Choosing an Acne Spot Treatment

Girl applying acne medication in mirror
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We've all had that particularly annoying pimple that we wish we could quickly zap away. In a way, you can with an acne spot treatment.

Spot treatments are over-the-counter acne products that help to heal those pesky pimples. Unlike other types of acne treatments, they are meant to be used only on existing blemishes.

Some spot treatments are left on overnight; others dry clear so you can wear them out during the day. You can even find tinted spot treatments that help camouflage breakouts.

Whichever product you choose, make sure to read and follow the usage directions.

How to Use Spot Treatments

Spot treatments are most helpful for people who only succumb to the occasional zit here and there (if that describes you, you’re so lucky). For those of us who battle with more frequent breakouts, spot treatments aren’t going to be quite as beneficial.

Since spot treatments aren’t applied over the entire face, they won't clear up a case of acne. For that, you'd need a different type of treatment.

If your acne is mild, an over-the-counter acne product might be enough. But for severe acne, you need to get yourself a prescription medication, either topical or oral. These medications, like BenzaClin, Differin, or isotretinoin help stop breakouts before they start.

You can still use spot treatments to help individual pimples heal more quickly, even while using these acne medications, so long as your dermatologist gives you the go ahead.

Choose Effective Ingredients

There are so many spot treatments available, from bargain drugstore finds to expensive chic brands. It really doesn’t matter which you choose, as long as it contains a proven acne-fighting active ingredient.

The most effective spot treatments will contain one of these:

Benzoyl peroxideIt’s the most effective OTC acne treatment around. Benzoyl peroxide helps reduce inflammation and makes the pore an inhospitable place for acne-causing bacteria to hide. It can be drying, though, so only use it once or twice daily, max. 

Benzoyl peroxide can bleach out fabrics, so take care around your towels, sheets, and clothing.

FYI, don't apply a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment over (or under) Retin-A (tretinoin). Tretinoin breaks down chemically when applied with benzoyl peroxide, so it won't be as effective.

Salicylic acidSalicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. It helps clear out the gunk that’s trapped in the pores. It can also dry up pustules (pimples with white heads).

SulfurSulfur is another ingredient that dries out pimples and helps reduce inflammation. Like benzoyl peroxide, sulfur can be drying to the skin.

Ice: Although it's not a traditional spot treatment, it had to be included in this list. It won’t actually heal blemishes any faster, but icing down large pimples can help ease redness and swelling and makes them feel less sore.

Ice works best on those monster zits under the skin, called nodules, rather than pustules. The other spot treatments don’t work really well on nodules anyway.

Spot Treatment Mistakes

Spot treatments can be a helpful addition to your acne treatment routine. But you may be using them incorrectly and not even know it.

Using them too often: Nearly all of us are guilty of this one. Because we want that pimple to go away super fast, we douse it with spot treatment at every opportunity.

But using any spot treatment product too often (and if you’re using it more than twice a day, you’re using it too often) will dry out the skin. And the only thing worse than a pimple is a dry, red, flaking pimple. 

Using "spot treatments" not meant for the skin: We’ve all heard of those oddball pimple cures—Windex, toothpaste, garlic. If any of those weird treatments really worked all that well, we’d all be using them. Truth is, these types of remedies don’t work, and they could really irritate your skin.

Using spot treatments rather than a regular acne treatment medication:  Remember, spot treatments won't clear up your skin. They just work on individual pimples that are already visible.

To get really good results, you need to stop breakouts before they even start. This requires daily use of an acne treatment medication, even in areas that are clear, to keep them clear.

And if your regular acne treatments aren’t doing enough to keep you breakout-free, it’s time to up the ante. Using OTC products? Consider a prescription medication. Already using a prescription treatment? Let your dermatologist know you’re not happy with the results. You may need to switch to a different medication.

The goal is to get your acne cleared to the point that you’re not having to worry about using a spot treatment at all.

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