyone’s looking at my face… they think I’m ugly/dirty/gross…I’ve got to get this zit out…(squeeze, pop, dig, squeeze some more)…ok, its out, I feel better now.

The 2 primary feelings here are anxiety and relief.  You're anxious when the pimple has emerged and relieved when you figure out how you can help solve the problem.


Unconsciously, your body supports this psychological dialogue. 

The first feeling, anxiety, is uncomfortable.  The mind and body do what they can to resolve the discomfort of anxiety.  

Anxiety leads the mind to want to fix the problem, and to think through solutions on how to solve the problem.  This releases cortisol and adrenaline, which help the body get ready for action.  Think fight or flight.

You go into action (squeeze, pop, dig, etc.) and the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which makes you desire pleasure.  In this case, its that weird satisfaction you get when you've seen the liquid and other debris spurt out, which is a sense of cleansing or purging. 

Dopamine makes you forget or ignore the negative consequences of behavior.  In this case, dopamine helps you to NOT think about the consequences of popping that pimple (like the spread of bacteria leading to more pimples, infection, scarring, red or brown discoloration, etc.).

Your brain and body have just been on a roller coaster, and for most people, they want to repeat that feeling - the pain and pleasure response is addictive.  You then find yourself picking the scab that’s left after squeezing the pimple, or looking for more to extract.  Most pickers will constantly looking in the mirror and touch the skin to see if they can feel more pimples.  The cycle continues.

Is this behavior harmless?
There are times when this behavior is a problem that needs to be addressed.
  1. Is the behavior is taking over your life?  There are some people who spend a great deal of time sitting in front of the mirror.  These people may also have rituals around the performing pimple popping, like setting aside time, having a specific mirror (are you a 5x or 10x?), gathering the tools they’ll need, the pimple searching process, etc.  This all takes time away from actually living a life.  When its an avoidance of daily living or other anxieties you're trying to avoid, then its a problem.  It is also a big problem when its a part of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a body image disorder common in women that is characterized by the constant preoccupation with their own body’s flaws.  See my article on pimple picking related to Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
  2. Are you damaging your skin and causing more breakouts, scars or discoloration?  The dermatologist and esthetician are trained to know what can be removed and how to remove it.  Yes, there are some things that shouldn’t be removed by you or even the esthetician.  What should be removed requires some skill, such as preparing the skin to minimize injury, trauma and inflammation; then getting to the root of the clog so that you’re not just sealing it up and causing more inflammation and breakouts.  Professionals also have sterilized or disposable tools to do the job, along with finishing procedures to limit the spread of bacteria and calm inflammation.  The vast majority of pickers don’t have proper sanitary or technical procedures (just some dirty fingers and a tissue, and sometimes these scary looking tools that even I wouldn't use), so they end up with infections, scars (pitts), discolored marks (red or brown) and more breakouts.
Some hints on how to stop the pimple popping
Sometimes you can change the pimple popping behavior on your own.  My tips for changing the behavior;
  • Get rid of tools and magnified mirror.  Nobody sees your skin that closely, I promise, so get rid of that mirror.  Get rid of the tools as they’re too much of a temptation if they’re lying around.  Just FYI, I don’t use tools to extract, as I find they can’t let you judge how far to go into the pore and are more likely to cause damage.
  • Control the breakouts.  Follow a regimen that is designed by your dermatologist or esthetician; they know how to help but you need to be consistent and patient.  Talk with them if you have concerns.  Sometimes a regimen needs to be tweaked or something stronger used.
  • Spot treat.  There are preparations, both professional and home made that are more productive than picking, as they will shorten the time the pimple hangs around and in some cases will lessen the chance of discoloration.  Here's a link to my favorite Eminence Organic acne targeting cream and my favorite Osmosis targeting treatment for inflammation and scarring.  Some people do well with organic apple cider vinegar, but please dilute what you put on your skin as it can be very irritating used undiluted.  I don’t recommend anything too drying or that suppresses skin’s immunity (like benzoyl peroxide, even tea tree is said to suppress immunity).
  • Awareness and a simple rubber band.  Put a rubber band around your wrist, and when you're even just thinking about pimple popping, snap the rubber band.  This sends repeated messages to your nervous system that there's a consequence or downside to the behavior.

If your problem is more serious
If you can't stop or are maiming yourself repeatedly, have strong anxieties, or other behaviors like hair pulling, cutting or burning yourself, etc., then its time to get some professional mental health help.  You don't have to live like this, there are compassionate people who can help.  See my article on Acne and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Need help to keep acne under control so you can avoid popping pimples?  Get in touch with me at 917-596-9535 and let’s start a customized skin care program just for you.


joanna tringali, holistic esthetician
calm beauty brooklyn


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