I used to think spot treatments for acne were complete hogwash. After trying practically every drugstore formula that claimed to zap, clear, bust, or essentially exterminate my acne with little to no avail, I threw my hands in the air and gave up. Clearly, I thought to myself at the time, spot treatments are a complete gimmick, a genre of skin products imparting false hope and existential doom to me and my breakout-prone skin. (Because, yes, many times when I would try a new treatment, my spotted little friends would actually get worse.)
Now, however, I know better. Certain spot treatments for acne are better suited for certain types of pimples and breakouts, for instance, and knowing which formulas and ingredients are the most effective for your goals and concerns is paramount (along with knowing when and how to apply them). I’ve gleaned a lot of information on the subject since becoming a beauty editor—and now have a very effective arsenal of acne spot treatments, thank you very much—but I wanted to reach out to some of the best experts in the skin industry to shed some light on the subject. Keep scrolling to find out everything you ever wanted to know about spot treatments for acne along with our top product recommendations.
Despite what some naysayers might want you to think, spot treatments are, indeed, an effective (and speedy!) way to treat stubborn spots. But there are a few caveats, and before putting all of your stock in your shopping cart of products, you’ll want to make sure certain lifestyles habits are in check.
“The best way to treat acne is to prevent it from occurring in the first place,” says Anthony Rossi, MD, FAAD, FACMS. “A great skin regime, diet, exercise, and hydration are all so important for skin health, including acne. That said, when a breakout does occur, acne spot treatments are an effective treatment for one or two pimples.” If your breakouts are more volatile or more frequent, however, Rossi says you’ll want to see a board-certified dermatologist who can help assess the situation.
Yes, yes there is, and sorry to burst your bubble, but according to celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau, you are probably using your acne spot treatments incorrectly. What’s more, you could even be making them worse.
“Spot treatments for acne can be very effective. However, in my experience, the way many people use their spot treatments is actually making a blemish stick around longer,” Rouleau warns. “This leads to a prolonged recovery time with increased risk for scarring. For a spot treatment to work, there is a proper way to apply the treatment.”
When a blemish first appears, she says you’ll want to apply a soothing, anti-inflammatory spot treatment right away. If and only when a whitehead comes to the very surface of the skin, you can gently squeeze it out. Then, once the whitehead is removed, you can apply a powerful spot treatment to help dry out any remaining infection in the pore. After the area is healed and cleared of any scabbing, you might notice some lingering scarring or discoloration. Proceed by using a fading gel.
Take a jaunt through your local drugstore or Sephora aisle, and you’ll likely see acne spot treatments of all shapes and sizes, and the sheer wealth of options can definitely be overwhelming. “Spot treatments can come in the form of creams, gels, pastes, and even spot patches,” notes Rossi. “They all can work, mainly via a mechanism of drying out an inflamed lesion.”
Rouleau agrees, saying that while some spot treatments are created with a specific type of blemish in mind, there are a variety of treatments for all types of blemishes from cystic blemishes to pustular blemishes and more. “For example, if you have surface, pustular blemishes, the goal would be to dry out the infection for a quick recovery. The spot treatment would most likely be formulated with a drying agent and an antibacterial/antiseptic.”
Camphor: drying agent
Zinc Oxide: antiseptic/anti-bacterial
Lactic Acid: ethyl lactate (the purified form of lactic acid ester), which purifies within the pore to clear and calm visible cysts and bumps
Green Tea Extract + White Tea Extract: anti-inflammatory tea extracts that soothe signs of redness and irritation
Glycolic/Amino Acid Complex: exfoliating AHA with minimum discomfort
Salicylic Acid Complex: betaine salicylate, an exfoliating BHA that helps reduce oil/bacteria deep within the pores
Beta Glucan: supports the skin’s visible self-repair process
Tea Tree Oil (4-Terpineol): reduces bacteria in a gentle, non-irritating way
Licorice: dipotassium glycyrrhizate, which soothes and calms visible signs of redness, puffiness, and irritation
Benzoyl Peroxide: antibacterial and can help dry out an oozing pimple (tread carefully, can be more irritating, and cause excessive drying)
“Anyone can benefit from using a spot treatment,” says Rouleau. However, as Rossi points out, if you’re someone who has sensitive skin, many of the most effective ingredients found in acne spot treatments might irritate your complexion. Only use the recommended amount, and abide by the product’s instructions, only leaving the formula on for as long as it’s recommended on the packaging.
“The easiest and most efficient way to use an acne spot treatment is at night as the last step of a skincare routine,” Rouleau explains. “However, a spot treatment can also be used during the day if the product goes on clear and isn’t visible or if it’s recommended for daytime use. If that’s the case, perform your usual daily skincare routine. (Be sure to apply sunscreen!) Gently wipe the blemish to remove the skincare products applied, and then apply the acne spot treatment, and let it dry. Be sure to pat in your sunscreen once complete.”
“Patches and stickers are convenient, compact, and mess-free,” Rossi tells us. “And, for the most part, they keep the affected area covered so you can’t touch it or irritate the pimple further.” However, as Rouleau points out, pimple patches won’t prevent acne and are really only an effective alternative if you’re dealing with pimples on an individual basis. (As someone who once tried to apply five patches side by side on a lot of real estate of acne, I can confirm she is correct.)
“If you’re breaking out consistently, you really want to make sure you have a good routine for acne-prone skin,” she stipulates. “I think acne patches work best on surface-level inflammatory acne that comes to a head. In this case, the main benefit you’re getting from a patch is the hydrocolloid technology, which helps gently draw out the infection while keeping the surrounding skin healthy and moist.”