There it is, sitting inside your bathroom, inviting you to come on over and take a look: the magnifying mirror. “Don’t you want to see what’s in your pores?” it taunts. “Did you notice that weird bump on your jawline?” And if you happen to find yourself at home more often than usual, it can especially be hard to resist the urge to pick.
Of course, there’s the obvious advice, which is to ignore your magnifying mirror — or get rid of it altogether. “Why tempt fate?” asks Tina Alster, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Washington, DC. “No one’s skin looks perfect in a magnifying mirror — and no one is looking at you through a magnifying lens.”
Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in San Antonio, Texas, likens it to a distortion of reality. “Even the smoothest skin will not look as smooth under magnification, and the higher the magnification, the more uneven the surface will look,” she says. “What you see in a magnifying mirror is not representative of the skin's usual appearance.” Still, if you end up giving in and spend a half hour (or an entire afternoon) analyzing and consequently picking at your skin, there’s hope yet. Here, the experts break down what happens when you pick, plus how to soothe the subsequent inflammation.
What Is Causing You to Pick Your Face?
First, understand the impulse — whether it’s habit, boredom, or (perhaps the most impossible factor to ignore) a single bump staring you in the face. “Acne pustules, blackheads, milia, and other bumps or skin texture abnormalities get the party started, so to speak,” says Dr. Alster. “Oftentimes, the one bump will lead to hours of self-examination and picking.” You could make a mountain of one very molehill-like anomaly.
The appearance of a bump or congested pore could also trick you, resulting in hours of fruitless digging and picking. “What might be a pore with a tiny dark hair in it, might be mistaken for a blackhead,” says Dr. Bucay. “Sometimes people will mistake a benign skin growth, known as sebaceous hyperplasia, for a pimple and try to squeeze it.” (This is basically a skin colored bump with a tiny, belly button-like hole that is actually the pore.) A case of mistaken identity will cause you not only to waste time, but likely, result in a lot of damage — including skin redness.
What Causes Skin Redness?
When you pick and squeeze at a bump, the inflicted trauma can result in inflammation. Basically, your body reacts the way it would to any injury — just on a smaller scale. While heat, redness, pain, swelling, and loss of function are the five classic signs of inflammation, picking usually only checks a few of those boxes, potentially causing you to experience redness, swelling, and pain. But that’s not all: “Picking often leads to inflammation, and sometimes infection, which can lead to skin discoloration — darkening or lightening — and scar formation,” says Dr. Alster.
As soon as you see damage in the form of redness, bleeding, or swelling, take it as your cue to stop. “Wash your hands and apply a clean tissue or cotton pad to stop any bleeding,” advises Dr. Alster. Apply an ice pack (in a cloth or towel) to the area for 15 minutes, which can help minimize inflammation. Then, Dr. Bucay recommends cleansing your skin with a mild formula, such as Cetaphil® Gentle Skin Cleanser ($7).
When Dr. Bucay gets into it with a magnifying mirror (because dermatologists are people with vices, too!) she likes to mist her face with La Roche-Posay® Thermal Spring Water ($13), which has “prebiotics to help restore the skin's microbiome, which is so important in regulating inflammation,” she explains. Since your goal is to reduce inflammation, that is a good start.
How Can You Reduce Inflammation?
Next up: Calm your skin. “Topical 1% hydrocortisone cream is an anti-inflammatory and will reduce erythema, or skin redness,” Dr. Alster says. While you can usually find hydrocortisone creams over-the-counter at the drugstore, they’re also often blended with nourishing ingredients, such as in FixMySkin® 1% Hydrocortisone Healing Body Balm ($16). Dr. Bucay is a fan of this particular formula, since it’s packed with nourishing ingredients like meadowfoam seed oil, shea and cocoa butters, plus 1% hydrocortisone to create a moisture-rich barrier and decrease inflammation.
Just as importantly, know what to avoid. On this list: “Benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and other alpha hydroxy acids, prescription retinoids, or even over-the-counter retinols,” says Dr. Bucay. That may sound counterintuitive if you’ve been picking at a monster breakout, but these ingredients won’t help to reduce inflammation. The main functions of these ingredients are to exfoliate and purge your pores, so they may actually exacerbate inflammation further. Hold off on using these until the skin barrier has restored to normal, meaning there is no redness or swelling.
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.
Lastly, though you may want to disinfect the area, “avoid immediate application of alcohol,” warns Dr. Alster. “It stings and can lead to further inflammation and skin redness.” You should also avoid sun exposure (or load up on SPF) to reduce the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. And ultimately, if you know what led to your picking in the magnifying mirror — a stressful month or three, maybe? — addressing the source of that stressor can help prevent a repeat. (Learn more about the effects of stress on skin here.)
Of course, talk to your doctor if you have any questions about inflammation or redness.
Learn more about pimples and breakouts:
- How to Treat 5 Diverse Types of Pimples
- Keep Breaking Out in the Same Spot? Blame Your Skin’s Memory
- 3 Superstar Acids That Can Actually Help Treat Adult Acne
Doctors Tina Alster and Vivian Bucay are paid Allergan® consultants.
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Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.