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 this acne fast?
While there’s no miracle, overnight treatment for acne, there are things that you can do to deal with acne in the short term. From over-the-counter pimple treatments to home remedies, 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 techniques you can use to get rid of acne in the short term, 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. 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.
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 a useful tool 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 far 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. 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.
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 in the next hour.
When you’re comparing over-the-counter acne treatments, look for options that contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
While these substances aren’t enough to get rid of cystic acne or severe acne nodules, they can and often do help to clear up minor acne. 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 viewed 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 final option 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 for good.
Acne occurs because of several factors. The first is excessive production of sebum — a type of skin oil that’s secreted naturally by your sebaceous glands.
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®.
Our guide to birth control and acne explains how you can use birth control to treat and manage your acne over the long term.
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.
Finally, 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.
Our guide to science-backed acne treatment options explains how antibiotics could fit into your acne prevention protocol, often in combination with a retinoid or birth control.