What the Smell of Your Pimples Can Tell You About Your Skin Health

Acne that smell like cheese, rotten eggs, garlic or onions might be caused by a skin condition.
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Our bodies are capable of creating a lot of odd odors: from bad breath to gross gas, stinky sweat and even strange-smelling sneezes. And now you can add foul-smelling pimple pus to the list. Yep, pimples — when popped — can produce their own ​bouquet​ of scents.

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If you've ever encountered a pungent pustule, you probably wondered what caused the stench and whether it was normal.

We spoke to Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified, Miami-based dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology, to learn about what various types of pimple pus smells could say about your skin's health.

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First, Why Do Pimples Smell?

Acne is an inflammatory skin disorder that happens when oil glands become clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells, trapping bacteria in the pores, Dr. Chimento says. This process produces an inflammatory response, which results in the development of pimples that contain pus.

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When you squeeze a zit and release the pus (mixed with bacteria, blood and debris), it can, at times, emit a foul or strange smell. This odor is simply the byproduct of the bacteria feeding on skin oil, Dr. Chimento says.

And while an occasional stinky spot isn't uncommon or cause for alarm, some scents — like the three listed below — can signal more serious skin issues if they occur frequently.

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Tip

if you often have stinky pimple pus, see your dermatologist, who can perform a proper assessment and help you determine what’s going on.

1. Smells Like: Cheese

If you have cheesy-smelling acne, it's probably due to an epidermoid cyst, a noncancerous bump beneath the skin.

"The skin is made up of a thin layer of cells that the body sheds," Dr. Chimento says. "An epidermoid cyst forms when these cells move deeper in the skin and multiply rather than slough off." Epidermoid cysts may also develop because of an injury or irritation, she adds.

These cysts typically have a cheesy consistency — a thick, yellow substance made up of the protein keratin — which is secreted by epidermal cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. Sometimes, this liquid drains from the cyst, and you'll catch a cheesy whiff.

Fix it:​ While epidermoid cysts are usually harmless and painless, they can become inflamed or infected, and in rare cases, they can lead to skin cancer, per the Mayo Clinic. If the cyst becomes red, swollen or tender, see your dermatologist, who may choose to treat you with anti-inflammatory injections, drain the cyst or remove it entirely.

2. Smells Like: A Rotten Egg

Sulfurous smelling pus can be a sign of acne conglobata, a rare form of nodulocystic acne that occurs when painful, large cysts connect deep beneath the skin, Dr. Chimento says. Acne conglobata is a serious skin condition, which can also cause disfiguring, visible scars, she adds.

The first sign of acne conglobata is multiple inflamed nodules, which are filled with pus that may have a foul odor like rotten eggs, Dr. Chimento says.

Fix it:​ To treat this type of severe acne, you must see a dermatologist, Dr. Chimento says. Your doctor may prescribe retinoids, steroids or antibiotics to help manage the symptoms.

3. Smells Like: Onion or Garlic

If your blemish emanates an aroma of alliums (read: your pimple smells like garlic or onions), you can blame bacteria.

Zits are filled with pus, which is essentially dead white blood cells that provide a feast for infesting bacteria, Dr. Chimento says. These bacteria are mostly anaerobic (meaning they don't require oxygen to survive), and they generate their own sulfur compounds as they grow, she explains.

That's why when you pop a zit infested with this type of anaerobic bacteria, you may notice a smell of garlic or onions, whose signature pungent scent (and flavor) comes from the presence of sulfur-containing compounds.

Fix it:​ Though not uncommon, if this garlic or onion smell persists from your pores, you might benefit from a trip to the dermatologist to discuss prescription-strength acne treatments.

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references

Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.