Waking up to discover a fresh zit in the middle of your forehead is guaranteed to ruin your day. It might actually be worse than a bad hair day. And unfortunately, those with dry and normal skin types are not immune to the occasional eruption. In fact, it might actually be more shocking to wake up with a pimple when you’re not focusing on preventative care and regularly using acne products.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin disorder, affecting up to 50 million Americans and nearly 85 percent of people experience it at some point in their lives. And no, acne does not always mean chronic pimples and cystic acne.“Breakouts can occur on any skin type,” notes Eric S. Schweiger, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Clear Clinic Acne Treatment Center and Schweiger Dermatology. “Especially during times of hormonal fluctuation, such as stress-related events and menstruation,” he adds.
So what are you supposed to do when a big ol’ whitehead pushes its way to the surface? That’s where spot treatments come in.“Most acne spot treatments contain a more concentrated amount of active ingredients than a product that is meant for use on the entire face,” Dr. Schweiger explains. This means they’re able to deliver a more potent punch to either an existing zit, or one that’s bubbling under the surface. Scheweiger actually suggests using a spot treatment as soon as you feel a pimple forming. “That is when they are the most effective,” he adds.When it comes to choosing the right product, you want to consider the different types of spot treatments out there and what they do. Most products you’ll find include one of three main ingredients: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or sulfur.
Benzoyl peroxide works by breaking down into benzoic acid and oxygen when it touches the skin, Schweiger explains. The oxygen helps kill P. acnes bacteria, and the benzoic acid acts as a deep exfoliant, getting rid of dead skin and sebum that’s built up inside the pores. It’s effective, but powerful, so it can be harsh and drying if you overuse it.
Salicylic acid, on the other hand, does not kill acne bacteria. It’s an effective exfoliant, called a beta hydroxyl acid, which unclogs pores. “It is a very effective peeling agent as well as an anti-inflammatory, so it soothes the skin,” Schweiger adds. Reducing inflammation and getting the gunk out of your pores helps eliminate the blemish in a gentler way than the benzoyl peroxide does.
Sulfur is a great zit-squashing ingredient, too. “It has both anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, which makes it different than other OTC acne ingredients,” says Schweiger. It also helps to remove dead skin cells from pores, and man, does it seriously dry out a zit overnight! Schweiger also tells us it’s better tolerated on sensitive skin than the other two options.
With any spot treatment, it’s important to apply it directly to clean skin before any makeup or moisturizer to get the biggest benefits. If you can, Schweiger recommends applying throughout the day as well. If your skin seems to get a little dry or irritated, cut back on the number of times you apply.
Spot treatments work wonders on most blemishes, but when it comes to cystic blemishes, they won’t do much. If you’ve got a pimple that never comes to a white head and just sits under the skin, it’s most likely a cystic blemish. You’ll usually find them around the chin and jaw, and trying to pop them will only lead to scarring and discoloration. “It is important to remember that cysts are like submarines; they are meant to stay under the skin,” says celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. They should eventually go away on their own, or, a dermatologist can inject the pimple with cortisone to treat it. For a great at-home option, try Renée Rouleau’s Anti-Cyst Treatment, which is able to penetrate the skin and, with the help of lactic acid and ethyl lactate, dissolve the cells clogging your pores and decrease bacteria and inflammation.
If your skin is red, broken or irritated, avoid the temptation to spot treat until it heals. If you’re pregnant or nursing, be careful and avoid using a spot treatment containing salicylic acid.
Read More: How to Get Rid of Acne