The Life Cycle and Stages of a Pimple, As Told By Skin Care Experts
If you’ve ever gone to bed with a clear complexion and woken up the next morning with a bright red zit in the middle of your forehead, you’ve probably found yourself wondering how on Earth a blemish had time to form—read: ruin your life—so fast. While there are many reasons why you might be experiencing a breakout—more on what causes acne here— pimples don’t actually have super speed powers that allow them to form overnight.
To find out how long it actually takes for a pimple to surface, plus what to do when a pimple is ready to be popped, we turned to two of our consulting skin experts: dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali and medical esthetician, and SkinCeuticals ambassador, Jamie Steros. Read on to see what they had to say about the life cycle and stages of a pimple, below.
WHY DO BREAKOUTS FORM?
Clogged Pores: According to Dr. Bhanusali, pimples and breakouts can occur “due to the accumulation of debris in a pore.” Clogged pores can be caused by a number of culprits, but one of the main factors is excess oil. “[The oil] acts almost like a glue,” he says, “combining pollutants and dead skin cells in a mixture that clogs the pore.” This explains why oily and acne-prone skin types tend to go hand-in-hand.
Excessive Face Washing: Washing your face is a great way to keep your skin’s surface clean, but doing it too often can actually make things worse. If you experience oily skin, it’s important to find a balance when washing your face: you will want to cleanse your complexion of the excess oil but not strip it completely, as this may result in increased oil production. We recommend using blotting papers throughout the day to soak up the slick of shine that may appear mid-day. We share a roundup of the blotting papers we recommend for oily or acne-prone complexions, here.
Fluctuating Hormone Levels: Speaking of excess oil, your hormones can be to blame for an increased oil production as well. “There are several causes for pimples, however most pimples are caused by changing hormone levels,” Steros says. “During puberty the increase in male hormones can cause the adrenal glands to go into overdrive causing breakouts.”
Lack of Exfoliation: How often are you exfoliating? If you’re not sloughing away dead cells on your skin’s surface often enough, you could be at a higher risk of experiencing clogged pores. “Another reason for breakouts is when the pores on your skin become blocked causing a buildup of oil, dirt and bacteria,” Steros says. “Sometimes dead skin cells are not shed. They remain in the pores and get stuck together by sebum causing a blockage in the pore. It then becomes infected and a pimple develops.”
THE EARLY STAGES OF A PIMPLE
Not every blemish has the exact same life span. Some papules never turn into pustules, nodules, or cysts. What’s more, every type of acne blemish requires a certain type of care. It’s important to understand what kind of blemish you’re dealing with first, along with your skin type.
As you can guess, blemishes appear differently and vary in severity depending on where they appear. “There are areas of the body where blemishes appear more commonly,” Steros says. “Typically these are areas where you have the most oil glands, such as the face, neck, chest, back, shoulders and upper arms.” According to Steros, the early stages of a blemish could look like a red sore that’s raised and slightly itchy. “This is a great time to use a topical product to help reduce some of the swelling and redness,” she advises.
THE MIDDLE STAGES OF A PIMPLE
Now that your pimple has—unfortunately—begun to form, let’s talk about what happens in between the dirt clogging your pores and you waking up to an angry, visible blemish. “Over time, a bacterial overgrowth can occur and an inflammatory reaction follows leading to the classic ‘pimple’ you see on your skin,” explains Dr. Bhanusali.
So, even though it may seem like your pimple has grown or doubled in size overnight, the reality is that it has taken some time to form and accumulate dirt, debris, oil, and everything in between. This is why daily skin care is so important. If you have acne-prone, oily skin cleanse your skin twice a day with a face wash formulated with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. This will help to chemically exfoliate the skin’s surface, removing excess oils and other impurities that can clog pores and in turn cause a breakout.
THE FINAL STAGES OF A PIMPLE
Did you know that the word pimple is derived from an old Greek word that means “skin eruption?” So fitting, right? The Greeks were definitely onto something. With that being said, there will be no pimple eruptions here—none that are forced by you and your lack of self control, that is. Ask any dermatologist and they will all tell you the same thing: keep your fingers away from your zit. This is because popping or picking can make things worse and lead to permanent skin damage in the form of lasting acne scars. If you are in a pinch, Dr. Bhanusali suggests this overnight dermatologist hack: “Put a product formulated with benzoyl peroxide on a band-aid and apply it to the pimple.”
IS IT POSSIBLE TO SHORTEN THE LIFE CYCLE OF A PIMPLE?
Well, kind of. Steros mentions that using a spot treatment can help reduce the appearance of a pimple. “The key is to help in the treatment of existing breakouts while aiding the prevention of future pimples,” she says. One product Steros relies on for this is the SkinCeuticals Blemish & Age Defense Serum. “It’s a great oil-free serum that helps with both blemishes and signs of aging,” she says. “This product is a targeted treatment with a combination of alpha beta-hydroxys and salicylic acid. This reveals a smoother, more even-toned complexion all while combating blemishes at the same time.”
The key is to help in the treatment of existing breakouts while aiding the prevention of future pimples
WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO PREVENT FUTURE BREAKOUTS?
Cleanse Your Skin: But don’t just do so with any cleanser off the drugstore shelf. “The best way to combat and prevent breakouts is to make sure you are using a ph-balanced cleanser that is appropriate for your skin,” Steros says. “Your cleanser is responsible for removing makeup, dirt and oil.” Steros’ favorite cleanser is SkinCeuticals Simply Clean. “This cleanser has enzymes [and is formulated to] help dissolve dead surface cells and oil,” she says. “I suggest that some clients even do a double cleanse or use a conditioning toner from SkinCeuticals with hydroxy acids to ensure that the skin is truly free of buildup.”
Exfoliate Your Skin: If your skin is prone to congestion, regular exfoliation can help prevent that congestion from escalating into a full-blown breakout. “Exfoliate with a manual exfoliant such as SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub designed for congested skin,” Steros says. Use it up to three nights per week. “Or you can use a retinol that can exfoliate into the follicles,” Steros says. “This is a preference depending on your skin’s level of sensitivity.”
As a reminder, retinol is incredibly powerful. If you’ve never used it before, you’ll want to ‘retinize’ your skin first by starting with a lower concentration of the ingredient and working your way up. Also, since retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, it’s crucial that you apply broad-spectrum SPF 15 or higher during daylight hours.
Moisturize Your Skin: “The final step would be to moisturize to maintain proper hydration levels,” Steros says. “This way the skin does not have to work overtime to produce oil to compensate.” Her top recommendation? SkinCeuticals Daily Moisture. “It’s a great product for combination skin types as it’s lightweight and the tiny light reflectors help to minimize the appearance of pores,” she says.
Have a pimple you want to clear up fast? Check out this three-step guide!