4 Essential Ingredients for Acne Spot Treatment

These active ingredients fight acne spots

Acne spot treatments are over-the-counter (OTC) acne products that are used to help heal specific, individual pimples.

Unlike other types of acne products, they are dabbed only on existing blemishes rather than used over the entire face. 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 while you use it.

Close-up of teenage girl with acne cream on her face, against white background
Supharb Sangkla / EyeEm / Getty Images

How Spot Treatments Work

Spot treatments work by delivering acne-fighting ingredients directly to the offending blemish. Spot treatments can help reduce redness, swelling, and pain. They can also help loosen or dissolve the blockage within the pore that created the blemish in the first place.

Spot treatments only work for minor, surface-level papules and pustules. They won't treat deeper, more severe blemishes like acne nodules or acne cysts. These blemishes form much deeper within the skin, where the spot treatments can't reach.

Spot treatments are most helpful if you only succumb to the occasional zit here and there. If you battle more frequent breakouts or break out regularly, spot treatments aren’t going to be quite as beneficial.

There are 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 the following.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is the most effective OTC acne treatment around. It 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 Acid

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


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


Differin, the brand name for the medication adapalene, is the only topical retinoid acne treatment available over the counter. Technically. Differin is a retinoid-like compound, but it works in the same way. In fact, this medication used to be prescription only. It helps exfoliate and clear out the pores.

Using Spot Treatment

Generally, you'll dab a small amount of spot treatment directly on the pimple once or twice daily. There's no need to rinse it off. Let the medication set at least a few hours in order to penetrate the pore.

Some products dry clear so you can wear them out. Others are colored, so you'll want to apply them at night only and wash them off come morning. Whichever product you choose, make sure to read and follow the usage directions on your specific product.

If you're currently using a prescription acne medication, make sure you ask your dermatologist before you add a spot treatment to the mix.

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

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 can cause irritation. A painfully dry, red, flaking pimple can be the result.

Using Products Not Meant for the Skin

You've probably heard of some oddball pimple cures—like Windex, toothpaste, and garlic.

If any of those weird treatments really worked all that well, everyone would be using them. Truth is, these types of remedies don’t work, and they could really irritate your skin.

Not Using Regular Acne Treatment

Spot treatments won't clear up your skin. They only work on individual pimples that have already formed and are visible.

To get consistently clear skin, you have to stop pimples from forming in the first place. This takes a different type of acne treatment routine.

So, while spot treatments have their place, they shouldn't be used as your sole acne treatment product.

Finding Acne Solutions

While there are ways to make pimples heal faster, to get consistently clear skin 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.

If your acne is mild, an over-the-counter acne product might be enough. If your regular acne treatments aren’t doing enough to keep you breakout-free, it’s time to up the ante. Consider a prescription medication, like BenzaClin, Retin-A, or isotretinoin. Prescription medications are a necessity for severe acne.

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.

If you have a big pimple that won't go away, ditch the spot treatments and give your healthcare provider a call. Your blemish may need a more powerful treatment than an OTC product can offer. Or, it may not be a pimple but rather a boil or another skin problem. When in doubt, call your healthcare provider.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA approves Differin Gel 0.1% for over-the-counter use to treat acne.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat different types of acne.

  3. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: A review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40. 

  4. Hauk L. Acne vulgaris: Treatment guidelines from the AAD. Am Fam Physician. 2017;95(11):740-741.

  5. Merck Manual Professional Version. Acne vulgaris.

  6. KidsHealth from Nemours. Acne.

  7. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Acne.

  8. TeensHealth from Nemours. Tips for taking care of your skin.

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.