Without acne scarring!

Let's get one thing straight: You shouldn't be popping your pimples. Pimple popping can lead to potential infection, scarring, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (those dark melanin spots left behind as a result of skin trauma). But we're all human, and telling someone not to pop a pimple is the same thing as telling someone not to press a giant, red button that says "push me." Although you know you shouldn't do it, you're probably going to do it anyway. So the next time you find your hands subconsciously drifting to that zit, you might as well be aware of the safest course of action.

Perhaps the person who knows this ritual best is Sandra Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, founder of SLMD Skincare, and pimple popper extraordinaire. You might have heard of her more popular nickname: Dr. Pimple Popper—yes, the same one who pops people's enormous pimples on YouTube, and even has a television show dedicated to it. 

how-to-pop-a-pimple: Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper)
Credit: Getty Images

For someone who has built her entire brand on popping, she's adamantly against the idea of at-home extractions (one wrong squeeze can damage your skin), but she does think there is an ideal moment to pop one, a window where you have the lowest risk of infection and scarring. "This is when your pimple has come to a white/yellow head, called a 'pustule,'" she says. "If the pimple has a head, it is the easiest to extract completely with the least risk of scarring because the bump is very superficial to the surface of the skin."

A good way to tackle blackheads is with a comedone extractor ($20; slmdskincare.com). Dr. Lee likes it because the loop extracts the pimple with even pressure. "Remember though—it should be used gently (with great power comes responsibility). If you're not using a tool, be sure your hands are clean and wrap your fingers with tissue paper to provide some traction."

Last, but most importantly, there are times when you should never, ever pop your pimple. "The deeper a pimple (or any inflammation in general) is under the surface of the skin, the higher the risk of rupture and permanent scarring," says Dr. Lee. "If you're dealing with severe acne—deep, under-the-skin, cystic pimples and nodules—that's when I would strongly advise to see your dermatologist. You likely require prescription level treatments to improve your acne and prevent permanent scarring."

Now that we got the disclaimers out of the way, we asked Dr. Lee how to successfully execute the dirty deed at home (for those times when you just absolutely have to). Proceed at your own risk and keep in mind: We advise popping at night to give your skin time to recover (in case there's any inflammation) and after taking a shower—the heat will help loosen pores and soften skin. 

Step 1: Sanitize.

And we mean everything—your face, your hands, the gunk under your fingernails, the towel you clean up with, and the sink you're resting any of this stuff on. If it's going to come into contact with broken skin, it needs to be completely bacteria-free. First, wash your hands and the affected area with warm water and a gentle face wash. Next, follow up with a cotton pad soaked in alcohol to disinfect what you're using to extract the pimple, like the comedone extractor. 

Step 2: Soften the surrounding skin.

Think of your pores as a precious little pathway between your sebaceous glands and outer complexion. A bigger pathway will allow for an easier extraction process. Gently press a warm washcloth against the pimple for a few minutes to soften the contents inside your pores. You can also steam your skin to loosen debris and dilate the pores slightly.

Step 3: Slowly (we repeat, slowly) extract the pimple.

This step should be done with time, care, and lots of patience. Place whatever you're using over the pimple—your fingers, two cotton tipped applicators, or the extractor loop—apply slow, downward, even pressure to push the pimple out. Pressure should be applied around and on either side of the pimple, but not on top of the white tip of the zit. 

Remember: If the pimple is met with resistance after pushing for one to two seconds, don't force it! A poppable pimple will allow itself to be pushed out of a clogged pore with some gentle coaxing. Continuous squeezing will only increase the chance of skin trauma, so it's best to wait a little longer before trying again. 

Step 4: Tend to the affected area.

Aftercare is extremely important to make sure you don't cause any more irritation to the skin. Once a pimple has been popped, keep the area clean and let it heal properly to avoid scarring. Apply a cold, clean washcloth against the area, and a spot treatment with salicylic acid, like SLMD Skincare Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment ($25; slmdskincare.com). You can also put on a pimple patch to keep the area safe from bacteria and speed up the healing process.