It starts with a tiny white head, and before you know it, you’re pressing your fingers aggressively into your face trying to pop a massive pimple. It happens to the best of us—and usually with the best of intentions—but skin experts agree that the number one skin enemy is this type of picking and prodding in the first place. “I always advise clients not to pick because they can do serious damage,” says Molly Lamb, licensed esthetician and owner of Skin by Molly in Brooklyn, New York. “You can apply too much pressure, rupture the pore and, worst of all, leave behind a scar.” Also, Lamb notes that a pimple is a local infection. In other words, picking an infected pore (or hair follicle) spreads harmful bacteria, often causing a deeper, larger pimple and more blemishes.
While it’s best to leave extraction to the pros, all hope is not lost if you accidentally got carried away in front of the bathroom mirror. There are scar revision treatments that pros recommend to help heal your skin, stat.
Literally. “When performed properly, extractions can help remove the contents of a blackhead or whitehead and clear the skin,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “However, trauma to the skin can lead to scabbing, possible infections, or even a long-lasting scar.” He says to be especially weary of deep, tender, "underground" pimples, as any attempt to pick them will inevitably leave your face worse off.
Leave scabs alone, too, as picking the same area will not only prevent healing, but it will also increase your chances of discoloration and scarring. “Instead of picking a scab, moisten it with a warm washcloth and then apply ointment over it,” suggests Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor. “Allow it to come off naturally.”
Be diligent with sunscreen
When you’re trying to nix a zit, sunscreen might not seem like a top priority, but experts say that using SPF is nonnegotiable. “Everyone should use SPF, but it's especially important to be diligent about sun protection if you've picked your face,” says Lamb. “UV rays prevent scars from healing and can lead to hyperpigmentation that is difficult to treat.” She recommends wearing a broad-spectrum SPF 30 every single day, even when it's cloudy or raining.
Do a daily gentle cleanse
When you pick skin, you not only introduce bacteria from your fingers, but you also leave it susceptible to bacteria and germs because the barrier has been damaged, notes Dr. Shah. What’s more, people who pick likely use heavy makeup to cover up the damage. For these reasons, Dr. Shah says it’s important to continue cleansing twice a day. “Harsh cleansers and scrubs can aggravate the problem, so choose a mild cleanser that won't further irritate the skin,” she advises.
Apply a healing balm or ointment
Resist the urge to use an acne spot treatment. Despite what you may think, or what a zit cream might claim on the packaging, oftentimes these products only dry out the skin, which in turn, hinders the healing process. “A moist environment helps the skin heal,” says Dr. Shah. Something as simple as Aquaphor can do the trick. You can also try a soothing balm with hydrating, anti-inflammatory, and reparative ingredients like First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair® Cream Intense Hydration ($30; spehora.com).
“Avoid antibiotic creams and ointments as these are associated with allergic reactions,” Dr. Shah adds.
Exfoliate with AHAs
“Alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic or lactic acid, help smooth and repair the skin,” says Lamb. “Regular use of AHAs can also help prevent acne—and prevention is ultimately the best remedy!” There are a number of products available for home use, like Sunday Riley All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($158; sephora.com), or you can ask your esthetician about a professional-strength AHA peel.
Retinoids (aka vitamin A derivatives) are also great exfoliators. “They improve skin texture and smoothness,” says Lamb. “These ingredients are a great option if you are concerned about scarring, acne or aging.” As a general rule, vitamin A products should not be used at the same time as acids (like AHAs), or you risk over-exfoliating and irritating the skin.
Use brightening ingredients
If your scars are hyperpigmented (discolored, but not raised or indented), Lamb recommends reaching for treatments that contain powerful brightening ingredients like vitamin C, kojic acid, or licorice extract. “These ingredients lighten dark spots, and daily use of a vitamin C is great for keeping skin even and bright,” she says. “I prescribe serums containing vitamin C to nearly all of my clients.”
Consider light and laser treatments
“There are a number of treatments available for acne scarring, including IPL, Nd:YAG, and fractional lasers,” says Lamb. “Some of these improve discoloration, while others improve the texture of the skin and are best for raised or pitted scars.” The laser treatments work by creating a controlled micro injury that induces a repair response and encourages collagen production. Do keep in mind, however, that these treatments can be expensive, may require significant downtime, and many people need multiple treatments.
If you can’t get your acne under control, seek help from a derm
If your at-home treatments aren’t working, make a visit to your dermatologist’s office to prevent further damage to your skin. He or she may be able to prescribe medications that are not available to you over the counter. For example, Dr. Zeichner often prescribes a topical cream that will dry out the pimple. “For red, angry pimples, I’ll have patients combine 1 percent hydrocortisone cream with 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide and 2 percent salicylic acid,” he says. “This compound will reduce skin inflammation, kill acne-causing bacteria, and dry out the pimple.”