The Life Cycle and Stages of a Pimple, as Told by Skincare Experts

June 29, 2022
Jessica Khorsandi
By: Jessica Khorsandi | by L'Oréal
Person putting spot treatment on their chin

Maintaining a clear complexion is never an easy task, even if you have your skincare routine down to a T. One day your face might be blemish-free and the next, a bright red pimple is in the middle of your forehead. While there are many reasons why you might be experiencing a breakout, the most frustrating part can be waiting for it to heal (and resisting the urge to pop the pimple). We asked Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, an NYC-based board-certified dermatologist and Jamie Steros, a medical esthetician, how long it takes a zit to surface and how to cut its life cycle short. 

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 have oily skin, it’s important to find a balance when washing your face. You’ll want to cleanse your complexion of 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 shine that may appear. 

Fluctuating Hormone Levels

Speaking of excess oil, your hormones may 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 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,” says Steros. “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 type of exfoliator you reach for depends on your skin type and needs, but one of our current favorites is the L'Oréal Paris Revitalift 5% Glycolic Acid Peeling Exfoliating Toner. The fragrance-free chemical exfoliator includes glycolic acid to help gently slough away dead skin cells and aloe vera to soothe the skin at the very same time.  

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 pimple you’re dealing with first, along with your skin type.


As you can guess, breakouts appear differently and vary in severity depending on where they are. “There are areas of the body where blemishes appear more commonly,” says Steros. “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 can 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. We love the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment, an oil-free benzoyl peroxide lotion that absorbs excess oil and helps stop pimples in their tracks.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment

The Middle Stages of a Pimple

Now that your pimple has 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 pimple you see on your skin,” explains Dr. Bhanusali.


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 skincare is so important. If you have oily, acne-prone skin, cleanse your face twice a day with a face wash formulated with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, such as the CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser. 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

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? 

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. The SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF is an oil-free vitamin C serum made specifically for oily and acne-prone skin with salicylic acid to reduce breakouts.

SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF

What Are the Best Ways to Prevent Future Breakouts?


“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.” 



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 the Kiehl’s Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub,” Steros says. Use it up to three nights per week. Or, depending on your skin type and needs, you can use a chemical exfoliant with salicylic acid.



“The final step is to moisturize to maintain proper hydration levels,” Steros says. “This way the skin does not have to work overtime to produce oil to compensate.” The Vichy Normaderm PhytoAction Acne Control Daily Moisturizer is a great choice, as it contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate and salicylic acid to fight breakouts. 

Photo: Chaunte Vaughn


Read more

Back to top