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What to know about pustules

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Pustules are a type of pimple that contains yellowish pus. They are larger than whiteheads and blackheads.

Pustules appear either as red bumps with white centers or as white bumps that are hard and often tender to the touch. In many cases, the skin around the pustules is red or inflamed.

In this article, we look at the causes, appearance, and treatment of pustules.

What causes pustules?

A clogged pore is the root cause of a pustule.

A clogged pore is the root cause of any pimple, including pustules. Oil, bacteria, or dead skin can block the pore.

Pustules occur when the walls of the affected pore or pores begin to break down. As a result, pustules tend to be bigger than whiteheads and blackheads.

Acne and folliculitis are common causes of pustules. However, pustules can also occur in people with certain types of psoriasis, such as palmoplantar pustulosis, and those with some forms of eczema, including dyshidrotic eczema.

Pustules contain pus because the body is trying to fight against the dirt or bacteria that has entered the pore. Pus is a natural product of the immune system, which consists mostly of dead white blood cells.

Where do they occur?

Pustules can occur anywhere, but they are more common on areas of the body that become oily, such as the face and neck, and areas that get sweaty, such as the armpits, chest, and pubic area.

People often notice pustules around the following body parts:

  • face
  • neck
  • chest
  • underarms
  • hairline
  • back
  • shoulders
  • pubic area

Pustule vs. other types of pimple

pustules pimples
Whiteheads and blackheads are smaller than pustules.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are six common types of pimple:

  • whiteheads
  • blackheads
  • pustules
  • papules
  • nodules
  • cysts

Pimples share similar features because they all occur as a result of blocked pores.

Blackheads and whiteheads are the smallest types of pimple. Blackheads have open pores, whereas these are closed in whiteheads.

Papules and pustules are similar, and both are larger than blackheads and whiteheads. They occur when the pore’s walls break down, causing a bigger pimple to form.

Pustules are typically white and, unlike papules, they contain pus. A person may find that a pustule is tender to the touch.

Nodules and cysts are larger than papules and pustules and may need medical attention. With these types of pimple, the skin around the pore becomes very irritated. Nodules are hard to the touch, while cysts are soft.


Small pustules can heal on their own over time without any intervention, but treatments and home remedies can speed up this process.

People should try to keep the skin around the pustules clean and free of oil. They can do this by washing the area with warm water and mild soap twice a day.

Over-the-counter (OTC) creams, ointments, and soaps can help, particularly those that contain any of the following:

  • salicylic acid
  • sulfur
  • peroxide

However, people should avoid using these products near the genitals.

It is important to avoid picking at or popping a pustule. Doing this can cause further damage and extend the healing process.

If home remedies do not work, people can speak to their doctor about prescription treatments. These stronger medications can often remove the pustules.

Acne products can dry out the skin. People with sensitive skin should look for products that are less irritating and could help moisturize the skin. If the skin becomes inflamed, a person should stop using the product.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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Home remedies

clay mask for pustules
Applying a clay mask to the affected area can help treat pustules.

Many people find home remedies effective for treating pimples, including pustules.

The following home treatments can help:

  • Clay masks. A mask that contains natural clays can draw oil and dirt from the skin, reducing the incidence of pimples. Learn about bentonite clay masks here.
  • Essential oils. Diluting and applying essential oils with anti-inflammatory properties, such as tea tree oil or rosemary oil, to the affected areas may reduce the pain and inflammation of pimples.
  • Aloe vera gel. Aloe vera is a natural substance with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Learn about aloe vera for acne here.

Read about home remedies for acne here.


People can often prevent pustules by cleaning the areas of skin that are prone to pimples and keeping them oil free. Cleaning should occur at least twice a day and include a mild soap.

It is best to avoid using products that contain oils. These products include many types of moisturizer and some sunscreens. The oil can clog the pores and cause pustules to form.


Pustules are irritating but otherwise harmless, and they usually go away on their own. People can often prevent them or reduce their severity by keeping pustule-prone areas clean and oil free.

Many OTC treatments contain ingredients that can be effective against pustules. If the pustules get worse, do not clear up on their own, or are chronic, a person should speak to their doctor about additional treatment options.

Last medically reviewed on May 31, 2019

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Medically reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, M.D. — Written by Jenna Fletcher on May 31, 2019

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Can dietary changes help acne?

More research is needed, but the diet may play a role in the development of acne. Some evidence suggests that a person can reduce or prevent acne breakouts by consuming more omega-3 fatty acids, fewer dairy products, and fewer foods with a high glycemic index.

Affecting as many as 50 million people in the United States each year, acne is the most common skin condition in the country. It often begins during puberty, and it is especially prevalent between the ages of 12 and 24.

Acne can cause oily skin and several types of lesions, including pimples. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, and they can impact a person’s quality of life.

While there is currently no cure for acne, the range of effective treatments includes prescription medications and over-the-counter gels and creams. Lifestyle changes can also help to reduce symptoms and prevent breakouts.

Some people believe that the diet plays an important role. Results of a 2016 surveyTrusted Source showed that 71 percent of participants thought that fried or greasy foods caused acne. Others thought that chocolate, dairy, and soda drinks were responsible.

In the medical community, there is extensive debate about the impact of the diet. While many experts once thought that the diet had no role in the development of acne, results of some recent studies suggest otherwise.

In this article, we examine the effects of the diet on the skin and explore which foods might provoke or reduce acne breakouts. We also describe general tips for treating acne.

How does the diet affect the skin?

Quinoa salad with kale, cherry tomatoes and pumpkin seeds. Healthy nutritious vegetarian and vegan meal.
Recent studies suggest that diet may affect acne.

Acne develops when pores in the skin become clogged with dead skin cells, bacteria, or both. This clogging also occurs when the body produces too much sebum, an oil that keeps the skin from drying out.

Clogged pores can lead to inflammation and cause pimples and other types of lesion to form.

During puberty, the body produces more of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Some studiesTrusted Source suggest that IGF-1 may increase the production of sebum and worsen symptoms of acne.

Certain foods can also raise IGF-1 levels. Avoiding these foods may help improve symptoms of acne and help prevent breakouts.

Foods to avoid

According to the results of a 2016 studyTrusted Source, the following foods are most likely to increase a person’s IGF-1 levels:

  • dairy products
  • foods with a high glycemic index (GI) and a high glycemic load (GL)

Measuring GI determines how fast and how high a type of food can raise levels of blood sugar.

Measuring GL allows a person to compare types of food with different GIs and portion sizes.

A person can calculate GL using this formula:

GL = GI x the amount of carbohydrates per portion (in grams) / 100

Several online listsTrusted Source provide the GIs of various foods. As a very general rule, more processed foods tend to have higher GIs and GLs.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the following are examples of foods with high GIs:

  • breads, especially white bread and bagels
  • sweetened breakfast cereals, such as those with corn flakes, puffed rice, and bran flakes
  • instant cereals, such as oatmeal and grits
  • some fruits and vegetables, including melons, pineapples, pumpkins, and potatoes
  • enriched pastas, such as rice-based pasta
  • short grain white rice
  • snack foods, such as pretzels, rice cakes, and popcorn

Examples of dairy products include milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. Some people with acne may benefit from avoiding these foods.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests that avoiding foods with high GIs may be more helpful than avoiding dairy products.

Eating chocolate may also worsen symptoms of acne. This effect is likely the result of chocolate’s high sugar contents. However, results of a small studyTrusted Source suggested that unsweetened chocolate containing 100 percent cocoa may also worsen symptoms in young men with a history of acne.

Currently, there appears to be little evidence that greasy foods cause acne. Overactive sebaceous glands cause oily skin, not the fat and oil in food.

Which foods might help to improve acne?

Tofu and wild rice in bowl
Tofu and wild rice may help to improve acne.

The research is even less clear when it comes to identifying foods that may combat or prevent acne.

However, while more research is needed, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammationTrusted Source and improve symptoms of acne.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines
  • pastured eggs
  • soybeans and soy products, such as tofu
  • spinach and kale
  • navy beans
  • grass-fed beef
  • nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
  • flaxseeds
  • mustard seeds
  • wild rice

Though further studies are required, limited evidenceTrusted Source suggests that foods rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber may also fight acne.

Putting together an anti-acne diet

With so much uncertainty surrounding the effects of the diet on acne, it can be hard to know which foods to try and which to avoid.

Also, certain strategies may work for some people but not for others.

Keeping a food diary can help a person to identify foods that trigger or worsen acne breakouts. Log every meal and snack and record the type and severity of acne symptoms that develop each day.

A person should do this for a few weeks or longer and bring the diary to an appointment with a doctor or dermatologist.

The doctor can help to find links between the timing of breakouts and entries in the food diary. They can also advise about dietary changes.

When changing the diet, it is important to be patient. According to the AAD, it can take up to 12 weeks for a dietary change to have a noticeable effect on the skin.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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General tips for treating acne

Washing the face after sweating may help to treat acne.
Washing the face after sweating may help to treat acne.

A variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications are available.

A doctor can advise on an appropriate course of treatment, which will depend on the severity of symptoms. For severe acne, the doctor may refer an individual to a dermatologist.

General tips for managing acne include:

  • washing the skin and face twice a day and after sweating or playing sports
  • washing the hair, especially oily hair, with shampoo regularly
  • using gentle, oil-free skin care products and cosmetics
  • avoiding picking, scratching, or touching pimples
  • avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun

According to the AAD, a person should also consider the relationship between stress and acneStress causes the body to produce more of a hormone called androgen, which stimulates the sebaceous glands in the skin. They then produce more oil, and this can cause acne.

Acne can also affect a person’s self-esteem and lead to depression, especially in teenagers and young adults. The AAD recommend taking the acne seriously and emphasize the importance of managing stress and watching for signs of depression.


Some evidence suggests that dietary factors can affect acne, though conclusive research is needed.

Some people with acne may benefit from making the following changes to the diet:

  • consuming more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and plants
  • avoiding dairy products and foods with high GIs and GLs

Following the Mediterranean diet is an excellent way to incorporate these changes. Also, a food diary can help a person identify any foods that trigger or worsen their acne.

Last medically reviewed on July 31, 2018

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Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. — Written by Scott Harris on July 31, 2018

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How do you prevent pimples?

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

Acne is a common skin disorder that can result in several types of blemish. Some include pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads. There are many ways to prevent acne.

Dermatologists have identified four factors that contribute to the development of acne:

  • the skin producing too much oil, which clogs pores
  • dead skin cells building up, which has the same effect
  • the presence of a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) in the pores
  • inflammation of the skin, which also leads to redness

A doctor or dermatologist can help to identify which factor or combination of factors is causing acne. However, many methods of treatment and prevention are similar, regardless of the cause. The following tips can help to protect against acne and reduce the number of breakouts.

Fifteen ways to prevent pimples

There are many things a person can do to prevent pimples and other forms of acne, including:

1. Wash the face twice daily

Man wanting to prevent pimples looking in mirror
Washing the face twice a day and not popping pimples will help to improve skin appearance.

Acne is rarely the result of a dirty face, contrary to popular belief. However, it is important to remove excess dirt and oil from the skin by washing regularly.

Many people prefer to use a mild cleanser and warm water. Applying an oil-free moisturizer after washing can keep the skin from becoming too dry.

Over-washing the face may cause the skin to become dry, which can aggravate pimples.

2. Refrain from harsh scrubbing

Some people scrub the skin with rough cloth pads or washcloths. This can irritate the skin and cause inflammation, making acne breakouts worse.

Applying a gentle cleanser with clean hands or a soft brush intended for use on the face can help to prevent pimples.

3. Keep hair clean

If excess oil in the hair travels to the skin, it can worsen acne. Regularly washing the hair may stop acne from developing, especially close to the hairline.

Also, refrain from getting products such as hair gel or spray on the face. These can also clog pores and lead to breakouts.

4. Refrain from popping or picking at pimples

It may be tempting to squeeze a pimple, but this usually results in inflammation and scarring.

To reduce the appearance of blemishes, use a topical treatment instead. They may take some time to work, but they can also prevent new pimples from forming.

5. Apply topical treatments

Over-the-counter treatments, such as creams or serums, can reduce breakouts, particularly when they tend to occur in certain areas.

The following problem areas are common:

  • the chin
  • the nose
  • the forehead

Treatments available for purchase online often contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. These products are not as potent as prescription-strength treatments, but they can help to prevent mild acne and reduce breakouts.

6. Consider topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are products containing medicines derived from vitamin A, and dermatologists prescribe them to manage and prevent acne. These treatments can also get rid of excess dead skin cells and reduce inflammation.

Most topical retinoids are only available with by prescription, including tretinoin (Retin-A, Renova), and tazarotene (Tazorac).

However, one retinoid medication, adapalene (Differin), is available for purchase online or over the counter.

7. Talk to a dermatologist about antibiotics

Topical antibiotics can fight an overgrowth of P. acne bacteria in the skin. Examples of antibiotics that treat this inflammatory acne include erythromycin and clindamycin, which are available by prescription.

A person can identify inflammatory acne by its very red, irritated appearance. It can also be painful.

8. Talk to a doctor about hormone pills

Packs of hormonal birth control pills piled up
Hormonal birth control pills are sometimes prescribed to prevent acne.

Birth control pills can help to prevent acne, by helping to regulate the hormones that may make acne worse.

However, these pills carry risks, so it is essential to review the benefits and side effects before making a decision.

Spironolactone, a medication often used to treat high blood pressure, may also help in cases of severe acne. However, spironolactone has many possible side effects, so it is best to speak to a doctor.

9. Cut back on foods linked to acne

Doctors are not certain of the connection between foods and acne. However, a growing body of researchTrusted Source suggests that some foods may trigger acne in certain patients.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, foods with a high glycemic index may increase the risk of developing acne or make acne worse.

These potentially problematic foods are sugary and high in carbohydrates. Some examples include:

  • cookies
  • cakes
  • pies

Dairy products, especially skim milk, may also increase a person’s risk of developing acne. A person may want to cut back on a particular food group, to see if their skin improves.

10. Wear sunscreen when going outdoors

Too much sun has many damaging effects on the skin. Sunburn can also lead to an overproduction of oils that make acne worse.

Using oil-free sunscreen with a protection factor of at least 15 may help to prevent sunburns and exacerbated acne.

11. Consider light or laser therapies

A dermatologist or esthetician can provide these therapies, which aim to reduce the presence of P. acne bacteria on the skin.

12. Avoid skincare products that contain oil

Woman shopping for skincare products receieving help from spa worker.
Avoiding skincare products that contain oil may help prevent pimples.

Skincare products contain oil can clog the pores. These products are often intended for use on dry or mature skin that may not have as much natural oil.

Products that do not contain oil are usually labeled “non-comedogenic.”

It may be a good idea to avoid touching household grease and cooking oils, which can also clog pores.

13. Refrain from excess exfoliation

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the skin.

While some exfoliation can help to improve acne, too much can worsen breakouts. This happens when a person removes too much natural oil from the skin. The skin may compensate by producing more oil, which clogs pores and leads to more pimples.

If a person is exfoliating too much, the skin may become irritated or feel very tight after washing.

14. Reduce stress

Stress often causes inflammation, which can make breakouts worse.

Below are some means of reducing stress that may help to prevent acne:

  • meditating
  • exercising
  • doing yoga
  • relaxing before bed by reading or taking a bath
  • spending time in nature
  • engaging in hobbies

15. Keep facial care products clean

Makeup and facial sponges and brushes should be cleaned regularly with soap and water to prevent a buildup of bacteria, which could lead to breakouts.

Make sure that brushes dry completely before use.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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Cleaning the skin regularly and gently, selecting skincare products carefully and avoiding contact with oil can help to reduce acne.

Last medically reviewed on April 5, 2018

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Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — Written by Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA on April 5, 2018

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Is it a pimple or a boil?

Pimples and boils are troublesome skin problems that can sometimes cause similar symptoms.

Pores are tiny openings in the skin that allow oil to seep out and keep the skin soft. A pimple is a result of a pore becoming clogged.

A boil, or furuncle, is a pus-filled lump caused by bacterial infection. It can appear red and swollen.

While a person can treat both boils and pimples at home, boils can sometimes turn into a severe infection known as a carbuncle.

Learn more about the difference between boils and pimples in this article.


Image of a pimple
Pimples may be more common during puberty.

A pimple is often the result of excess oil production or a buildup of dead skin cells and bacteria. People may be more likely to develop pimples during puberty, when the body makes more hormones that can cause excessive production of oil.

Sometimes a bacteria type called Propionibacterium acnes can infiltrate the skin and cause further redness, pain, and irritation.

Pimples most commonly occur on the face, but can also appear on the back or neck. They have many forms, including blackheads, whiteheads, and papules. Some may be pus-filled, so they may closely resemble boils.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria usually live on the surface of the skin, but can reach the inner layers via a cut, bug bite, or infected hair follicle. This infiltration can result in a boil.

Boils are most likely to appear on the sweatiest areas of the skin. These include the:

  • armpits
  • buttocks
  • face
  • neck
  • thighs

Boils start out as a small, round bump, which is usually swollen and red. Over several days, the bump will fill with pus. As the bump grows, pressure on the skin increases, eventually causing the boil to rupture and drain.


A doctor can often diagnose a boil or a pimple with a visual examination. The doctor will ask about symptoms, when the person first noticed the bumps, and whether they have tried any treatments.

Additional symptoms, the location of the bumps, and the condition of the surrounding skin help a doctor to diagnose pimples or boils. Invasive testing is usually not required.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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Treatments for boils and pimples differ. Below, find some of the most common techniques.


For most people, a thorough skincare routine can help to reduce the incidence of pimples. However, it can take 6 to 8 weeks for a pimple to completely heal.

A skincare routine for pimples should include:

  • washing the skin in the morning and evening with warm, not hot, water and a mild cleanser
  • using a product containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, to reduce oil and buildup of dead skin cells in the pores
  • applying a gentle moisturizer to reduce any dryness that may have resulted from acne treatment
  • exfoliating once or twice a week with a gentle scrub to prevent dead skin cells from collecting
  • avoiding squeezing or popping the pimple, as this can invite bacteria into the skin and lead to scarring

If pimples do not go away with home remedies, a person may wish to speak to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in managing skin conditions.


Boil on an elbow
A warm compress may be a recommended treatment for a boil.

Applying a warm compress to a boil will help to reduce pain and may encourage the boil to drain. If the boil is in a hard-to-reach area, a person can try resting in a hot bath instead.

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also reduce discomfort.

A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic ointment designed to fight the bacteria inside the boil. Or, they may prescribe oral antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading to the blood stream.

In some cases, a doctor will surgically drain the boil and apply topical antibiotics to the area, to combat the infection.

A boil and the skin around it should be kept clean and dry. A person should wash their hands with soap and water after touching a boil, to avoid spreading the infection. Sharing personal care items, such as towels, razors, or makeup brushes can also pass the infection from person to person.

When to see a doctor

If pimples are very painful or do not improve with over-the-counter treatments, see a doctor.

A person with a boil should seek professional advice if they have the following symptoms:

  • more than one boil at a time
  • fever
  • a boil wider than 2 inches
  • a boil that has not disappeared after 2 weeks, despite efforts to treat it at home
  • a boil that keeps coming back
  • a boil near the eye

Several boils that appear in the same location can join together, forming a cluster, which is known as a carbuncle. This can lead to an infection that causes cold or flu-like symptoms.

Boils and pimples are bothersome but highly treatable skin conditions.

Last medically reviewed on March 21, 2018

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Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — Written by Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA on March 21, 2018

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What causes forehead acne?

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

People can develop forehead acne and pimples when tiny glands below the surface of the skin become blocked. Acne frequently develops on a person’s forehead, although it can also develop in many places on the body.

Hormonal changes, stress, and poor hygiene are all common triggers of acne. The condition does not pose any serious health risks, but people may think that it appears unattractive, and it can cause discomfort.

In this article, we look at what causes acne and pimples to develop on the forehead, and how they can be treated and prevented.


young woman with forehead acne
Acne is common in puberty because of changes in hormone levels.

Acne is a chronic skin condition that can lead to the following lesions:

Acne can develop anywhere on a person’s body, but is particularly frequent on the face, shoulders, back, chest, and arms. A person may notice the appearance of acne when tiny glands just below the surface of the skin become blocked.

These glands, known as sebaceous glands, produce an oily substance called sebum. They can become blocked by too much sebum, dead skin cells, or bacteria. When this happens, the glands may become inflamed, and a pimple can develop.

Certain factors can increase the amount of sebum that is produced by the sebaceous glands. This sebum increases the likelihood of acne and pimples developing. Factors include:

  • Hormonal changes. Acne is particularly common in puberty because hormone levels fluctuate significantly during this period.
  • Stress. There is a link between stress and outbreaks of acne, but the reasons for this are unclear.
  • Medication. Some types of medication can cause acne as a side effect. Examples include certain steroids, anticonvulsants, barbiturates, or lithium.
  • Hygiene. Not washing the hair and face regularly can lead to oily deposits on the forehead and blockages that prompt acne.
  • Hair products. Some hair products, such as gels, oils, or waxes, are linked to breakouts of acne that is known as pomade acne.
  • Skin irritation. Using makeup on the forehead or wearing clothing such as hats, can irritate the forehead and also lead to acne. Frequently touching the forehead can also aggravate the skin and trigger acne.

Treatment and home remedies

lemon and lime
People with mild forehead acne may find applying lemon or lime juice helps.

Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the acne outbreak. Most people can treat their acne with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

A wide variety of gels, soaps, lotions, and creams are available to treat acne. These products usually contain one or more of the following active ingredients:

  • benzoyl peroxide
  • salicylic acid
  • retinol
  • resorcinol

People can purchase many of these acne treatments online.

How well these treatments work can vary between individuals, so trial and error may be necessary to determine what is best. People with sensitive skin may benefit from sticking to creams or lotions.

A person’s symptoms may take several weeks to clear up entirely, so it is often necessary to be patient with these treatments. It is also common for some people to have mild side effects, such as skin irritation, in the early stages of treatment.

For people with more severe acne, prescription medication may be necessary. A skin specialist will be able to assess a person’s symptoms and determine the best treatment. These can include oral medications and gels or creams that a person can apply directly to their forehead.

Prescription medications for acne may include:

  • corticosteroids
  • antimicrobials
  • antibiotics
  • retinoids
  • combined contraceptives

People with acne should avoid popping their pimples as this increases the risk of scarring and infection.

Home remedies can also be used alongside medication, or for very mild cases of acne on the forehead.

An example of a home remedy is to apply a warm compress to the forehead twice daily, which can help remove excess sebum and improve recovery.

Other home remedies that people with acne on the forehead can try include:

  • Aloe vera. Apply pure aloe vera oil directly to the forehead.
  • Tea tree oil. Mix a few drops with water and apply to the forehead with a cotton pad.
  • Apple cider vinegar. Mix one-quarter diluted apple cider vinegar with three-quarters water and apply to the forehead with a cotton pad.
  • Lemon or lime juice. Apply directly to the forehead with a cotton pad.
  • Zinc. Zinc can be taken orally, as a supplement to help improve the skin.

People can also combine the following ingredients to make a face mask that they can leave on overnight:

  • mix 2–3 teaspoons of aloe vera gel with 3–4 drops of tea tree oil
  • apply to the face
  • leave on overnight
  • wash off in the morning
  • repeat nightly, until the acne or pimples improve

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young man playing basketball
Washing directly after sport can help prevent acne developing.

Maintaining a good standard of personal hygiene is the best way for someone to prevent acne on the forehead. While some pimples may be inevitable, especially during puberty, washing regularly will help to minimize the risk of a significant outbreak occurring.

Other acne prevention tips include:

  • avoiding the wearing of tight-fitting hats or clothing that cover the forehead
  • avoiding the use of harsh skin products on the forehead
  • using face scrubs to deep cleanse the skin
  • avoiding the temptation to touch, scratch, or pick pimples on the forehead
  • removing any makeup before going to bed
  • washing straight after sport or any activity that causes sweat to build on the forehead
  • washing your hands regularly throughout the day
  • avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun


It is not unusual for people to have acne on the forehead, especially when someone is going through puberty. Stress, poor hygiene, hair products, makeup, and skin irritation can all make a person’s acne worse.

People with milder acne can often treat their symptoms at home with a variety of OTC gels, soaps, lotions, and creams. Someone with more severe acne should speak to their doctor, who will be able to prescribe stronger and more effective medications if they feel it might be necessary.

Last medically reviewed on January 19, 2020

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Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP — Written by Aaron Kandola on January 19, 2020

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Differences between pimples and cold sores

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Cold sores and pimples can look similar, and both can appear around the mouth. However, they have very different causes and treatment.

Cold sores occur due to a viral infection, whereas pimples are a symptom of acne and result from clogged hair follicles.

Both of these skin conditions are common. In the United States, approximately 54 percent of people aged between 14 and 49 years old have the virus that causes cold sores, while around 80 percent of people aged between 11 and 30 years old will have a breakout of acne at some point.

In this article, we look at the differences and similarities between cold sores and pimples, along with their causes, treatment, and prevention.

Cold sores vs. pimples

Woman touching lip because of pimple of cold sore, looking in mirror
Pimples do not occur on the lips.

Cold sores result from infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Pimples are a symptom of a skin condition called acne, which occurs when hair follicles in the skin become clogged.

Cold sores primarily develop on and around the lips. Pimples can form on any part of the body that has hair follicles, including the face. There are no hair follicles directly on the lips, but pimples may appear on the outer edges of the lips, where hair follicles are present. When pimples become large or swollen, their outer edges may seem to be on the lips.

There are key differences between cold sores and pimples, such as:

  • Cold sores may cause a tingling or burning sensation before they appear, but pimples usually occur without warning.
  • Cold sores can be painful. Although pimples can feel uncomfortable, they do not usually hurt unless they become large or swollen.
  • Cold sores begin to look more like blisters after a few days and may scab or ooze. Pimples typically develop a white, yellow, or black head.
  • Cold sores can last for 2 to 3 weeks. Large or swollen pimples can last for several weeks, but smaller pimples often resolve within a few days.

What are pimples?

Pimples are very common, and most people get them from time to time. They are a symptom of acne.

Hair follicles, which are present in openings in the skin called pores, each contain a tiny gland that makes an oily substance called sebum. Acne occurs when these pores become clogged with a combination of oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. Clogged pores can become inflamed, which leads to the development of pimples.

Acne can occur anywhere on the body where there are hair follicles, but it commonly affects the face, chest, and back. In mild cases of acne, pimples typically appear as small, closed spots with a white, yellow, or black head. When acne is more severe, pimples can become large, red, and painful. Very large pimples, or cysts, may contain pus.

Larger pimples can sometimes cause scarring, especially when a person picks or forcibly pops them. Having pimples does not mean that a person has bad hygiene.


Doctors do not fully understand what causes acne and pimples, but one of the main factors is the overproduction of oil in the skin. Acne commonly occurs during puberty, when hormonal changes can often cause a person’s skin to become oily.

Other possible causes of acne and pimples include:

  • pregnancy
  • menstrual periods
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • certain medications, such as steroids
  • stopping or starting birth control pills
  • use of some cosmetic products


Pimple, spot or zit on lip of mouth
Popping pimples can make them worse.

People with mild acne can often manage their pimples at home by:

  • choosing oil-free cosmetics and skin care products
  • gently washing the face twice a day and properly removing any makeup before going to bed
  • shampooing the hair regularly, especially if it is oily
  • using an acne treatment containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide; a range of products is available for purchase online.

While it can be tempting to pop a pimple, this can make acne worse and increase the risk of scarring. It is best to let pimples heal on their own.

For more severe acne or acne that does not clear up with OTC medications, it is best to see a doctor or dermatologist. They may prescribe one of the following treatments:

  • oral or topical antibiotics to reduce bacteria on the skin that can cause inflammation
  • topical retinoid creams
  • birth control pills for women
  • oral isotretinoin

The doctor may also assess the individual for factors that could be making the acne worse, such as an underlying inflammatory disorder or a hormonal issue, such as PCOS. Treating these conditions may also help with acne.


Many people with acne find that specific factors, such as stress, makeup, or sweating, can trigger a breakout of pimples. Keeping a diary can help a person identify any acne triggers so they can make lifestyle changes that might help.

Some simple strategies to prevent or reduce pimples include:

  • avoiding touching or rubbing pimples
  • avoiding wearing tight clothes, hats, or backpacks
  • limiting exposure to potential irritants, such as pollution and high humidity
  • washing the face regularly, especially if the skin is very oily, but not scrubbing the skin too hard
  • applying minimal makeup or switching to acne-friendly products, such as those that the label describes as being “noncomedogenic”

What are cold sores?

Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that typically appear on or around the lips. They are also known as oral herpes, fever blisters, and herpes labialis. Cold sores result from infection with HSV.

Cold sores typically begin with a tingling or burning sensation in the skin. The sores appear a few hours to a few days later. Some people may only develop a single sore, but it is common to have several blisters at once.

The blisters may change over several days, eventually crusting over. Cold sores may cause pain and irritation.


There are two main types of HSV:

  • HSV type 1 (HSV-1), which is the main cause of cold sores, but can also cause genital herpes
  • HSV type 2 (HSV-2), which is the main cause of genital herpes, but can also cause oral herpes

It is possible to become infected with HSV by coming into direct contact with another person’s cold sore or infected area of skin. It is also possible to pass on the virus through bodily fluids, such as saliva. However, transmission of HSV is more likely during a cold sore outbreak.

Once someone becomes infected, the virus remains in their body for life. Many people find that the first outbreak is the worst, and some people only ever have one outbreak.

For some people, specific factors seem to trigger a cold sore outbreak, such as:

  • stress
  • illness
  • tiredness
  • hormonal changes, such as those during menstruation
  • changes in weather or strong sunlight


Cold sore on lip
Cold sores usually do not require treatment.

Cold sores tend to resolve without treatment after a week or two. There is no cure for cold sores, but prescription antiviral medications can help treat them. These drugs may also lower the risk of another outbreak and reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus to another person.

Antiviral creams for cold sores are widely available OTC or online, but a doctor can prescribe a stronger antiviral medication for more severe outbreaks.

Warm compresses and pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, may help alleviate pain and discomfort. Ibuprofen is available for purchase online.


A person can reduce the risk of getting or spreading HSV by:

  • avoiding kissing anyone with sores on or around their mouth
  • avoiding touching the lips of someone with a cold sore
  • refraining from sharing beverages and food with people who have cold sores
  • abstaining from oral sex with people who have sores around the mouth or genitals
  • using a condom if a person has genital herpes
  • talking to sexual partners about herpes, cold sores, and any other infections

People with HSV can reduce outbreaks by identifying and avoiding triggers, such as overexposure to sunlight. It is also essential to follow the directions of a doctor or pharmacist when taking antiviral drugs.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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When to see a doctor

It is advisable to see a doctor for outbreaks of cold sores or pimples that are severe, long-lasting, or occur alongside high fever or swollen glands. A doctor can also provide advice on acne or cold sores that are causing significant emotional distress. They will be able to explain the different treatment options and how to reduce or prevent outbreaks.

If the cause of a pimple or sore is unclear, or the doctor is concerned that there may be a more severe underlying cause, they may take a sample of the lesion and send it to a laboratory for further testing.


Although cold sores and pimples can sometimes be similar in appearance, they have very different causes and treatment.

Cold sores result from infection with HSV, and treatment options include antiviral creams and pills. Pimples form due to clogged hair follicles, and treatment may consist of face washes, retinoid creams, and antibiotics.

Cold sores are contagious, but pimples are not. For people without HSV, it is vital to avoid direct contact with a person’s cold sores or genital herpes sores and to take precautions during sex.

See a doctor for severe, long-lasting, or distressing outbreaks of cold sores or pimples.

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