Even if you don’t have full-on acne, chances are you’ve found yourself frantically searching store shelves for the best spot treatment within reach — say, when you’re stressed or on your period, and those pesky bumps show up to make everything that much worse.
Don’t fret, it’s totally normal. “Think of your face as being made of thousands of tiny pipes connecting your oil glands to the surface of the skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “For some people, all of those pipes are slightly blocked leading to pimples everywhere. But for others, just one pipe gets blocked every so often.”
The cause of these blocks? Inflammation and increased oil production, which can stem from a variety of things—some in your control (pore-clogging makeup and your diet) and some not (stress, genetics, or hormones). “Hormone fluctuations play a large role in acne in women, which is why it’s common to break out around the time of your period,” says Dr. Zeichner.
That’s where acne spot treatments come in handy. “Spot treatments are high- strength products that deliver concentrated active ingredients to the pimple,” says Dr. Zeichner. While you should still follow a healthy-skin regimen daily, Operation Pimple Destruction requires strong ingredients that you don’t necessarily need on the rest of your face.
How to choose and use the best acne spot treatment
Look for pimple-fighting ingredients: Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, the two classic zit zappers you see in pretty much every acne face wash ever, will be your best bet. “Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that removes excess oil from the surface of the skin, essentially drying the pimple out,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Benzoyl peroxide works by opening blockages on the skin’s surface and killing acne-causing bacteria that promotes inflammation.”
Don’t forget to moisturize: “Skin oil and skin hydration are two separate issues,” Dr. Zeichner says. This means it’s possible to have both oily and dehydrated skin at the same time (lucky you!), especially if you’re using irritating acne treatments on the regular. Use a noncomedogenic moisturizer (so it won’t clog your pores further), like these best moisturizers for oily, acne- prone skin, before applying an acne spot treatment for best results.
Okay, we know you’re ready to destroy that zit for good, so we did the investigative work for you. Here, the best acne spot treatments for those unexpected bumps.
Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment
Try an acne spot treatment with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, like this one from Neutrogena. “Higher concentrations are available, but they haven’t been shown to work any better and may cause more irritation,” says Dr. Zeichner.
Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment
For OTC products, “2% is the highest concentration of salicylic acid you can get,” Dr. Zeichner says. Unlike benzoyl peroxide, it’s okay to go with max power. Mix this treatment with the Neutrogena one for best results.
Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment
Known for their pimple-fighting products, Murad’s 2% salicylic acid acne spot treatment exfoliates the skin to unclog pores. Moisturizing agents and various plant extracts also work to reduce any irritation, ensuring the skin doesn’t get too red or dry.
Origins Super Spot Remover Blemish Treatment Gel
Great for all skin types, this 1.5% salicylic acid treatment also contains aloe vera and red algae to promote healing by calming red and irritated skin.
Aveeno 1% Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Relief Cream
The third ingredient in Dr. Zeichner’s spot treatment recipe is over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation and irritation.
Kiehl’s Breakout Control Targeted Acne Spot Treatment
If your skin is sensitive and gets easily irritated by benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, try a sulfur-based spot treatment, like this one from Kiehl’s. “Sulfur has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Rebecca Baxt, M.D., a dermatologist practicing at Baxt Cosmedical in Paramus, NJ.
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
Ever hear that you should put toothpaste on a zit? Don’t listen. “Toothpaste is made for your mouth and is very irritating to the skin,” says Dr. Baxt. Even if it dries out your pimple, you’ll still be left with a red spot from the irritation. Try this acne spot treatment from Mario Badescu instead, which contains salicylic acid, sulfur, and zinc oxide (to help tame redness).
COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patches
These tiny, waterproof hydrocolloid patches are applied straight to your pimple after cleansing. Its unique mix of ingredients help tame inflammation, exfoliate the skin, and shrink pores. Plus, they can keep you from picking at the spot.
Peter Thomas Roth Acne Spot and Area Treatment
This spot treatment mixes 4% exfoliating glycolic acid with 5% colloidal sulfur to help fade pimples. “Glycolic acid is a mild exfoliant that can fade marks of acne,” says Dr. Baxt says. It also contains aloe to soothe irritation and vitamin C to brighten.
Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel
If your skin reacts better to a mix of salicylic and glycolic acids, then this acne spot treatment from Peter Thomas Roth may work better for you than their sulfur-based formula. Fragrance- and oil-free, it contains 2% salicylic acid alongside 10% glycolic acid to zap zits and minimize the pores.