Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/9/2021
Getting a pimple in your 20s and 30s is majorly annoying — but it will happen to most of us at some point.
What do you do if the ever-growing volcano on your face doesn’t go away overnight?
Luckily, with the right information, you can learn to understand your blemishes better — and therefore, treat them more effectively.
Pimples and acne breakouts don’t have to dominate your life.
Let’s first take a deeper dive into what causes pimples anyway. Four main things lead to the formation of acne and pimples:
A buildup of keratin and dead skin cells in the follicle, which leads to blackheads and whiteheads
Increased sebum production
Overgrowth of the P. acnes bacteria in the follicle
Various inflammation in the body
When your pores become clogged, they can turn into blackheads and whiteheads, which are also known as comedones.
Your pores can become clogged for a number of reasons, including an excess of sebum, wearing heavy cosmetics and not properly cleansing your face.
The bacteria P. acnes is responsible for causing the inflammation in the follicle that creates pimples.
Now that we’ve covered the basics on how pimples are formed, let’s explore some of the most effective and scientifically-studied ways to remove pimples.
A solid skincare routine with a few key ingredients is the first place to start. Some skincare options for mild to moderate acne and pimples include:
Topical treatments are considered one of the mainstays for people with mild-to-moderate acne and pimples.
These topical agents are available over-the-counter and by prescription.
Hers acne treatment is a great option because it contains acne-fighting ingredients that are tailored to your skin type.
Benzoyl peroxide is commonly used for the treatment of acne and is available in a variety of strengths (2.5% to 10%) and formulations (cream, gel, wash, foam, gel, leave-on and wash-off).
It works to fight pimples by breaking down the dead skin cells and keratin plug in the follicle, and is also anti-inflammatory and has antimicrobial properties.
Topical retinoids, such as adapalene gel and tretinoin are another option, although these treatments are used when acne is mainly comedonal — a.k.a. mostly blackheads and whiteheads.
Retinoids are comedolytic and work by dissolving the plug in the follicle. Retinoids are also anti-inflammatory and work in combination with other topical treatments for all different types of acne.
Azelaic acid is another topical treatment that works by dissolving the plug in the follicle and has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid that is found in whole-grains such as wheat, rye and barley.
It’s important to note, however, that azelaic acid should be used with caution in people with sensitive skin, as it can cause redness, burning and irritation.
Want to know more about inflammatory acne? Check out our guide to Inflammatory Acne: Causes and Treatment Options.
For severe acne and pimples, it’s best to speak with your dermatologist about the best treatment option for you. Treatment options for severe acne can include:
Prescription-strength topical retinoids
Antibiotic resistance is on the rise, so the treatment of acne with only an oral antibiotic medication is strongly discouraged.
Therefore, it is best to use antibiotics sparingly and in conjunction with other types of treatment (i.e. topical and oral medication).
Oral isotretinoin is FDA-approved for the treatment of severe acne, but can also be used to treat people with moderate acne that is either resistant to other forms of treatment or relapses quickly after discontinuation of oral antibiotics.
Several studies have shown that treating acne with isotretinoin decreases sebum production, the number of acne lesions and acne scarring.
Other alternative treatment options include an oral medication called spironolactone, which is typically taken in combination with an oral contraceptive medication for best results.
Using tea tree oil on your pimples does have some scientific research to back its claims.
One study on 60 patients with mild to moderate acne found that 5% tea tree oil gel was almost four times more effective at reducing acne lesions than a placebo.
Additionally, it was almost six times more effective at reducing acne severity than a placebo.
In another study of 124 people, a gel containing 5% tea tree oil was proven effective at reducing pimples when compared to a lotion containing 5% benzoyl peroxide (which, as we know, is a common topical treatment for acne).
According to the study, while tea tree oil’s onset of action wasn’t as fast as benzoyl peroxide, it was still effective and lowered the incidence of side effects typically observed with benzoyl peroxide.
In excess, tea tree oil can be irritating on the skin, so try not to overdo it and only spot treat when needed.
Another at-home remedy that has some research to back its claims is aloe vera gel. Yes, the same stuff you use on your sunburn can be used on acne and pimples.
Aloe vera contains the ingredients lupeol, salicylic acid, urea nitrogen, cinnamic acid, phenols and sulfur. All of these ingredients inhibit bacteria that might cause pimples.
In one study, varying concentrations of aloe vera gel were added to a clove-basil oil. Researchers found that the higher the concentration of aloe vera in the oil, the more effective it was at reducing pimples.
The results from another study indicated that using 50% aloe vera gel with tretinoin cream was significantly more effective at clearing up pimples than tretinoin cream by itself.
The big takeaways here are that although aloe vera gel on its own was not effective at treating pimples, it enhanced the anti-acne effects of clove-basil oil and tretinoin cream in these two studies.
This means that aloe vera gel may be more effective at removing pimples when combined with other remedies or medications than by itself.
Green tea is great to drink, but did you know it may actually help clear your skin, too?
Green tea is high in the antioxidant epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which has been shown to fight inflammation, reduce sebum production and inhibit the growth of P. acnes in people with acne-prone skin.
Until the discovery of EGCG’s effect on skin, it was believed that only isotretinoin and hormonal therapy reduced sebum production.
Now, studies show that people with acne experience significantly less sebum production — and consequently, pimples — when they apply a green tea extract to their skin.
There are several skincare products that contain green tea extract, but it may be just as effective to make your own mixture at home from a quality green tea.
We’ve already covered tea tree oil, but several other essential oils can also help fight acne and pimples.
According to research, the essential oils of lemongrass, cinnamon, rose, lavender and clove fight the acne-causing bacteria S. epidermidis and P. acnes. In another study, rosemary oil was also shown to inhibit the growth of P. acnes.
One study compared clove-basil oil, 10% benzoyl peroxide and a placebo. Results showed that the 2% clove-basil oil was found to be more effective and faster at reducing pimples than the benzoyl peroxide.
In another study, researchers tested a gel containing acetic acid, orange oil and sweet basil oil and found that it resulted in a 75 percent increase in the healing rate of pimples.
From over the counter acne treatments to prescription and even at-home remedies, there are more than a few ways to remove pimples.
As a general rule of thumb, we recommend a consistent skincare routine for acne with acne-fighting ingredients and to steer clear of heavy makeup and cosmetics that can clog your pores.
If you’ve tried everything and you’re still struggling with pimples, speak to your healthcare provider about other alternative treatments that may be right for you.