Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/16/2022
We’re all familiar with the horror story. An important evening, day, photo opp or live event made more stressful by the sudden, existentially cruel appearance of everyone’s least favorite skin accessory — the pimple.
Pimples crop up for many reasons, but for many people, the “why?” is far less important than the question, “when will it go away?”
Getting rid of acne breakouts fast and efficiently is a billion-dollar industry — the first person to make an instant zit-killing machine or cure acne-prone skin will change the world.
Until then, we’re at the mercy of biology, genetics and existing treatments to get pimples to pack their bags.
Zits are actually the result of things going awry in your skin’s natural process of growing new cells and discarding old ones.
When dead cells stick around, oil piles up and bacteria begin living and breeding in the resulting pile of skin debris within a clogged pore. The result is what we know as a white head, a black head and other blemishes.
The mixture of oil and dead skin cells is the perfect breeding-ground-slash-food-source for the acne bacterium, and as your body tries to fix the problem by secreting more oil or sebum, it typically makes your acne worse in the immediate.
What triggers acne is less thoroughly understood. Medical experts generally understand that risk factors like genetic predispositions, hormonal imbalances, poor diet, dehydration and oily skin can all increase the risk that you’ll be riddled with pimples, but things like the climate and vitamins can also trigger the formation of zits.
For many young adults, however, it’s sex hormones called androgens that drastically increase both oil production and ance risk during puberty.
Sebum (the oil produced by the sebaceous gland) is normally designed to help by lubricating the pore so that all that gunk slides out safely. But when things are out of control, extra oil is the equivalent of building those bacterial squatters a family room for free.
Treating acne is about returning balance and peace to your skin, but you can’t do this with zen mantras and meditation — the only way to get balance back to your skin is by fixing the water, waste and other issues, and letting the system reregulate.
Unfortunately, the reregulation takes time. And until it’s completed, you’re likely going to be stuck with acne.
How long your acne lasts depends on a few factors, one of which being what you mean by “lasts.”
Normally, a single blemish on your skin could be gone in a few days, and will typically be gone in less than a week. If you’re dealing with a single, atypical pimple, the next few days may require some additional cover-up, but the problem will resolve itself.
That’s assuming your problem is a fairly mild whitehead or other simple blemish. Pustules, cystic acne and other more severe acne forms may take more time and effort to clear away.
The problem here is that it’s rare for people with ongoing acne issues to experience single, isolated pimples, and people with acne can see waves or outbreaks of acne that can last significantly longer than the healing period of a single zit.
You don’t really have the ability to make an existing pimple go away faster. In fact, the only things you can do are make them worse.
Let’s look at a few things you might instinctually try to make a pimple go away faster.
Want to try washing, scrubbing or popping the zit? That’s going to cause irritation, redness, and in some rare cases could cause a serious skin infection. When you pop a zit, you’re taking the risk of pushing all that bacteria not out of your body, but into your bloodstream — creating a risk of infection in the process.
Other treatments, like scrubs, salves, medications and ointments have the ability to help in the reregulation efforts, but they’re not going to do for your pimple what a magic eraser does for household dirt.
Experts at the American Academy of Dermatology don’t mince words about this — they recommend that most over-the-counter treatments you use for acne be utilized as directed for at least four weeks before you should expect results.
And you may get those results on yet-unseen pimples, but the one you can’t stop staring at right now has diplomatic immunity.
Even stronger medications like the antimicrobial benzoyl peroxide aren’t going to clear up an existing pimple. While it may help you prevent further blemishes or begin to reduce a major acne onslaught, experts generally agree that it’ll take at least five days before you see changes.
Okay, okay, enough of the bad news. The good news is that while your current predicament may be beyond help (get that retouch feature working for pictures), there are several ways to prevent this from happening again.
In fact, for many people, it’s possible to prevent acne simply by getting back in control of that skin health balance and staying in control.
How you do that will differ depending on your skin’s unique behavior and genetics, but generally, you’ll fit into one of these categories:
For people with oily skin, the key is removing excess oil. You can remove excess oil from your skin with astringents like witch-hazel, as well as by using masks and blotting papers, all of which are available over the counter.
You might also consider returning balance to your skin with stronger treatments like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid — two more powerful chemicals that can help remove oil when things are really out of control.
We made special mention of “excess oil” in that last section because oil is actually an important part of your skin health.
Look no further than those with dry skin. For these people, there’s no moisture at all, and no lubrication to get rid of those dead, dry cells.
People with dry skin can get some support from moisturizers like aloe vera skin care products, but natural compounds like hyaluronic acid can do more — in fact, they can bind to and store about 1,000 times their weight in water, giving your skin a hefty surplus the next time a cell is feeling parched.
Dull skin is the result of dead cells, grime and other irritants building up in a matte layer across your face. When this happens, you need to take everything down to the foundations to get clean and healthy.
Getting down to the fresh, new healthy cells is easy, but you can still do so incorrectly and cause irritation to your skin.
A gentle warm water scrub with your hands or a cloth may be fine for many people, but if things are bad, consider retinoids — particularly prescription-strength versions like tretinoin.
Since the 1960s, tretinoin has helped people clear their skin and keep it that way — studies show that this active ingredient might help you look younger because it can also boost your collagen production. Consider hers' Acne Cream if you’re looking for retinoid options.
You’re never going to look good if you don’t take care of yourself, and that goes for your skin just as much as the rest of your appearance.
People who eat processed foods and consume a high glycemic diet, or put little effort into hydration are causing themselves more than just skin issues. The same goes for anyone who allows general stress to consume their life uninhibitedly.
Get these things back on track. Drink water, eat better, take care of your mental health. And while you’re at it, get some sleep and some exercise — studies present plenty of evidence your physical health plays an important role in skin health.
Getting rid of a pimple the same day is never going to happen — not with our current technology and medical knowledge.
The fact is that whether your acne is severe or mild, your body will always take some time to heal the various types of blemishes we can get on our skin.
There are ways to prevent blemishes beyond what we've mentioned — consider reading our guide to acne caused by makeup.
If you're stuck with a zit today, there's not much you can do. But if this is the third or fourth time your big day has been ruined by a big blemish, it may be time to consult a health care provider for help.
Acne may seem benign, but for some people, permanent scarring, irritated skin and perpetual cystic breakouts are the reality. For these people, a medical professional is the best person to help you devise a treatment plan to make bad skin days a thing of the past.