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What is a Pimple?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A pimple, also called a blemish or a "zit," is a small swelling in the skin caused by a blockage of a pore. Recurrent or multiple pimples are termed acne. Many people view blemishes as unsightly, and try to avoid getting them, if possible. There are a number of ways to treat zits before they appear, and there are also some options for dealing with them after they arise. As is the case with any type of medical condition, severe or painful pimples should be treated by a doctor.

A pimple forms when dead skin attempts to slough off but cannot, because of a stoppage in the pores of the skin. Commonly such stoppages are caused by overproduction from the sebaceous glands, which normally work to keep the skin healthy. Dirt and infection in a pore can also lead to a blockage, which will cause a blemish. In some cases, the lesion may become filled with pus.

Many people want to instinctively pop a pimple when they see one. This is not actually advised, since it can drive the blockage and infectious material further into the skin, leading to painful infections and unsightly scars. Only whiteheads and blackheads should be popped, while pus-filled, red zits should be left alone. When a blemish is popped, or extracted, it should be done under sterile conditions, to reduce the risk of infection, and a dermatologist or aesthetician should ideally perform the extraction.

To avoid pimples, keeping the skin clean is the best step. Clean skin is less likely to erupt, since regular washing and the use of an exfoliant will remove built up dead skin and dirt. There may be some dietary changes which can be made to reduce blemishes, such as eating fewer fats and oils, although a clear link between diet and acne has not been established, and it may be different for different people. Avoiding stress is also a good way to reduce the likelihood of breaking out.

Once pimples emerge, they should be left alone and allowed to take their course naturally. In most cases, the lesion will heal after a few days. Try to avoid touching or irritating the zit, and use clean hands if you must touch it. Do not cover the blemish with makeup, as this can increase the severity of the blockage. If the lesion will not go away, or it gets larger, painful, or obviously irritated, see a dermatologist.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By seHiro — On Jun 08, 2011

@Malka - I hadn't considered food allergies...my sister has a lot of these, in fact my family likes to joke that she's allergic to one half of the food in the world and my brother in law (who also has bad food allergies) is allergic to the other half. I do also struggle with dry skin. Thank you for the reply -- I think I'll look into whether I have any food sensitivities or food allergies, especially to corn and corn syrup!

By VivAnne — On Jun 05, 2011

If you absolutely must pop a pimple, do not, repeat do not use your fingernails! Instead, take a straight pin or other needle, run the tip over a lighter flame to sterilize it, and carefully prick the whitehead with the sterilized needle.

Then, with clean hands, carefully apply a bit of pressure to both sides of the pimple (not just one -- this might force the pus downward instead of upward!) until the pus squeezes out. Don't squeeze it hard, or continue to squeeze after the pus comes out -- the pressure can damage the tissue, leaving the pimple area swollen and red!

After you drain the pimple, try not to touch it or mess with it any more -- it will heal up on its own, and since you disinfected the needle first, it shouldn't become infected again.

By Malka — On Jun 04, 2011

@SeHiro - You're on the right track -- avoiding pimples is much easier than figuring out how to get rid of pimples once you already have them. However, you might want to consider that maybe your sensitivity to corn syrup isn't normal. You might have a food allergy or a food sensitivity that is causing acne as one of the reactions.

I myself eat corn syrup a lot, and I don't get many pimples. Granted, I have a great skin hygiene routine, but obviously the corn syrup isn't such a big problem that it makes me break out regardless.

Food allergies and food sensitivities can cause breakouts of pimples, rashes on the skin, dry skin flakiness and many other symptoms that you don't think of when you think "allergic reaction". If you find you have a food sensitivity or allergy, avoiding that food could go a long way toward a clearer, pimple-free complexion!

By seHiro — On Jun 01, 2011

Although pimples are often associated with being a teenager and with puberty, it's important to remember that they aren't just a product of hormones -- adults can get pimples, too! Dietary habits haven't been directly linked in studies with the tendency to get pimples, but I have to say that for me, personally, avoiding corn syrup at all costs drastically reduces any acne that I get. Even corn syrup byproducts, such as corn syrup solids found in dairy free creamer products, can set off an acne flare-up for me. Good hygiene is important, too, and gently exfoliating your skin to clean off dead skin layers can be a huge help in keeping a nice clear complexion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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