Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/02/2021
Acne breakouts have a habit of happening at the worst possible times, whether it’s the morning before an important job interview or event to just a few moments before a night out, wedding or other photo-heavy occasion.
While there are numerous effective, FDA-approved treatments available for acne, all have one thing in common: they usually take days or weeks to work, making them less than useful if you need to make acne less obvious in a hurry.
If you have red, inflamed acne that you’d like to make less visible, there are several tactics that you can do to accomplish this on short notice.
Although these won’t always get rid of the acne itself, they can help to reduce the redness and make acne less visible, even if it isn’t entirely gone.
After an acne breakout clears up, there are also techniques and treatments that you can use to quickly get rid of the post-breakout redness that often lingers on your skin.
We’ve listed all of these options below, along with more information on why pimples make your skin red in the first place. We’ve also explained what you can do to prevent acne from popping up again in the future.
Acne comes in several different forms, ranging from mild, non-inflamed acne to red, painful and uncomfortable pimples, nodules and cysts.
All acne develops when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged with a mixture of sebum (a type of natural oil produced by your sebaceous glands) and dead skin cells. These combine on your skin to create a plug, resulting in a clogged pore that’s referred to as an acne lesion.
When a hair follicle becomes clogged due to sebum and dead skin cells, it develops into a form of acne called comedonal acne. This type of acne usually isn’t red. Whiteheads and blackheads are two well-known types of comedonal acne.
Sometimes, bacteria can become trapped inside a clogged hair follicle. When bacteria grows in a clogged hair follicle, it causes inflammation. This is the factor that makes certain types of acne red in color, swollen in appearance and painful to the touch.
Inflamed, infected acne can vary hugely in severity. Some people only develop small pimples, or papules, whereas others develop large, pus-filled pimples. When inflamed acne develops deep within your skin, it’s referred to as nodular, or cystic, acne.
Because the redness you may notice during an acne breakout is caused by inflammation, most methods for getting rid of redness involve reducing inflammation.
There are several ways to do this. Some and quick and simple, involving items and ingredients that you might already have around your home. Others are a little more complicated and might require a quick visit to your dermatologist or healthcare provider’s office.
If you only have a few pimples and need to make them less visible in a hurry, holding ice up to your skin is a quick, simple method that can clear up inflammation, reduce redness and make pimples less obvious without the use of any medication.
The theory behind using ice to reduce redness from acne is simple. Because ice is very cold, it constricts your blood vessels and reduces blood circulation when it’s applied to certain areas of your body.
By lowering blood circulation, less blood can flow into the affected area, reducing inflammation and getting rid of the redness that’s a common feature of inflamed acne.
If you played sports in school or college, you’re probably familiar with this principle. It’s the same idea as the one behind “RICE” — the use of rest, ice, compression and elevation to treat injuries that occur on the sports field.
To use ice for acne, take one ice cube and wrap it up inside a small towel. Gently push the towel against your skin for 30 seconds, then remove it. After one minute, reapply the towel for another 30 seconds. Repeat for two to three applications until your skin is less inflamed.
While this won’t heal acne, it can make the redness and swelling less obvious — a good option if you have an important event coming up and want to avoid dealing with visible pimples.
If you have at least a day to spare, you can often reduce redness by treating your acne with an over-the-counter skincare product.
Most over-the-counter acne treatments work by either removing sebum and/or dead skin cells, reducing inflammation or killing acne-causing bacteria. Although it usually takes a few days to see real results, you may notice improvements in one day for some types of acne.
Several over-the-counter treatments may help to get rid of pimples and inflammation from acne breakouts. Popular options include:
Facial cleansers. These work by removing dead skin cells and excess sebum. Although it won’t have a significant impact on redness, regular use of a facial cleanser can help to clear up acne breakouts and improve your skin.
Benzoyl peroxide. This treats acne by preventing the growth of bacteria. You can find it in a variety of over-the-counter products. It’s important to be aware that benzoyl peroxide can cause mild dryness and skin irritation, especially in higher concentrations.
Our guide to benzoyl peroxide for acne goes into more detail on how benzoyl peroxide works, its effectiveness and more.
Salicylic acid. This treats acne by reducing swelling and redness. It also unblocks the clogged hair follicles that cause pimples. Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is found in many over-the-counter acne treatments.
If you get acne often, or if you have severe acne breakouts, using an over-the-counter treatment may not be enough to fully control redness and swelling.
Several prescription medications are available for acne, including the inflamed acne that causes redness. Although these don’t work overnight, they can produce big improvements in your skin if they’re used consistently over the long term. Popular options include:
Tretinoin. This is a topical retinoid that works by reducing the amount of dead skin cells that accumulate on the outer layer of skin. It’s highly effective at treating acne, although it usually takes several months to produce a noticeable improvement.
Tretinoin is backed up by a lot of scientific research, with many experts considering it a mainstay of therapy for acne. We’ve dug into the science behind tretinoin more in our guide to tretinoin for treating acne.
As well as treating acne, research also shows that tretinoin can lighten postinflammatory hyperpigmentation — a common type of discoloration that can linger on the skin after an acne breakout clears up. We’ve talked more about this further down the page.
Clindamycin. This is a topical antibiotic. It works by reducing swelling and slowing down the growth of bacteria that cause inflamed acne. We’ve talked more about how it works in our guide to clindamycin for treating acne.
Isotretinoin. This is an oral medication for severe acne, such as nodular acne. It’s very effective, but can cause side effects. Your healthcare provider may recommend using this if other acne treatments aren’t effective for you.
If you only have mild acne and need to conceal the redness temporarily, applying makeup to the affected skin can be a good approach.
Now, this advice needs a disclaimer. While makeup can hide redness from acne, it won’t get rid of the acne. In fact, most types of makeup contain oils that can clog your hair follicles and make acne breakouts worse over the long term.
To avoid worsening acne, use a non-comedogenic concealer and foundation to make acne less visible. These products are made using ingredients that won’t clog hair follicles, making them a good choice if you’re prone to acne.
Although it’s okay to use makeup to conceal acne every now and then, it’s best not to make it a habit. Instead, focus on treating the acne and preventing breakouts from happening again using one or several of the science-based treatments listed above.
If you have severely red acne, such as cystic or nodular acne, options like ice and makeup may not be enough to reduce inflammation and conceal redness.
Hydrocortisone is a topical steroid. It works by reducing swelling, redness and itching. While it isn’t officially approved as an acne treatment, your healthcare provider may suggest using it for short-term relief if you have severely inflamed, red and painful acne.
Research shows that hydrocortisone usually works well to reduce acne-related inflammation. In an older study from the late 80s, researchers found that a combination of benzoyl peroxide and hydrocortisone worked better than benzoyl peroxide alone as an acne treatment.
For very severe acne, your healthcare provider may apply an injectable form of cortisone to the affected area of skin. Cortisone injections work quickly to reduce inflammation and make cystic or nodular acne less severe.
Although hydrocortisone and injectable cortisone are highly effective, they can both cause side effects. For example, topical hydrocortisone can cause rashes, burning, irritation, dryness and, in some cases, serious side effects like swelling and severe rash.
Topical steroids like hydrocortisone can also cause health issues when they’re used too often, including something called topical corticosteroids withdrawal syndrome.
Because of this, corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone are only recommended as a last option if you have severely inflamed and red acne. Try other treatments first — if they don’t produce an improvement, then you can talk to your healthcare provider about topical hydrocortisone.
Sometimes, acne breakouts can leave behind red scars and marks that affect the appearance of your skin even after the pimples are gone.
These red marks are a form of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. They develop after your skin becomes inflamed and are common in people with darker skin tones.
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation is generally caused by an overproduction of melanin, the natural pigment that determines your skin, hair and eye color. It can range in color from red to tan, brown, or dark brown depending on your skin tone.
Our detailed guide to acne dark spots goes into more detail on the causes of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. When it comes to getting rid of these post-breakout red patches, a range of options are available:
Hydroquinone. Hydroquinone prevents your skin from producing melanin, stopping red or dark spots from developing. It’s highly effective and is widely considered the mainstay of treatment for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Sunscreen. Like hydroquinone, sunscreen is a first-line treatment for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Regular use of sunscreen protects your skin from UV radiation and helps to prevent post-acne redness from getting worse.
Tretinoin. Tretinoin isn’t just effective at treating acne — it also has mild skin lightening properties that make it helpful for treating postinflammatory hyperpigmentation such as red or dark spots left behind by acne.
Salicylic acid. As well as treating acne breakouts, salicylic acid can lighten red or dark spots by stripping away the outermost layers of skin.
Glycolic and azelaic acid. These acids are also peeling agents that can strip away the outermost layer of the skin, helping to treat acne and get rid of red or dark spots caused by acne breakouts.
If you have mild red spots that develop after acne breakouts, an over-the-counter treatment may provide fast, effective results. For more severe or persistent post-breakout skin redness, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider to learn more about the best treatment options for you.
When it comes to acne, the old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is undeniably true.
If you’re prone to acne breakouts, it’s both easier and more effective to prevent them from ever happening than it is to treat things like redness, inflammation and hyperpigmentation after each acne breakout occurs.
Try the following techniques to prevent breakouts and keep your skin free of red, inflamed acne:
Use acne medication proactively. Treatments like tretinoin, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and others tend to work best when you use them proactively to stop acne breakouts from happening in the first place.
If you’re prone to acne, talk to your healthcare provider about using medication to block breakouts before they happen. Most acne medications are safe, effective and only need a few minutes of your time every day.
Avoid making skincare mistakes. Simple mistakes like using the wrong moisturizer or squeezing pimples can make you more prone to breakouts and worsen your acne. Our guide to common skincare mistakes lists these, as well as tips for managing acne.
Take other steps to prevent acne. From drinking more water to washing your face the right way, simple changes to your habits can have a huge effect on your skin health and your risk of experiencing acne breakouts.
Our guide to preventing acne breakouts lists 10 tips that you can use to reduce your risk of dealing with acne, from habits to treatments, dietary changes and more.
Redness from acne is caused by inflammation. It’s a common issue that’s treatable with many different products, including over-the-counter treatments and prescription medications such as tretinoin and clindamycin.
If you often develop red, inflamed pimples, the most effective treatment is prevention. Products like our bespoke, prescription acne cream make preventing acne breakouts easier, helping you to avoid redness, inflammation and discomfort from pimples.
You can also talk to your healthcare provider or schedule a consultation with a dermatologist to learn more about your options.
The better you understand the causes of acne, the more equipped you’ll be to avoid breakouts and get rid of your acne for good. Our guide to the causes of acne explains how acne develops from start to finish, as well as your treatment options for controlling and preventing acne.