Ask any dermatologist or aesthetician about the one thing you should never do, and every last one of them will tell you that picking, popping, and squeezing are the unholy trifecta of good-skin suicide. If you were to ask me, a beauty editor, that same question, I’d give you the same answer—and I would also be a terrible hypocrite, because I am relentless in my picking, popping, and squeezing practices. I know it’s bad, but I can’t help myself.
My particular vice is a bit more brutal than just using your fingers to break free the pus from a whitehead or peel away a dry, flaky area: I go hard on my pores, especially the ones on and around my nose. This often takes place right before I hop in the shower, during the three-minute window of time between when I turn the water on and when it becomes a temperature suitable for human skin and not just penguins and polar bears. Once I get up close and personal with the mirror, I see all kinds of things I usually don’t; namely, the array of grayish dots that aren’t blackheads but rather sebaceous filaments, which occur naturally on the skin and serve to keep it moisturized by wicking oil out of the pores and onto the surface.
Unlike blackheads, which are clogged pores that can be cleared (and should be—by a professional!), sebaceous filaments are part of your skin, so they aren’t going anywhere. Read: They offer a lifetime of squeezing opportunities.
Squeezing these filaments produces a tiny squiggle of whitish gunk, which is both disgusting and also very, very satisfying. Its removal also serves virtually no purpose—your pores will appear smaller and clearer for about a day before they fill right back up with sebum, because that’s what they’re meant to do. That’s why they exist. And once you kick off the squeezing-refilling vicious cycle, the damage to the pore will only make it bigger and more likely to clog, like the dermatological equivalent of pulling out a gray hair and having three grow back in its place. Not cute.
The more immediate concern, however, is that applying rough, unyielding pressure to the skin in this way guarantees a veritable grab bag of negative reactions: The surrounding area gets all red and inflamed, and the bacteria from your grubby fingers is great material with which to make zits. This is the part where I, as a responsible adult, should say that this information has been enough to make me drop my bad habit, but nah. I’ve known this shit for years, and yet I keep doing it, to worse and worse effect.
Instead, after a particularly nasty bout of squeezing-induced redness and a meeting during which several of my colleagues admitted that they, too, are guilty of waging this very same war against their own faces, I asked dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Mark, an actual care professional (as in, not a Reddit forum, which is where I generally look for this kind of advice), for his opinion on the matter. I didn’t want to know if it was bad, because of course it is. I just wanted to know if there was a better way to get the offending gunk out, a way that didn’t end in five new pimples and my boyfriend asking, “What happened to your face while you were in the bathroom?”
To answer my question: Nope, not really. “Picking and popping at home will cause more inflammation—in general, hands off,” Dr. Mark insists, which eliminates sebaceous filaments from the squeezing game entirely. “Inflammation, in turn, leads to increased clogging of the pores, which leads to bigger and new zits.” It’s not just a matter of a little bit of redness or a zit here and there—squeezing, says dermatologist Dr. Howard Sobel, can cause permanent scarring, including broken capillaries, in addition to worse clogged pores and breakouts. It’s all bad.
Since apparently squeezing is now off the table, the only dermatologist-approved way to clear out and diminish the appearance of pores is with exfoliation. Dr. Sobel says, “The best thing to do is to have a facial and get your face steamed, but at home you can steam and use an exfoliating scrub a few times a week.” Dr. Mark recommends using a cleanser with 2-percent salicylic acid—salicylic acid both exfoliates and has an anti-inflammatory effect on oil glands to help unclog pores. In severe cases, he prescribes topical retinoids to exfoliate and inhibit oil production, and in-office peels and microdermabrasion. He adds, “It’s all about prevention and an ongoing treatment regimen to avoid the need to squeeze on your own.” Well, that seems fair enough.