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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How to treat and relieve painful pimples

If these home remedies for aching acne don’t work, here’s what to ask your dermatology provider.

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Curology Team
Aug 10, 2022 · 6 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > How to treat and relieve painful pimples

Ever wish you could just wave a magic wand and watch your acne disappear? If so, you’re not alone. Acne is a very common skin condition—85% of teenagers experience some form of acne,¹ and adults are no strangers to it, too. While a magic wand isn’t an option, there are things you can do to reduce pimple pain and swelling. And, no, pimple popping is not one of them! According to the American Academy of Dermatology, picking and popping acne can spread inflammation.² And that’s the last thing you want, right? Right. 

Here’s how to reduce pimple pain and swelling like a pro.

What causes painful pimples?

Acne happens when excess oil (sebum) and dead skin cells clog your pores. Bacteria (specifically C. acnes) thrive in the excess sebum and trigger an inflammatory response, resulting in blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne lesions.³ These include papules, which are hard to the touch, and pustules, which are soft with yellow or white-tinted pus.⁴ While these are often painful, they’re a step before cysts and nodules, which can go deeper into the skin’s surface.

Cysts are pus-filled lesions that form under the skin and are often painful to the touch. Cystic acne may linger longer than smaller lesions like blackheads and whiteheads. The same tends to hold true for nodular acne. The difference between nodular and cystic acne is that nodular acne is firm, showing as red bumps under the skin’s surface, and doesn’t have a head. Nodular acne can last for quite a while, and both types can lead to acne scars if left untreated. Nodular and cystic acne often require treatment from an in-person dermatology provider. 

What helps reduce pimple swelling?

Wondering how to shrink a zit? Here are a few cost-effective and simple home remedies to reduce pimple swelling.⁵

  • Wash your face. Keep your face clean by washing in the morning and evening. Splash water on your face after working out. Also, don’t forget to cleanse before treating blemishes on your skin. 

  • Use the right ingredients. Acne treatments that are formulated with ingredients like tretinoin, clindamycin, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid work well.⁶ Talk to your dermatology provider to find out which is best for your skin type and condition.  

  • Try an overnight hydrocolloid bandage. This special type of bandage creates a protective seal over the skin while absorbing excess oil and pus. Hydrocolloid bandages can help reduce inflammation, decrease redness, and flatten spots.

  • Apply a cold compress. This can help decrease inflammation. You can wrap an ice cube in a paper towel and apply it to the area for about 10 minutes. Repeat for a total of three icings, taking 10-minute breaks in between.

  • Get a cortisone injection. Okay, so this is not a home remedy, but a licensed medical provider can inject a dilute cortisone medication that can help reduce the size of cysts.

4 products to treat painful pimples

There are enough over-the-counter acne products to make your head spin. Here are just a few that we often recommend for treating painful pimples, along with prescription-strength products that can get the job done.

Some over-the-counter options include: 

  • Topical creams or gels with benzoyl peroxide. This active ingredient helps reduce inflammation and the bacteria that contribute to acne. It’s effective in treating blackheads and whiteheads in addition to other types of acne lesions. 

  • Products containing salicylic acid. This ingredient is a chemical exfoliator that helps shed dead skin cells and unclog pores.

Some in-house options we recommend include: 

  • Curology emergency spot patches. Curology emergency spot patches are a semi-transparent hydrocolloid bandage spot treatment. They draw out oil and pus from pimples while promoting healing. Though they are technically not by prescription, they’re currently only available to Curology members.

  • Curology’s custom formulas. Also available to Curology members, your personalized prescription formula uses active ingredients like tretinoin, a powerful retinoid (a vitamin A derivative). It’s the gold standard in acne and anti-aging skincare.

Remember, skincare is a journey that’s all about taking time for your skin to heal. It can take a while for a pimple to form and potentially longer to bid it farewell. 

How to help prevent pimples?

So, how do you get rid of a painful pimple? Prevent them from forming in the first place. Here are some easy things you can add to your skincare routine and lifestyle that will improve your skin and help prevent pimples from forming. 

  • Stick to a simple, consistent skincare routine. It’s four steps: cleanse, treat, moisturize, and protect with an SPF 30+ sunscreen (during the day). Use non-comedogenic cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen. Select treatment products with ingredients designed to work with your skin type. (Psst…that’s probably one of the best benefits of Curology—you’re paired with a dermatology expert to prescribe exactly what you need without the cost of in-person healthcare.)

  • Use acne-fighting ingredients. Look for products with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and over-the-counter retinoids such as adapalene. These products work to prevent pimples from forming and reducing inflammation when they do pop up.

  • Avoid products with comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients. While some of these products might make your skin feel refreshed at the moment, they’re not doing you any good in the long run. 

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle can do wonders for your skin and your well-being. Choose a healthy diet of fruits and veggies and find a way to decompress. Stress can wreak havoc on your skin by releasing hormones that may increase sebum production.⁷ Try to reduce stress in whatever way you can (i.e. yoga, meditation, exercise). 

Other treatments to treat pimple pain

scar acne on face

There are some treatments that can be prescribed by your doctor to treat pimple pain. So, if you’re still wondering what to put on an inflamed pimple, a licensed medical provider can help decipher whether one of the following options is right for you. 

  • Antibiotics. Ask your doctor about prescriptions containing topical clindamycin. This is used to treat conditions caused by certain bacteria, like C. acnes, the bacteria that contributes to acne. 

  • Cortisone injections. We covered this earlier—just remember to ask your doctor if injections will work for you. 

  • Topical prescription-strength retinoids. Tretinoin is a topical prescription-strength retinoid (and a personal favorite of Curology dermatology providers), and isotretinoin (formerly known as Accutane) is an oral retinoid used to treat acne that hasn’t responded to other treatments. 

  • Birth control and spironolactone. You can treat the hormonal component of breakouts using certain hormonal contraceptives plus spironolactone. Before you go this route, be sure to discuss all the details with your medical provider. 

Curology custom skincare service removes the guesswork

Acne is no fun, but Curology can cut out the guesswork and uncertainty so you can feel confident about the steps you can take to improve your skin.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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When you join Curology, you’ll be paired with a licensed dermatology provider, who will review your skin goals to create a personalized routine with our dermatologist-design products. Your 30-day free trial includes a personalized prescription formula*, cleanser, and moisturizer, plus you can opt-in to try other Curology products, like the emergency spot patches. Go ahead, start your Curology journey today! 

FAQs

What causes painful pimples?

Bacteria thrive in the excess sebum and trigger an inflammatory response, resulting in acne lesions that are hard to the touch, and pustules, which are soft with yellow or white-tinted pus, they’re a step before cysts and nodules.

Cysts are pus-filled lesions that form under the skin and are often painful to the touch. Cystic acne may linger longer than smaller lesions like blackheads and whiteheads.

What helps reduce pimple swelling?

Wondering how to shrink a zit? You can try a few cost-effective and simple home remedies to reduce pimple swelling like washing your face, using the right ingredients in your acne treatments like tretinoin, trying an overnight hydrocolloid bandage, applying a cold compress, or even getting a cortisone injection.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines for Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. (2016, May 1).

  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Pimple Popping: Why Only a Dermatologist Should Do It. (n.d.).

  3. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines for Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. Ibid.

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. How to Treat Different Types of Acne. (n.d.).

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. How to Treat Deep, Painful Pimples. (2018, September 11).

  6. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines for Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. Ibid.

  7. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-skin connection: stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflammation & allergy drug targets. (2014).

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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