This Is the Difference Between a Pimple and a Boil

Here’s how you can determine if the red bump on your skin is a zit or a boil.

You’ve probably experienced that dreadful feeling the moment you find a boil or a pimple on your skin. The ugly, red bumps can be painful. Plus, they can take weeks to fully heal, possibly leaving a scar in its wake. But before you consider treatment options, it’s important to first understand the difference between a pimple and a boil. Treating one like the other could jeopardize your skin’s health. (In the meantime, keep your skin in tip-top shape with these 17 skincare tips dermatologists follow themselves.)

Pimples 101

Just like blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts, pimples are a form of acne. (Fun fact: pimples are also called pustules). They pop up when pores become clogged by excess oils, dead skin cells, or bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes. Pimples usually don’t grow too much in size. They also come to a whitehead within a few days. Boils, on the other hand, will swell up and redden as the bump continues to fill with pus from the infection (most zits aren’t full of pus).

Boils 101

The key difference between a pimple and a boil is how they’re formed. Boils develop when the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (commonly referred to as “Staph”) enters your skin through a cut, bug bite, or ingrown hair follicle and causes an infection. Boils and zits can be found anywhere on your skin, but boils are likely to show up in moist areas where the bacteria can thrive like your armpits, buttocks, and upper thighs.

Treating pimples

Whatever you do, it’s never wise to pop or squeeze a zit, no matter how strong the urge. Picking may make the unwanted bumps last longer by burrowing bacteria deeper into your body. Picking could also scar your skin. Here’s the one type of acne you should never pop.

A warm compress can help a zit come to a head, but a good daily skincare routine is important. Therefore, be sure to wash your skin with a mild cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid twice a day to help prevent future breakouts. An exfoliating facial scrub once or twice a week can also help. It will keep dead skin cells from accumulating in your pores. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic suggests helpful topical treatments such as retinoids or salicylic acid, both of which can keep hair follicles from plugging.

Treating boils

The same words of caution apply here as they do with zits: resist the urge to pick and squeeze. However, the reasons are more serious than with a pimple. The difference between a pimple and a boil in this case is that unlike zits, boils carry a ton of bacteria that cause infections. If you touch an opened boil, you could spread the infection to other parts of your body. Always wash your hands with soap and water before and after you touch a boil. For an additional layer of protection, be aware of these reasons why your relaxing hot tub is actually pretty gross. Plus, never share your towels, razors, makeup brushes or anything that could come into contact with the bacteria inside the boil.

To treat boils, the University of Texas at Austin’s University Health Services recommends you apply a warm compress to the boil for 10 to 15 minutes up to three times daily. Doing this can help bring the pus to a head. Next, use water and antibacterial soap to gently clean the skin around your boil. Then place a sterile gauze bandage over the area, changing whenever the gauze becomes wet or dirty.

When it’s time to see a dermatologist

Usually, pimples and boils should heal within about three weeks. But sometimes, that’s not the case. If you have a boil with pain or swelling that worsens over the course of a few days, or if you experience fever or vision issues, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests paying a visit to a board-certified dermatologist. A dermatologist may need to drain the boil or give you a prescription to fight a possible infection.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Jessica Wu, MD, on August 13, 2019

Ashley Lewis
Ashley Lewis received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. She was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News. and interned at Seventeen and FOX News before joining Reader’s Digest as an assistant editor. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for rd.com, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.