Murphy's Law says the odds of you developing an inexplicably massive zit are far higher on days that involve photo-ops or lots of people looking right at your mug. To find speedy skin-clearing solutions that actually work, we talked to dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, AKA the famed Dr. Pimple Popper. Who better to recommend the fastest ways to dispatch your nastiest bumps?
Here, her full rundown on everything from quick-fix products to natural remedies to life's biggest and most pressing question: To pop or not to pop?
What are the best topical treatments for acne?
You're probably already well aware that all your go-to zit creams—from Proactiv to Clearasil—tout their use of glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide. Those ingredients are everywhere because they're the true champs of acne treatment—Lee recommends using these over natural astringents like witch hazel since they're more likely to get you the results you want. Below, her explainer on what makes them different and when to use them.
= an alpha hydroxyl acid produced from sugar cane. It's an "exfoliant," meaning that it helps to get rid of dead skin cells on the surface of our skin, and can help lighten brown spots that are caused by acne.
= a beta hydroxyl acid from the bark of a willow tree. It's another exfoliant that scrubs dead skin cells on the skin surface and improves discoloration. Both are helpful long term to help minimize wrinkles and decrease premature aging of the skin due to light exposure.
But between the two, Lee says "salicylic acid is a little more superior in treating acne since it can actually penetrate the skin better, break up sebum (dead skin cells and oil), crystallize, and settle within pores." This helps prevent dead skin cells from accumulating and blocking your pores, she explains.
= an antibacterial, which helps to limit certain types of acne from thriving on our skin. "If you have an occasional rogue zit, it's great to apply benzoyl peroxide and/or salicylic acid, but honestly the best thing to do is to see your dermatologist who can inject that pimple with a low concentration corticosteroid which can often get rid of that zit within 24 hours," Lee says.
To pop or not to pop?
For cysts (bigger or "underground" spots): Lee recommends not squeezing or tackling cysts at home since this can cause inflammation and have a high chance of scarring. "It's important to see a dermatologist who can put you on prescription medications that can help. In short: Keep your hands away from cysts!"
For your average pimple: "If the pimple doesn't have a head yet and is still under the skin, extracting it can not only be very painful, but can cause irritation and infection that make it harder for the pimple to heal. Worse, if you really traumatize the skin, you risk permanent scarring." In fact, she says you really shouldn't pop anything on your face unless it has come to a white/yellow "head" because then the bump is on the surface of the skin.
"Continually pushing and squeezing will only irritate your skin and increase your risk for scarring. My mantra: 'Know When to Pop and Know When to Stop.'"
The correct method: Lee suggests sterilizing the area first and using a clean tool to avoid infection. "It should come out pretty easily if it is ready, but if the pimple is not popping, it's time to stop. Continually pushing and squeezing will only irritate your skin and increase your risk for scarring. My mantra: 'Know When to Pop and Know When to Stop!'"
Any natural remedies for skin that actually work?
Though she doesn't look to natural remedies for reliably improving skin, one natural element she says can help with acne is...*drumroll*...sunlight. "Sunlight actually has anti-inflammatory effects, and people with acne, eczema, psoriasis, and many other skin conditions can see an improvement with sun exposure," she says. But as with everything, sunlight is best in moderation. "Chronic sun exposure leads to premature aging, brown spots, and skin cancer, so the risks definitely outweigh the benefits in my book!"
What about quick fixes for big breakouts?
If you find yourself with a budding pimple in your T-zone, Lee suggests a spot treatment to minimize damage before you try smothering it with concealer. "There are a lot of options out there, but this is the best way to target an area/specific breakout, such as my Dr. Pimple Popper x SLMD Acne Spot Treatment," she says. The new rollerball spot treatment, using salicylic acid, unclogs pores and controls oil production to clear acne fast and prevent emerging breakouts.
If you've popped your zit, says Lee, limit the chance of infection by applying a topical corticosteroid and/or a topical acne spot treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide or an antibiotic, cool compress.
And for those moments when a zit arises before an important event and you need it to be GONE in 24 hours? "Make an appointment with your dermatologist for a cortisone injection—which we inject directly into the culprit. It really does work magic."
Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.