Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/20/2021
Pimples often develop at the worst of times, whether it’s the morning before an important work presentation or a few hours before a big date.
While a variety of factors play a role in acne, one of the biggest is sebum—a type of natural oil that’s secreted by your skin.
Because oily skin plays such a central role in acne, one of the most effective ways to get rid of acne is to dry out pimples using spot treatments, facial masks and other products.
Read on to learn why oily skin can cause acne breakouts, as well as how to dry out a pimple and keep your skin clear.
Before getting into specifics on drying out your pimples, it’s good to understand why oily skin can lead to acne in the first place.
Your sebaceous glands—small glands found throughout your skin—produce a type of oil referred to as sebum.
Sebum is responsible for lubricating your skin, forming the defensive layer that protects you from bacteria, fungi and other germs.
While a certain amount of sebum is essential for optimal skin health, when your glands produce too much sebum, it can mix with dead skin cells and cause your pores to become blocked.
If bacteria becomes trapped inside a blocked pore, it can multiply rapidly and cause your skin to become inflamed and painful.
Behind the scenes, a variety of factors can affect the amount of oil your skin produces, including your genes, hormones, level of stress and use of certain medications.
Since sebum plays such a major role in acne, many acne treatments work by drying your skin and reducing sebum production.
While dry skin won't necessarily mean acne-free skin, drying out a pimple may make it less visible.
Here are six ways to dry out a pimple, control swelling and make breakouts less visible.
Before discussing what you should do to dry out a pimple, let’s talk about what you should not do.
No matter how severe your pimples might look or how tempting giving ‘em a squeeze might feel, it’s important that you avoid popping your pimples.
Simply put, popping pimples is not a good idea. Not only can it push the contents of the pimple deeper into your skin (something that will make your acne worse), but it can also increase your risk of skin infections and in some cases, lead to permanent acne scarring.
If you’ve spent time online searching for skin care information, you may have seen guides that recommend applying toothpaste to your skin to quickly get rid of acne breakouts.
Like many other home remedies for acne, this isn’t supported by scientific evidence. In fact, experts recommend against this technique, as toothpaste could irritate your skin and make your acne more painful.
Some ingredients in toothpaste, such as hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and menthol can clog pores and worsen your acne breakouts.
If you have one or several pimples you’d like to dry out and remove, one of the best options is to apply a spot treatment to the affected skin.
You can purchase many spot treatments over the counter online or from your local drug store or pharmacy. Popular ingredients to look for include benzoyl peroxide, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a 2% benzoyl peroxide solution for deep, painful pimples.
Learn more about these acne spot treatments in this guide, and how their ingredients can dry out your skin and reduce swelling.
While ice won’t reduce your skin’s oil levels or stop acne from developing, it can control swelling and make severe acne less painful.
If your acne is inflamed and sore, try wrapping an ice cube in a paper towel and gently hold it against your skin. Keep the ice against your skin for five to 10 minutes, take a short break, and then repeat the process two more times until the acne becomes less inflamed.
This process may help to control swelling, reduce the appearance of pimples and make it easier to apply spot treatments to your acne.
Many cosmetics and skincare products contain artificial oils that, just like sebum, can clog your pores and cause pimples to develop.
While it’s alright to wear makeup and use over-the-counter skincare products, it’s best to take a few precautions if you’re prone to pimples and larger acne breakouts.
First, whenever you’re shopping for cosmetics or skincare products, pick items labeled “oil-free” or “non-comedogenic.” These are formulated to be less likely to clog pores and cause noticeable pimples.
Second, make sure not to leave your makeup on while you sleep. Before you go to bed, use a non-comedogenic makeup remover pad or towelette, or wash your face to clean away leftover makeup that can clog pores and worsen pimples.
If your acne is severe—for example, you have nodular or cystic acne—it’s often best to contact a healthcare provider for help.
Healthcare professionals may use several techniques to get rid of pimples. In some cases, they may suggest a topical product you can apply to dry out your pimples, and make your acne less noticeable.
In other cases, they may use treatments such as acne drainage (which involves removing fluids from inside an acne lesion), extraction (physically cleaning away the contents of a whitehead or blackhead) or an injection of corticosteroids (medications that control swelling) into the pimple.
These techniques are generally used to treat large or persistent pimples that don’t go away with the use of over-the-counter products.
While drying out a pimple can temporarily make it less visible, this approach won’t prevent acne breakouts from returning.
Luckily, a variety of long-term treatments are available that can control your skin’s oil production, stop dead skin cells from building up and help keep acne breakouts at bay. Here are some to consider:
Regularly washing your face with a gentle cleanser helps strip away makeup, dead skin cells, excess sebum and other substances that can clog pores and cause acne breakouts.
If you have sensitive skin that gets easily irritated by most products, try using a hydrating facial cleanser such as this Deep Sea Cleanser for Acne, which is formulated specifically to keep your skin clean while minimizing irritation and dryness.
Currently, the most effective topical retinoid for treating acne is tretinoin, which is one of several active ingredients in this Prescription Acne Cream you can buy online.
Other topical retinoids, such as adapalene (available as Differin® gel) and retinol, may also help prevent acne breakouts.
This guide to topical retinoids for acne provides more information about how these medications work and their effects on acne breakouts.
If your acne is infected and inflamed, your healthcare provider may suggest using a topical or oral antibiotic to prevent swelling and control the growth of bacteria.
Several different antibiotics are used to treat acne, including the topical antibiotics clindamycin and azithromycin, as well as oral antibiotics such as doxycycline, minocycline and amoxicillin among others.
You may need to use antibiotics for several months to reduce the severity of your breakouts and stop your acne from coming back.
Several birth control pills, including the medications YAZ, Estrostep and Ortho Tri-Cyclen, have been approved by the FDA as treatments for acne.
As explained in this guide to birth control and acne, these medications work by controlling your production of hormones that produce sebum and cause acne breakouts.
If you’re prone to severe acne, your healthcare provider may recommend using birth control with an antibiotic or other medication to control your breakouts and keep your skin acne free.
You can find several forms of birth control online, including generic versions of the combination birth control pills approved for acne listed above.
Isotretinoin (previously sold as Accutane®) is a powerful medication used to treat severe and/or persistent acne.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe isotretinoin if your acne doesn’t appear to improve with other treatments. Isotretioin targets acne from multiple angles: by unclogging pores, reducing sebum production, stopping bacterial growth and by controlling inflammation.
Although isotretinoin is effective, it can cause side effects. If you’re prescribed this medication, you’ll need to check in regularly with your healthcare provider and take precautions to prevent pregnancy.
Although oily skin isn’t the only factor in acne breakouts, it is a major one. As such, drying out pimples and controlling sebum production can often help make acne less severe and prevent breakouts from affecting your skin.
If you have visible pimples, you can dry them out by applying a spot treatment and using ice to control swelling. If your acne is severe, it’s best to talk to a healthcare professional
To control acne over the long term, it’s helpful to use a cleanser, topical retinoid or other medications to control your skin’s sebum levels.
Finally, you can learn more about treating and preventing acne in this detailed guide on the best ways to prevent acne breakouts.
Insider tips, early access and more.