Acne is the most common skin disease worldwide. In the US alone, approximately 50 million people,¹ including over 85% of teenagers,² suffer from pimples.
There is nothing wrong with having acne, per se, as it is usually part of growing up. Painful pimples, however, could become a problem when they impact your daily life in some way.
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While having acne is common, it is important to pay closer attention to painful pimples.
Pimples are formed when our skin’s pores get clogged due to the overproduction of an oily sebum secretion, as well as a lack of shedding of dead skin cells.² These pimples—commonly called whiteheads and blackheads—are completely painless.
In fact, you probably only know you have them because you can see the little spots on your skin. They may be annoying, but they’re nothing to worry about and should go away within a couple of weeks with healthy skin care.
Having these, however, could provide the perfect opportunity for bacteria to grow and multiply inside the clogged pores. This can cause an inflammatory response as your body tries to eliminate all the oil, dead cells, and bacteria. As a result, pimples can become red, swollen, and painful.
It is very important to resist the urge to pop, squeeze, or pick the pimple.³ Although it feels satisfying and may seem like an easy solution to the problem, it has the opposite effect because it further irritates the pimple. This means it can increase the pain, extend the treatment time, cause the bacteria to spread, and lead to scarring.
In fact, you should avoid touching your pimples at all.
Effectively managing the pain and treating a painful pimple can involve medical treatments as well as changing your skincare habits.
There is a lot of advice online, much of which isn’t backed by scientific research and therefore not recommended by skincare professionals. These so-called “treatments” can further irritate and clog your skin, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve when treating your pimples.
Although full treatment can, unfortunately, take weeks or months, you can certainly manage the pain during this process.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association³ and the Mayo Clinic⁴ recommend the following course of action. Note that before applying any treatment, you should always wash your face first with a cloth and warm water.
Apply a cold compress to relieve the pain
Apply ice wrapped in a paper towel onto the pimples. Although this will not directly treat them, it helps to reduce the pain.
Hold the cold compress on the painful area for 5 to 10 minutes, repeating twice after a ten-minute break.
Choose your skincare products well
Make sure to check the ingredients of skin products you use, such as makeup, face wash, and sunscreen.
Only use products that are non-comedogenic, oil-free, and water-based. These help prevent your pores from clogging.
Use topical creams
Apply a thin layer of 2% benzoyl peroxide onto the pimples. It helps kill the bacteria that causes inflammation and pain. It also prevents pores from clogging, as it assists in the removal of the oily sebum and dead skin cells.
Since this topical cream is a weak concentration, you won’t need a doctor’s prescription to get it. It will be available over the counter at any pharmacy.
You can also try to prevent pimples from becoming inflamed and painful in the first place.
When you see a pimple forming, apply a warm face cloth onto it for 10 to 15 minutes, repeating 3 to 4 times a day. This assists with the natural healing process.
While you can deal with painful pimples on your own, you should consult your doctor if you experience the following:
You see no improvement after 4 to 6 weeks of following the recommended treatments above.
Your pimples are so sore that they are affecting your daily life and/or self-esteem.
You are experiencing side effects of benzoyl peroxide such as dry, red, or stinging skin.
Your doctor will be able to provide you with prescription antibiotics or steroids to treat your pimples² in a way that is individualized for your specific needs.
Your doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist, a skin specialist who can work with you to establish a treatment and prevention strategy for dealing with painful pimples.
Although having pimples is generally just a nuisance, it can certainly turn into a very unpleasant experience if they become painful. They can also cause self-esteem issues that nobody should have to deal with.
Fortunately, there are straightforward ways in which you can treat yourself and manage the pain.
Remember, however, that seeing a doctor will always be the best option if you are unsure or worried about your painful pimples, especially if they start affecting your daily life. Never be embarrassed to consult a medical professional as they can help you deal with this skin condition.
Acne: More than skin deep (2006)
How to treat deep, painful pimples | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Over-the-counter acne products: What works and why | Mayo Clinic