Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
It’s a common scenario: after weeks without any major socializing, your skin suddenly decides to break out with acne the day before an important presentation, date, party, or other significant event.
We’ve all been there, and we’re all very aware that it isn’t fun. Trying to get rid of acne before a major event can be a seriously stressful experience.
Beyond the stress, anxiety and frustration at your bad luck, there’s only one thought in your mind: How can I get rid of pimples fast?
While there’s no miracle, overnight acne treatment, there are things that you can do to deal with acne in the short term.
From over-the-counter pimple treatments to home remedies for acne, there are several useful and effective tactics to quickly minimize the appearance of acne.
Below, we’ve listed several of these tactics, as well as some of the science behind how these techniques can help you deal with acne outbreaks in the short term.
To help you minimize your risk of dealing with a last-minute acne outbreak in the future, we’ve also listed some of the most effective long-term treatments for acne, from topical creams to a range of oral hormonal and retinoid medications.
Before we get into how to remove pimples, let’s get one very important detail out of the way:
Despite what cosmetic and skin care companies might tell you, there’s nothing you can do that will get rid of acne in just a few hours.
Pimples take time to heal, and short of a major scientific miracle, there’s no way to speed up the healing process to that extent.
However, there are techniques you can use to make your acne less obvious. These range from reducing the inflammation that acne causes to disguising your pimples using makeup and other products.
Which technique is best? Well, that depends on the type and severity of your acne or skin condition.
We’ve put together a list of our favorite science-backed tips for dealing with acne below, especially if you need to look good on short notice. And, no, period blood will not help with acne.
Believe it or not, one of the most effective short-term acne treatments could be right inside your freezer.
Remember being taught to use rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) after an injury? The same factors that make ice important for post-injury inflammation reduction also make it useful for dealing with acne breakouts.
Although ice doesn’t heal acne, applying an ice cube to areas of your face affected by acne can help to reduce inflammation, making everything from minor pimples to severe, infected acne less obvious.
Using ice to deal with an acne outbreak is simple. First, wrap an ice cube inside a light towel or cloth. Touch the cloth to your face for around 30 seconds, then pull it away for one minute to let your skin rest and recover.
After two to three applications, the skin should become less inflamed, making it easier for you to apply makeup and cover up the acne.
If required, you can repeat this throughout the day to stop the inflammation from coming back.
Ice works for most forms of acne, including cystic acne nodules, papules and pustules.
It tends to produce the biggest results if your acne is inflamed — with smaller, less obvious whiteheads and blackheads, you might not notice as much of a difference.
Like all non-therapeutic acne tricks, this isn’t something that will actually heal your acne. It’s also not a trick that you should rely on for the long term.
It will not fight the root cause of acne, or reduce or remove acne scars.
However, if you need to minimize your acne on short notice, a couple of ice cubes and a cloth can work wonders.
While over-the-counter products like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid washes won’t do much for severe, cystic acne, they’re often powerful enough to treat whiteheads, blackheads and other minor acne in a day or two, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Unlike the ice trick, this isn’t a short-term solution. In general, you’ll need to wait at least one day to notice results from most over-the-counter acne products.
In short, this is a tactic you’ll want to employ if you need to look good the next day, not clear acne in the next hour.
When you’re comparing over-the-counter acne treatments, look for options that contain retinol, vitamin A, benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, glycolic acid or salicylic acid.
While these substances aren’t enough to get rid of severe acne nodules or cysts, they can and often do help to clear up minor breakouts and zits.
Just don’t expect miraculous results, especially if your acne is inflamed and severe.
Need to minimize the visibility of your acne in a hurry? While ice and over-the-counter acne can work wonders for minor acne outbreaks, they’re rarely effective at concealing major cystic acne outbreaks.
Cortisone is a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone that’s used to treat everything from swelling due to injuries to acne.
As an acne treatment, it can suppress swelling from cystic acne nodules and other severe acne, letting you look your best on short notice.
Most of the time, cortisone is administered as an injection by a dermatologist or healthcare provider.
For acne, it’s very much a short-term treatment — at most, the effects will last for a few months, after which you’ll notice a return of the original acne symptoms without further treatment.
It’s also a treatment that shouldn’t be considered lightly. As an immunosuppressant, cortisone can and often does produce major side effects.
It’s also important to know that cortisone doesn’t actually treat acne directly. All it does is stop the inflammation that can occur during an acne outbreak.
Because of this, it’s best to view cortisone and other anti-inflammatory medications as a last ditch effort for dealing with acne in the short term.
Most healthcare providers will also warn against fighting acne with cortisone, as long-term treatment can result in dependence and other side effects.
As you’ve probably guessed, cortisone is only available on prescription from your healthcare provider and is injected in the office.
It’s a powerful hormone that needs to be administered with care, meaning it shouldn't be the first thing you turn to during an acne outbreak.
Still, if your acne is severe and you need to minimize its appearance on short notice, a cortisone shot may be an option.
Just don’t view it as a long-term treatment option for your acne, since it can’t and won’t heal acne outbreaks for good.
While it’s okay to try short-term solutions for acne if you’re dealing with a sudden, unexpected breakout, the best way to deal with acne is to use a long-term, proven treatment that will stop outbreaks (caused by several factors) for good and to nail down your skin care routine.
Sebum production increases when your body produces overly high amounts of androgens such as testosterone.
Because of this, one of the most effective acne treatments for women is regular use of a birth control pill such as Yaz®, Ortho Tri-Cyclen® or Estrostep®.
However, sometimes acne after stopping birth control is another story.
Another factor in acne outbreaks is an overabundance of dead skin cells. When dead skin cells build up inside your pores, they can mix with sebum to create blockages, leading to whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne.
Retinoid medications such as tretinoin and isotretinoin work by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover process, making blockages less likely.
Our guide to tretinoin and hormonal acne goes into more detail on how tretinoin works to reduce dead skin cells and prevent acne outbreaks.
Bacteria can also contribute to acne outbreaks. When a blocked pore becomes infected, the best treatment is often an antibiotic.
Antibiotics work by fighting the bacteria present inside a pimple or cystic acne nodule, helping to reduce inflammation and heal your skin.
By making simple lifestyle changes, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing acne.
These include washing your skin and hair regularly (but not multiple times a day), avoiding touching your face, and limiting your exposure to sunlight.
No matter what your skin type, everyone should have a solid skin care routine in place.
Washing your face, moisturizing, occasional exfoliation to promote dead skin cell turnover, regular use of SPF 30+ sunscreen, and oil-free, noncomedogenic products are the key to a healthy daily skin regimen.
Following a routine like this can help prevent everything from forehead acne to chin acne, leaving you with a clearer look to your skin.
To summarize how to get rid of zits and acne fast, make sure you follow these five steps:
Practice a healthy lifestyle (wash hair and face regularly, avoid touching your face, limit your exposure to the sun)
Perfect your skincare routine (wash your face with a gentle cleanser and optimize healthy skin by using non-comedogenic skin care products such as a moisturizer. Occasionally exfoliate to reduce clogged pores.)
Reduce excess oil production (by using antibacterial topical treatments and washes).
Try an over-the-counter spot treatment.
If you still don't find yourself with clear skin, talk to your dermatologist or healthcare provider about treating your acne-prone skin.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.