Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/26/2021
You feel it before it even breaks the surface–those giant pimples that seem to take over the reflection you see in the mirror.
And before your acne is at its worst, you’re brainstorming ways to annihilate it.
Spot treatments for acne are marketed as a way to treat pimples one at a time. But that’s not always the best way to treat acne.
Your desire to eliminate that one pesky pimple in particular is understandable, yet knowing how to prevent future breakouts is also valuable.
We don’t need to tell you what acne looks like—you wouldn’t be seeking acne treatment if you didn’t already recognize pimples for what they are. But acne isn’t only caused by oily skin.
In fact, pimples are caused by a complex relationship between sebum, hormones, genetics, dead skin cells (follicular hyperkeratinization), the bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes and inflammation.
Before you even see a pimple, these factors are at work setting the stage for one or several acne lesions.
Your menstrual cycle, UV radiation, obesity, stress, diet, sleep, smoking, cosmetics, medication and hormonal disorders can all aggravate one or more of these factors, leading to acne breakouts.
Using a spot treatment for acne can help if your breakouts are infrequent, and you only see a pimple or two.
Spot treatments for acne are especially helpful before a date or other event, and when you want a single zit gone.
Read on for info on the best spot treatment for acne and elevate your total skin care knowledge.
When you’re met with a glaring red zit you want to get rid of, what you’re likely hoping to do is reduce inflammation (make it smaller, if not completely gone), dry it out and reduce redness.
Look for ingredients that can help you get rid of your pimple faster, and at least make it less of an eyesore as it heals.
First: Don’t pop it. Popping and picking at a pimple will make it worse. It will take longer to heal and could increase your risk of scarring, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
If your pimple is red and inflamed, it might hurt. Applying ice to it can reduce redness and pain, and may bring down some of the swelling.
One of the possible side effects is dry skin, but when you’re looking for a spot treatment to cover or heal a large pimple, dry skin is often worth it.
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that’s been shown to have similar efficacy to benzoyl peroxide. It can reduce the number of acne lesions and reduce inflammation.
Alpha-hydroxy acids may also be present in over the counter acne spot treatments. AHAs include glycolic, lactic and citric acid which can work to break down the dead skin cells that clog pores.
One beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid, is found in numerous acne spot treatments and cleansers. While it can cause peeling, it stimulates natural exfoliation and helps prevent clogged pores.
Corticosteroid injections can be used by dermatologists for only the most extreme cystic acne spot treatments.
In these instances, a healthcare professional injects medicine directly into the cystic pimple to help speed healing.
What you’ll notice about most of these spot treatment ingredients is that they are largely preventative.
While some may help reduce inflammation or contain pigmentation to cover a pimple, there isn’t much evidence that they’ll speed healing of current acne lesions.
If you do have a large pimple that doesn’t seem to go away, the American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends waiting four to six weeks for acne to heal before becoming alarmed and contacting a healthcare professional.
However, if you feel you’re in need of severe cystic acne spot treatment, a quick visit for a corticosteroid injection can help speed healing and reduce your chances of scarring.
For more mild acne cases, you can likely reduce redness and inflammation of a single pimple with a spot treatment on your own. Your best bet, too, is to also prevent future active breakouts.
Treating the cause of your acne breakouts is likely the most effective way of preventing them and the emergency need to spot treat one giant zit.
First, consider if stress, diet or sleep might be at play. These are factors within your control, and taking good care of your overall health can promote healthier skin.
There are numerous products on the market that can help you get ahead of your acne. Here are some treatments that can help prevent future breakouts:
Tretinoin, adapalene and other retinoids are used to prevent clogged pores and inflammation.
They are highly effective at decreasing the number of acne lesions, by as much as 70%, according to research.
Found in numerous acne treatments—including the prescription-strength Hers Acne Cream—retinoids are often suggested as a monotherapy (where you don’t need anything else) for mild acne, or to be used in conjunction with other products in the case of moderate to severe acne.
Azelaic acid may be recommended as the first-line treatment for acne, meaning it’s the popular go-to, or the first thing you might want to try.
One of the big selling points for this active ingredient is it’s safe for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or who may become pregnant.
It’s long been known that birth control pills can help manage acne by regulating your hormones.
Several studies have indicated such, and the idea of using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) can be particularly attractive when you know your acne worsens at certain points during your cycle.
For severe acne, a doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics in conjunction with topical products. They’re generally used with topical products in order to prevent antibiotic resistance.
If acne is a disease, then a pimple is a symptom, and as with most instances, treating a symptom doesn’t always mean a full cure.
Preventing breakouts by addressing the causes of acne can help keep your skin clear for the long run, and if you do get a pimple, using a spot treatment for acne can provide a quick fix.