How to Get Rid of a Painful Ear Breakout

Ear Pimple

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

In case it wasn’t already enough to worry about keeping your face clear and glowy, as many of us have probably learned the hard way—our faces aren’t the only places we breakout. If you’ve ever had a zit in your ear, you probably already know, not only is it aesthetically unpleasant (though thankfully probably not visible to anyone), it can also hurt. “The skin on our ears has a significant density of sebaceous glands, and so that can increase the tendency for breakouts in this region as oilier skin has an increased risk of breakouts,” explains New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman.

It happens pretty much the same way zits on our faces do. “The process that occurs when you break out is that the pore gets clogged with dead skin cells and debris, then excess oil is produced, and bacteria (p. Acnes) proliferates, and inflammation ensues. This results in a pimple,” Engelman says. The good news? We can take a few simple steps to reduce the likelihood of ear breakouts, and treating them is not complicated—in fact, we use the same ingredients as we would treat the zits we get on our faces. 

As for the pain that sometimes comes with a pesky inner-ear-zit, the good news is, it’s nothing to worry about. “Ears are a sensitive, delicate part of our body. It is common, or normal, for an ear pimple to be painful or uncomfortable to touch. There are many sensory nerve endings located in the skin around the ear, so inflammation there can cause significant pain,” Engelman explains. 

If you’re not sure what you’re dealing with is a pimple, it might be best to have a dermatologist take a look. Sometimes, what might seem like a pimple can actually be “seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap in infants,” explains Cambridge-based board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch. Generally speaking, she notes, “seborrheic dermatitis is more greasy and flaky in appearance.” However, it’s still best to have a doctor determine what you’re dealing with rather than attempt to figure it out on your own. 

Meet the Expert

Causes and Prevention of Ear Acne

There are a few key potential things that can lead to ear pimples. The good news is, there are also pretty simple ways to address them. 

  • Clean & Disinfect Anything You Are Putting Into Your Ears Regularly: AKA: take a wipe to your AirPods every so often. “Also, if you can, take breaks from wearing hats and helmets that could be collecting dirt and debris, that can also contribute to clogged pores,” Engelman says.
  • Don’t Forget To Wash Behind Your Ears!: “Make sure to gently cleanse around your ears and use sterile Q-tips for the auricle itself, just avoid putting anything into the ear canal itself as it can potentially damage the eardrum,” Engelman says. 
  • Watch Your Products: If acne on/in your ears is something you’re dealing with consistently, take note of the products you’re using as you could be breaking out in reaction to a product. “Try to eliminate your beauty products, integrating products back into your routine one by one,” Engelman says, noting that “this will help you discern which product is causing the issue.” Conditioner is a common culprit! “Try washing your face and ears after conditioning your hair,” she says. 
  • Make Sure Your Ears Aren’t Clogged: According to Hirsch, too much earwax can lead to breakouts, too, as the wax can lead to “occlusion of the glands.” For this, she recommends Debrox, special ear drops that “when used properly melt the ear wax and thus help prevent the problem in the first place.”

How Do You Treat A Painful Ear Breakout?

The good news is, if you’ve treated a zit on your face, you likely already have much of what you need to treat a zit inside your ear. Here are some of the best ingredients (and products that use them) to keep on hand for these pesky ear pimples.

  • Salicylic Acid: This well-known zit-busting ingredient has its good reputation thanks to “antibacterial, anti-comedogenic, and keratolytic properties, meaning it can actually penetrate into skin cells and dissolve dead skin and decongest by weakening cell bonds. Apply directly on the pimple.” Engelman says. She’s a fan of Glo Skin Beauty Clear Complexion Pads.
  • Benzoyl Peroxide: This is Engelman’s chemical of choice for spot treatment. “How I explain this to my patients is, using benzoyl peroxide is like dropping a bomb on any p. Acnes and bacteria on your skin. It helps to eradicate bacteria—but be careful because a higher concentration doesn’t mean it is more effective,” she says. Look for a spot treatment with a 2.5 or 5% concentration of benzoyl peroxide. Engelman recommends asking your dermatologist about Onexton.
  • Retinoids: “Vitamin A derivatives work by controlling cell turnover, allowing older, clogged cells to shed and normalizing the turnover rate for new cells. This prevents new cells from clogging and hosting bacteria,” Engelman says. Apply on the pimple, and don’t combine it with other chemical exfoliants like benzoyl peroxide (they’ll deactivate each other!) She recommends Differin Gel.
  • Intralesional Cortisone Injections: Your dermatologist must do this in-office treatment. “Cortisone is a steroid that reduces inflammation under the skin and shrinks swelling around the infection. Within six hours, the pimple should be gone,” Engelman explains.

Related Stories