Pimples are common and usually harmless blemishes. They may appear as red bumps, either on the skin’s surface or beneath it. Pimples sometimes contain pus.
Pimples can develop anywhere on the body, and they commonly form on the face, back, and chest.
Some pimples go away by themselves, while others persist, and these can require treatment.
Below, we look at the causes and types of pimples and how long they tend to last. We also discuss treatments, home care strategies, and when to see a doctor.
Acne is an inflammatory skin condition that can cause pimples to form in various areas. Pimples tend to form where more oil glands are present, and they most commonly affect the:
Pimples develop when oil glands produce excess oil, preventing dead skin cells from naturally leaving the pores. This buildup of oil and dead cells blocks the pores and causes pimples to form.
Bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes can also cause pimples to form, as can fluctuations in hormone levels.
The various types of pimple can look and feel slightly different.
Pustules are pus filled pimples that may appear on the face or elsewhere on the upper body.
Pustules may last for a few weeks, but if they last longer than 6–8 weeks and do not respond to treatment, it might be a good idea to see a doctor or dermatologist.
Cystic acne causes swollen, red bumps to form. These also tend to develop on the upper body, particularly the face.
Cystic acne may be longer lasting because it forms deep within the skin. With treatment, some people see an improvement in 6–8 weeks. If this does not happen, the dermatologist may recommend a change of treatment.
Sometimes, what appears to be a pimple is a different kind of blemish. Ingrown hairs, for example, can cause red, swollen bumps that tend to form after shaving the face or legs.
A wide range of home care strategies, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and prescription treatments can reduce or get rid of pimples. Try:
Washing the face twice a day
The American Academy of Dermatology recommend washing the face twice a day and after sweating to help prevent the pores from clogging.
People can also try applying a nonabrasive cleanser to the face with the fingertips, using gentle, circular motions. They should then rinse the face with lukewarm water and gently pat it dry with a clean towel.
Using ice for deep, painful pimples
Applying ice to deep pimples can help reduce swelling and redness. First, a person can wash the face with a nonabrasive cleanser and pat it dry.
Next, they can wrap a piece of ice in a paper towel or clean cloth and hold it against the pimples for 5–10 minutes. It is best to remove the compress then and wait for 10 minutes before repeating the process.
Avoiding aggravating the skin
Popping pimples may slow healing and increase the chances of scarring. Also, scrubbing the skin can aggravate it and worsen acne.
The goal is to avoid touching affected skin, particularly with unwashed hands. Avoiding this will help prevent bacteria on the hands from transferring to the face, contributing to pimples.
Trying a warm compress
A whitehead is a pimple with a white center, which is pus. A person can use a warm compress to help release the pus. Doing this will speed healing.
People can make a compress by running a clean cloth under hot water and then squeezing any excess water out. Holding the cloth against the pimple for 10–15 minutes and repeating this 3–4 times a day can help the pimple heal.
Washing sheets and pillowcases regularly
Bacteria, dead skin cells, and dirt can collect on surfaces that the body comes into contact with regularly, including pillowcases, bedsheets, and clothing. These substances can block pores and cause pimples to form.
If pimples tend to form in a certain area of the body, regularly washing anything that comes into contact with that area can help reduce breakouts.
Changing bedsheets every week and pillowcases 2–3 times a week can help keep pimples from forming or worsening.
Trying OTC creams
Benzoyl peroxide is an ingredient in many OTC acne products. It helps kill bacteria that can cause acne.
It may be best to start with a cream or ointment that contains 2.5% benzoyl peroxide — the lowest level common in these products.
Some other effective ingredients in OTC acne products include retinoids, which can help clear pores and reduce excess oil, and salicylic acid, which can also reduce inflammation.
Using prescription medications
If pimples are deep and long lasting, it may be a good idea to see a dermatologist.
The dermatologist may prescribe antibiotics to reduce inflammation and kill bacteria that could be causing pimples. In some cases, they might prescribe birth control pills to adjust hormone levels.
Changing the diet and lifestyle
Acne occurs more frequently in Western countries, where its prevalence is over 80%. This fact has led researchers to think that diet and lifestyle may play a part in acne and pimple formation.
A 2018 review of 14 studies found that in people between the ages of 7 and 30 years, intake of dairy may have a link to acne.
Amino acids that are present in dairy products cause insulin secretion in the body, which increases the production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Researchers suggest that IGF-1 may play a large role in causing acne.
However, researchers still need to rule out factors that could interfere with the results of these studies, such as age, gender, and genetics.
Other dietary and lifestyle factors may also affect acne. Anecdotal reports suggest that the following may reduce pimple breakouts:
- lowering levels of stress
- eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, protein, and healthful fats
- getting regular, high quality sleep
- engaging in regular exercise
Pimples are a common and usually harmless skin condition. However, if they do not go away or improve with at-home treatment, it may be time to see a dermatologist.
The dermatologist will identify the type of pimple and determine the best course of treatment.
If a person finds that pimples are affecting their self-esteem, self-confidence, or mental well-being, they should speak with a healthcare professional.
Sometimes, the symptoms of other skin conditions may resemble pimples. The health problems that can cause lesions similar to pimples range widely in severity — from cold sores to skin cancer.
Anyone who has unusual-looking pimples or pimples that accompany other symptoms should consult a doctor.
In particular, see a doctor if:
- pimples itch, burn, or ooze
- pimples occur only around the mouth
- pimples feel itchy, look like blisters, or crust over
- large bumps or cysts form under the armpits or around the groin
- a blemish changes shape, size, or color in a short period
- pimples accompany irregular menstrual periods, patches of darker skin, or hair loss
Pimples are a common skin condition that typically affects the upper body, particularly the face.
They tend to be harmless, and some go away within a few days or weeks. However, certain types of pimples persist and may only resolve with treatment.
Hygiene strategies, home remedies, and OTC products often help. If these are ineffective, a dermatologist can develop a treatment plan. With treatment, people may see an improvement within a few months.