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Is There Ever an Okay Time to Go After a Pimple? (And the Definitive Answers to Every Blemish Question We've Ever Had)

We asked the top skincare experts our biggest blemish questions.
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There are certain “cardinal rules” of skincare: remove your makeup and wash your face every night before bed, stay hydrated, apply SPF daily, to name a few. Whether vetted by celebrities or your grandmother, almost everyone can agree on these rules. But there are others that fall into a grey area, especially those surrounding blemishes: Is it better to pop a white head or let it be? Will splashing your face with cold water really promote an even skin tone? Do pimple patches actually work? We asked three experts our most pressing blemish questions so you don’t have to wonder: Joanna Vargas of the nationally renowned salons and skincare line, Liliana Gankevych of Heyday NYC, and Matthew Miller, one of our favorite L.A.-based estheticians. Read on for their answers:

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If you have a pimple that looks like it can be extracted, I would prep it by putting on a clay mask or enzyme mask and getting into the shower to steam it. Once out, I would take two Q-tips and gently try and remove it. - Joanna Vargas, Joanna Vargas in NYC and LA @joannavargas

There is never really an appropriate time to pop a blemish at home, especially a deep, inflamed one. While you can sometimes gently extract a whitehead without spreading the infection, there are certain types of pimples you should never try to pop. For example, any red pimple without a white head (called papules) should not be squeezed. - Liliana Gankevych, Skin Therapist at Heyday NYC @heydayskincare

I don’t recommend people take matters into their own hands. However, I know it’s unrealistic to expect no one to try to pop. Always wait until you see a head to the blemish. Also, never try to pop those painful, cystic ones we usually get from hormonal breakouts. Nothing will come out, and it will just make them more angry. - Matthew Miller, Matthew Miller Skin in LA @matthewmillerskin 

Consensus: If it's cystic or a red pimple without a white head, do not squeeze it.

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Picking at your face can leave marks. It’s hard to do it properly because you can’t see it well enough and often people wind up digging their fingernails in to the skin. - Joanna

Picking your skin can cause scarring and inflammation. Also depending on the type of breakout, you can spread the infection and end up with multiple breakouts next to each other. - Liliana

Picking and trying to force something out before your skin is ready can lead to more damage. You can be pushing bacteria deeper into your pore, your nails can be causing even more damage to your skin around the pimple, and you are greatly increasing your risk for scarring. So instead of having a pimple for a week, you can be walking around with a scar for months! - Matthew

Consensus: Don't pick at your face! It can spread pimples, or worse, cause scarring.  

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I don’t generally approve of at home extractions, but, if you need to, do it after showering. The steam will help prep your skin similar to a facial. Have a clean face and clean hands. Instead of using finger tips and nails, use two Q-tips. They are covered in cotton, work around pimples easily, and won’t damage skin. It's very difficult to get a good angle for real extraction on one’s own face and going too vigorously in softened, steamed skin could lead to scars and pigment. - Joanna

Instead of picking it, try a spot treatment. If you cover it, it will stop bothering you. That is the only “tool” I’d recommend. Metal tools like lancets are unsanitary and can leave behind marks, especially if you’re not trained to use one. - Liliana

No matter what I say, people are going to pick. If you must, keep some things in mind. Clean the area first. Wraps your fingers with tissue, so your nails can’t damage your skin. Get as close to the edge of the blemish as possible and try to pop it. Rule of thumb: If you give it two gentle squeezes and nothing comes out, LEAVE IT ALONE. It is not ready. If you do drain the pimple, make sure to clean the area again so the bacteria isn’t being spread to other areas, causing even more breakouts. - Matthew

Consensus: If you have to pop a pimple, try a spot treatment first. If you can't help it, steam it first in the shower, then remove by using two Q-tips or finger nails wrapped in tissue (do not use your finger nails or a metal lancet). Then be sure to clean the area so the bacteria doesn't spread to other areas. 

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Exfoliation twice a week at home is key. I would recommend a physical exfoliant that uses volcanic rock plus an enzyme, like my Exfoliating Mask to effectively clear pores. - Joanna

Spot treatments are the best. We also now have acne patches at Heyday that are great for whiteheads. - Liliana

Products with salicylic acid will help keep the pores clear so it lowers our chances of breakouts in general. My favorite spot treatments are: Clarity by Cosmedix which offers a blend of salicylic acid, retinol, tea tree, willowherb, niacinamide, and aloe... a perfect mix of exfoliating and nourishing ingredients. Another go to is Clear Mask by Cosmedix, which uses a mix of clay, salicylic acid, niacinamide, and sulfur! These two products can also be layered for higher potency. - Matthew

Consensus: Invest in an exfoliating mask, acne patches, and a quality spot treatment

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I usually recommend a clay mask to draw out impurities. - Joanna

They can definitely help! Those treatments soothe and calm the inflammation. However, personally my favorite treatment for breakouts is Shaffali’s Sage and Earth Mask, which can be used as a mask or directly on spots. It has volcanic ash, which is detoxifying, and some turmeric and sage, which is very healing. I always recommend to clients that they get a great spot treatment. - Liliana

I have clients that swear by them. I personally haven’t tried them yet. I ironically just ordered some online right before this interview. We shall see...... - Matthew

Consensus: Verdict's still out. But if they work for you, feel free to use them!

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I would apply a healing balm that has anti-bacterial properties like something that contains tea tree oil or propolis. - Joanna

For those clients with post-acne scars and post-inflammation, I usually recommend peels to improve the skin texture and to lighten up the marks, as well as LED light therapy for healing. Together they working incredibly. It’s important to know that these methods take some time to see results, Those marks didn't happen overnight and won't leave in one treatment, especially if they’re older marks. - Liliana

Let your skin heal!! Focus more on hydration and nourishment to speed along healing. I love products like Relief Gel by Cosmedix Elite, Super Serum by DMK, or Cell ID by Cosmedix. They will offer lightweight hydration that doesn’t clog pores, make an optimal environment for healing, and help balance out skin. However, if it does scab, do not pick it off. Scabbing is how our skin heals itself, letting it naturally fall off with greatly reduce the chance of scarring. Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, beta-glucans, sodium PCA, bisabolol, and niacinamide. - Matthew

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While short term it can get rid of the pimple fast, cortisone can degrade the collagen and leave a pockmark. I wouldn’t recommend it. - Joanna

Basically, what a cortisone shot does is it dramatically decreases the size and inflammation of a pimple. A small injection of a corticosteroid in a large acne lesion will reduce its size and appearance dramatically. I think it's an individual choice. I personally would stick to more traditional ways, but everyone’s skin is their own and they should do what makes them comfortable. - Liliana 

These shots are usually intended only for swollen, cystic-like blemishes. The cortisone acts as an anti-inflammatory that helps shrink the cyst relatively fast. However, I don’t recommend them unless you absolutely have to, and certainly not all the time. Too much can actually cause scarring and depressions where the cyst was. - Matthew

Consensus: It's an effective short-term solution, with negative longterm effects. Avoid them if you can.

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No picking in weird moments like the bathroom on an airplane! - Joanna

Picking them. - Liliana

Going back to the top, don’t pick! Leave it alone, and try not to hyper focus on it. It can lead to so many other issues and breakouts the more we play with it. - Matthew

Consensus: Don't pick at your face!

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I always recommend clients have facials once a month. Nothing you do at home can replace professional exfoliation, extraction, and attention! Also, your skin is doing different things depending on the season and your lifestyle. Having a monthly check-in with a professional ensures you are getting the best treatment for your skin in the moment. I start any good skincare routine with diet advice: If you are breaking out or if you simply have dull skin, the best solution is adding more greens to your routine. I also recommend applying my Daily Serum, which is a green juice for the skin because it stimulates the lymphatic system, oxygenates, and hydrates without clogging their young skin. I like to keep a teen’s routine simple and doable. If you are using great products, you don't need a lot of steps. Wash your face in the morning and at night. Use a paper towel to dry it so you don’t spread bacteria through your towel. Use a tea tree spot treatment on any breakouts overnight. Eat vegetables with every meal. Use an at-home LED device every day on the skin to calm it, kill bacteria and make the skin healthier. Do not use a cleansing brush because this will spread more bacteria. - Joanna

Definitely. Adult acne is a lot more common than you’d think. It is different than the acne you had during your teens in several ways. The key difference is that teenage acne is caused by active oil glands and excess oil production, whereas adult acne is caused by hormonal activity. It's not always about skincare, but about lifestyle as well. We need to look at the whole picture. To work with those acne conditions takes time. And if regular treatments don't help, I usually recommend my clients to see a dermatologist or endocrinologist to check hormones. It’s also important to remember that just because you get breakouts sometimes does not mean that you have acne. - Liliana

This depends on the client. Some acne can be caused just by poor at-home care. Some suffer from hormonal breakouts, which is mostly internal. While others can actually have a form of rosacea. Regardless of the breakout, I strongly recommend seeing an esthetician or a dermatologist to assist in properly treating it. - Matthew

Consensus: Adult acne is often hormonal, while teenage acne is usually caused by excess oil production. Both can be curbed by taking a holistic approach to your skincare, diet, and lifestyle routine—but seeing a professional is your best bet.

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People think of their skin as being perfectly uniform at all times, but really the skin tends to be a little bit more like a road map—some places are oily while some can be sensitive or dry. If you need to be exfoliated vigorously in some spots but have sensitive skin in others, you can cause more breakouts. - Joanna

Based on Ayurvedic principles, there are a few reasons you might be breaking out in one particular area over another. I would look to it for guidance. For example, breakouts on your forehead is usually stress related, but also can be from friction if you’re often wearing hats. I also advise my clients to change their hair products, like shampoo and conditioner, and see what happens, as these products might clog pores along the hairline. If your breakouts are on the nose, you might check your diet as nose breakouts can be linked to the heart. Usually cutting back on meat and spicy foods can reduce breakouts in that area. But also, since this area is full of dilated pores, you might want to check your makeup and make sure it's not past its expiration date or doesn’t contain pore-clogging ingredients. If you're experiencing breakouts on the cheeks, it might be time to give a good cleanse to your phone and makeup brushes. - Liliana

Chinese face mapping is great. A simple google search of this will show all the areas and what they signify. While this can be the case, sometimes we just can get random breakouts anywhere. The area I usually see the most in the treatment room with women is the jawline and chin. This is a hormonal zone and very common. - Matthew

Consensus: Your skin is not uniform—and breakouts in different areas can indicate a number of different things, like hormones, stress, even that your phone is dirty and needs to be cleaned (if you're breaking out on your cheek...).

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In the salon, acne scars and hyperpigmentation benefit from microdermabrasion. I use a diamond peel, and there are diamonds in the tip of the wand that I use. It’s adjustable for your skin type if you have super sensitive skin. Regular exfoliation is the key to getting a more even skin tone and surface. We do something called a Power Peel which is a fruit acid peel/LED light combo that really helps with scars over time. Another treatment is LED Light Therapy. LED Light grows collagen in quantifiable percentages. In my salon, we do several different treatments that involve LED light, but, by far, the most popular uses my patented RevitaLight Bed which gives a client a full body treatment of healing LED. Studies have shown that LED light speeds healing of the body by 300% and corrects fine lines, wrinkles, sun damage, and acne scars. It’s sort of like having a magic wand. Joanna

Weekly exfoliation can be very helpful as it will work on skin texture improvement. However, for this one, I’d recommend seeing a professional to see real results. Start with monthly facials including peels and LED light therapy, and if that doesn’t show you the results you want, go with laser treatments. - Liliana

Proper healing is the best first step. Let the skin heal naturally and don’t pick scabs. Depending on the type of scarring, peels, lasers, and microneedling can be of assistance. If it’s a matter of pigmentation, look for ingredients like kojic acid, vitamin C, lactic acid, waltheria extract, niacinamide, licorice root extract, and mulberry root extract. Recommended products for lightening dark spots: Simply Brilliant by Cosmedix, X-Cell+ by Cosmedix Elite, Melanotech Drops by DMK, Glow Mask by Cosmedix. - Matthew

Consensus: Exfoliation and professional-grade peels, lasers, microneedling, LED light therapy, and other procedures can help minimize acne scars. 

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I would exfoliate 2x a week, mask at least once after, use a paper towel instead of your bath towel to prevent the spread of bacteria and avoid brushes for the same reason. - Joanna

Exfoliate 3x a week, masks 2x a week… I believe in five simple steps in everybody's beauty routine: (1) Cleanse (morning and night) (2) Exfoliate and hydrating masks (1-2 times a week) (3) Tone (free of alcohol and any synthetic fragrance) (4) Hydrate with moisturizer (morning) and serums and night creams (night) (5) Protect with SPF. - Liliana

Every skin is different, which is why I urge people to come in for consultations. However, I always like to suggest to be more gentle than harsh for at home use. For acne, I’m more of a fan of chemical exfoliation. Scrubs can keep the acne from healing, where chemical solutions can help dissolve away dead skin and bacteria. Again, salicylic acid is a good go-to. I urge everyone not to over do it! A lot of people with acne are constantly stripping their skin barrier. Our skin needs moisture in order to be balanced and heal. - Matthew

Consensus: Every skin type is different, but consider adding exfoliation to your routine if you haven't already. 

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Use apple cider vinegar as a spot treatment on blemishes/problem areas. It's an effective antibacterial and antifungal liquid capable of keeping breakouts at bay. You can also dilute a water with 1/3 parts apple cider vinegar and use this as an all over face toner after you wash your face. Take a shot of chlorophyll every day. It's a very simple way to get a super serving of greens every day, and it tastes like mint. It will help to oxygenate the skin, assisting in keeping your complexion clear and bright. - Joanna

Unfortunately not. It’s better to use products actually for your skin. For example, yes toothpaste can cause pimples to dry out, but it will also irritate and damage your skin. - Liliana

Icing the blemish is great! It helps lower inflammation and the size of the breakout. Toothpaste, however, NO! This is way too drying and irritating for the skin, it’s doing more harm than good. I'm not a fan of most DIY skincare for that reason. - Matthew

Consensus: Ice is great, apple cider vinegar is great. But toothpaste is not! When in doubt, use products actually intended and created for skin.

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I would strongly suggest avoiding sugar, dairy and wheat. All of those things are hard to digest and lead to breakouts even in adult skin! On the flip side, I would recommend trying to eat veggies with every meal- they will help your digestive system and keep your skin nice and clear. If that's a tall order, then buy liquid chlorophyll from Whole Foods. It's easier to swallow and will make the skin clear and glowing! -Joanna

I usually recommend that clients exclude dairy and sugar. Try to eat clean food and drink more water. Also less caffeine, sorry! - Liliana

I tell my acne prone clients, especially hormonally driven acne client, to cut out dairy and refined sugar. Most clients will see a big reduction in breakouts after these two ingredients are eliminated. A long term poor diet and little exercise will always show in the skin. - Matthew

Consensus: Seriously consider cutting out dairy and sugar if you're trying to avoid breakouts.

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I’ve heard that using a Beauty Blender helps. - Joanna

I am a makeup artist as well as an esthetician, and, in my practice, before putting concealer on, I use my color corrector technique. You tap some green color on the top of your red blemish, just a very thin layer, and then cover with concealer and finish with a light coverage foundation. - Liliana

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I would avoid over-using glycolic acid in every product. It’s too drying and doesn’t handle the skin issues long term. - Joanna

Face oils are great — if you choose one according to your skin type and conditions, so I wouldn’t recommend avoiding them. Also it’s very important to clean your makeup brushes. Give a good cleanse to your brushes every week, and after every use wipe them with special brush cleanser and let them dry overnight. - Liliana

I highly recommend to NOT use coconut oil on the face. So many people are going down this completely natural path in skincare. This can be fine, but many are turning to coconut oil thinking it's a holy grail ingredient. I can’t count how many clients come in with severe acne and congestion because of coconut oil. I find it way too clogging, and it is just best to avoid in general. - Matthew

Consensus: Be careful which face oils you use—some can be far too clogging. 

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