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When an uninvited guest (read: pimple) decides to pop up, it’s easy to go straight into panic mode. But instead of picking, popping, and causing even more inflammation, your first instinct should be to reach for one of the best acne spot treatments. Because the truth is: A drying lotion, pimple patch, or other acne spot treatment is going to be the quickest, most effective, and least irritating method to shrink your unwanted zit. “Acne spot treatments often contain ingredients that expedite wound healing and dry up any oozing, which improves skin quickly and certainly speeds up the pimple process,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
Giving a targeted dose of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to your little friend can make it look a whole lot smaller in just 24 to 48 hours. As for *exactly* which product you’ll want to use to get the pimple-shrinking job done? A lot of it boils down to personal preference and skin type. There are superpowered drying gels great for pussy pimples (lookin’ at you Mario Badescu), invisible patches for a daytime treatment, and gentle pastes formulated specifically for those with sensitive skin. Here, we’ve rounded up the best acne spot treatments of all time—and answered every question you could possibly have about using ‘em.
How Does a Spot Treatment Work?
Let’s lay some ground rules: An acne spot treatment isn’t the best course of action for someone with acneic skin. If that’s the case, you’ll want to work with a dermatologist and go on a skincare routine for acne-prone skin. That said, a spot treatment is one of most effective ways to treat a particularly angry or unexpected pimple.
“Acne spot treatments work by delivering direct levels of anti-inflammatory ingredients to quickly decrease the redness and swelling associated with pimples,” explains Dr. Nazarian. Because a spot treatment is typically occlusive, aka it forms a protective barrier on the outside of your pimple, it’s able to “enhance the delivery of topical ingredients and stimulate healing.”
Will a Spot Treatment Shrink All Kinds of Pimples?
A spot treatment is going to work best on inflamed papules and pustules that need to be calmed down or dried up. When it comes to blackheads, Dr. Nazarian explains that spot treatments will be effective—but it’s going to take a lot longer to see results. “An acne leave-on cream works just as good if not better for blackheads,” she says. As for cystic acne, aka those under-the-skin pimples? “Spot treatments don’t really help the ones you feel, but can’t see because they’re too deep for the medicine to really get there and break up the pimple,” adds Dr. Morgan Rabach, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of L.M. Medical in New York City. If your cyst pimple is particularly painful, visit your board-certified dermatologist for a cortisone injection.
When Do I Use a Spot Treatment?
Adding a spot treatment into your skincare is easy as can be—most can be used in the morning or night and should be applied directly after your moisturizer. “You can combine spot treatments with the rest of your regiment, especially with non-irritating products like hyaluronic acid,” says Dr. Nazarian. While combining spot treatments with hydrating and calming products is a plus, Dr. Rabach does suggest thinking twice before combining a spot treatment with other acids or retinols, as it can be overly drying—especially for those with dry or sensitive skin.
While sunscreen should always be the final step in your morning skincare routine, wearing SPF is even more important if you’re using a spot treatment. “Ingredients in spot treatments can increase sun sensitivity and hyperpigmentation,” explains Dr. Rabach. She recommends looking for a physical formula with titanium dioxide or zinc as the active ingredient. (We also hand-picked our favorite sunscreens for acne-prone skin.)
What Should I Look for in a Spot Treatment?
Every spot treatment on our list is a winner—but selecting the right one for your specific skin type and concerns boils down to the ingredient list. Dr. Nazarian explains that benzoyl peroxide is “wonderful for killing bacteria that can lead to pimples” and is ideal for deeper, red zits. Salicylic acid on the other hand is preferable for treating blackheads and whiteheads. Dr. Rabach adds that ingredients like sulfur and zinc are particularly calming and anti-inflammatory, while a spot treatment with lactic or kojic acid (both have exfoliating properties) will be beneficial to anyone dealing with hyperpigmentation. If you have sensitive skin, make sure to seek out a product with soothing ingredients like aloe vera or niacinamide.
The Best Acne Spot Treatments
The Best Oil-Regulating Acne Spot Treatment
Don’t say we didn’t warn you—this cream smells like rotten eggs. But the same shale oil that gives it its stink is also responsible for its sebum-regulating powers. This ointment can be dabbed on a blemish before bed, but if your skin is generally acting up, consider sleeping with a thick layer all-over for a little reset.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Cysts
While most spot treatments aren’t going to do a whole lot for cystic acne, this particular product has developed a bit of a cult-following for its ability to calm down blind pimples. With lactic acid, citric acid, and a moisturizing agent called methyl gluceth, this slightly smelly gel directly targets inflammation in the skin. “I get these deep underground zits and this is a miracle worker,” one customer wrote in a review. “I even use it as a serum all over my face and chest to keep everything clear.”
The Best Pimple Patch for Acne
If you’re aiming for a daytime treatment, pimple patches are the way to go. These stars look cute (we’re obsessed!) and are extremely effective. They use hydrocolloids to soak up the fluid in your pimple. As an added bonus, they serve as a reminder to keep your bacteria-filled hands off your pimple. Picking only leads to scarring, ladies and gents.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment at the Drugstore
Behold, a drugstore staple that starts working in as little as four hours. Salicylic acid and witch hazel pair together to clear out clogged pores and calm inflammation for smooth, blemish-free skin. The texture on this one is completely clear and, unlike some other pimple products, doesn't smell at all.
The Best Salicylic Acid Acne Spot Treatment
The OG spot treatment that still reigns supreme. Formulated with salicylic acid, witch hazel, and oat extract, this best-seller rapidly unclogs pores to erase existing breakouts and prevent emerging pimples from surfacing. Chances are, you'll notice a difference after just one night.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Dark Spots
There's nothing more annoying than noticing a dark spot post-pimple. Thanks to licorice and niacinamide, this targeted treatment gets rid of blemishes fast, while simultaneously fading hyperpigmentation. With regular use, you'll have no sign of a breakout.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Scar Prevention
This treatment tingles, but don't be alarmed—it won't trigger irritation thanks to the soothing effects of cucumber extract and red algae, which reduces redness. You'll notice breakouts disappear within two to three days, with no lingering signs of scarring. This is a great option for anyone with sensitive or easily irritated skin.
The Best Overnight Acne Spot Treatment
This one is a bit different, but it works just as well. The overnight treatment, which is reminiscent of toothpaste, is packed with clay, sulfur, azelaic acid, and willow bark. The grey clay adheres to skin to reduce sebum, target blemishes, and get rid of redness. This formula does flake so make sure to add a nice layer and wash it off in the morning with your favorite gentle cleanser.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Whiteheads
Your whiteheads and blackheads will be a thing of the past with this high-powered, yet gentle spot treatment. Salicylic and glycolic acids, papaya, and willow bark extract team up to unclog congested pores and quickly resurface the skin to reveal bright and glowing skin. We love this one because it can be layered up to three times per day—it's in our night and morning regimen.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Oily Skin
Here's a gentle spot treatment that uses succinic acid to quickly shrink pimples and absorb excess sebum. In addition, salicylic acid and sulfur work to exfoliate and prevent new blemishes from popping up. A major plus with this specific product is that it layers flawlessly under makeup—you won't experience any flaking or crustiness.
The Best Drying Lotion for Acne
This drying lotion is a triple threat for banishing breakouts. It's comprised of salicylic acid to unclog pores, sulfur to kill bacteria, and calamine to calm inflammation. While it goes on a bit intense, many have witnessed its blemish-erasing results after just one night of use. It's ideal for those juicy pimples with a lot of pus.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Sensitive Skin
With a universal tint that seamlessly blends in with all skin tones, this spot treatment can be applied under or over makeup. It's formulated with tea tree oil and salicylic acid to quickly clear blemishes, plus soothing botanicals like chamomile and fennel to calm irritation.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment With Tea Tree Oil
FYI: Tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic that does amazing things when applied to a blemish. This lightweight serum penetrates deep into the pores to extract impurities and ward off bacteria from forming. The result is a fresh and renewed glowing appearance.
The Best Roll-On Acne Spot Treatment
Do away with mild breakouts in no time with this acne-fighting gem. The fast-acting treatment is powered by sulfur, which works to reduce excess sebum, kill bacteria, and balance the skin. Because the formula is balanced with calming essential oils and soothing calendula, it won't dry out your skin either. And added bonus? The roller bar makes targeted treatment easy as can be.
The Fastest-Acting Acne Spot Treatment
This pink solution contains 10 percent sulfur to effectively clear out pimples without drying out the skin or causing more irritation. Simply dip a Q-Tip into the solution and tap it on to the area in question. Prepare to witness results in as little as one hour.
The Best Preventative Acne Spot Treatment
PCA is best known for offering an array of acne diminishing treatments and this strong and mighty gel is no different. It boasts salicylic and mandelic acids to gently exfoliate the skin, erase current breakouts, and prevent future impurities. Plus, this gel is safe to use as a spot treatment or as a preventative treatment all over the face.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Mature Skin
Dealing with breakouts and age spots? Look to this dynamic product. Dermalogica's AGE Bright Spot Fader clears blemishes in no time and smoothes away signs of aging without stripping the skin of its needed oils.
The Best Invisible Pimple Patch
These hydrocolloid patches are a beast when it comes to drawing out impurities and soothing irritation. For best results, cover up your unexpected pimple(s) with these mini patches before bed and awake to a renewed complexion in the a.m.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Clogged Pores
Thanks to the combination of sulfur, zinc, bentonite, and niacinamide, those annoying pimples and clogs don't stand a chance against this skincare hero. The fast-acting treatment zaps away zits and prevents new ones from forming, all while minimizing the appearance of pores.
The Best Acne Spot Treatment for Dry Skin
Trust us when we say that this skin perfector will rapidly reduce the most stubborn pimples. This treatment is loaded with salicylic acid to draw out imperfections and glycerin to keep the skin bouncy and hydrated.
Meet the Dermatologists
Dr. Morgan Rabach is a board-certified Dermatologist and media expert with hundreds of opinion articles on skincare and the use of injectable cosmetic procedures. Dr. Morgan is known for her expertise in cutting edge techniques for Botox and Fillers and the savy use of skin products. Additionally, she deeply enjoys helping people eliminate acne scarring. Dr. Morgan is ranked “#1 dermatologist” in NYC by RateMDs, featured as a “Superdoctors” in NYTimes Magazine for the last five years, granted “TopDoctor” designation by Real Self and is an advisor for Gerson Lehrman Group and Guidepoint Global.
In addition to her private practice, she is a Clinical Assistant professor of Dermatology at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She graduated from Brown University with Honors in Biology, earned her medical degree from New York University School of Medicine, and completed her medical internship at Yale New Haven Hospital and her dermatology residency at SUNY Downstate Medical Center where she served as chief resident.
Dr. Rachel Nazarian is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology, who has spent years practicing various aspects of dermatology, including cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, general dermatology, and dermatologic surgery.Dr. Nazarian has written many published articles in medical journals as well as widely respected dermatology textbooks, such as Treatment of Skin Disease.
Dr. Nazarian serves as a faculty member at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology, where she completed her dermatology residency. While completing her medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine, Dr. Nazarian was awarded a grant from the Women’s Dermatology Society. Dr. Nazarian is a board certified dermatologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and keeps up with the latest trends in the beauty space. She has previously written for Us Weekly, Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Follow her on Instagram @samholender.
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