You wake up on the morning of a big work presentation to find — surprise! — an angry red zit staring back at you in the mirror.
If you find yourself in this predicament often, you’ll want to make an appointment to see a dermatologist, who can develop a maintenance plan to help keep your skin clear.
But for an occasional breakout, there’s an effective way to tame it at home.
The best way to make a zit go away fast is to apply a dab of benzoyl peroxide, which you can buy at a drug store in cream, gel or patch form, says Shilpi Khetarpal, MD. It works by killing bacteria that clogs pores and causes inflammation. You can buy it in concentrations ranging from 2.5% to 10%.
“It’s inexpensive, it’s been around for many years and it’s very effective,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
But there’s one caveat: If you keep using it over and over again on the same spot, it may dry out or irritate your skin. So if your skin is sensitive, choose a product with a lower concentration of benzoyl peroxide.
What NOT to do to get rid of a pimple
You can watch pimple popping videos on the internet to your heart’s content, but Dr. Khetarpal recommends against trying it in real life.
“Any manipulation of a pimple can lead to more inflammation, which can increase the risk of scarring,” she explains. “And your hands are dirty, so you’re going to introduce more bacteria and potentially make it worse.”
Your best bet is to spot treat the pimple with benzoyl peroxide and then leave it alone.
“Wearing makeup and covering it up is not a problem, but don’t poke or pick or squeeze it,” Dr. Khetarpal suggests. “It will resolve on its own.”
In a pinch, will these DIY remedies work?
An internet search turns up many quick-fixes for pimples. Here’s Dr. Khetarpal’s take on some of the most common ones.
- Toothpaste. Many toothpastes contain ingredients like alcohol or baking soda that may help dry out a pimple. But, toothpaste also contains other ingredients that aren’t intended to be put directly on your face. She cautions that using toothpaste to treat a pimple could possibly irritate your skin.
- Tea tree oil. There’s good news here: Studies have shown that small amount of tea tree oil can combat acne. But, Dr. Khetarpal warns that a small percentage of people are allergic to it. “If it works for you, great, but if you put it on your skin and find out you’re allergic to it, you’re going create a whole other problem,” she says.
- Aspirin. Some people swear by crushing up an aspirin, putting a few drops of water on it and dabbing that mixture onto their pimple. Aspirin’s active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid, is similar to salicylic acid, a common anti-inflammatory ingredient in many skin care products. But according to acne treatment guidelines published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, there’s limited clinical evidence that salicylic acid is effective for treating acne. “Many dermatologists find that it just dries out the skin without giving much of a benefit,” Dr. Khetarpal says.
- Ice or heat. If a pimple is red and swollen, ice can help temporarily quell the inflammation, but the effect will wear off quickly, she says. Similarly, holding a warm wash cloth to the area may temporarily sooth irritated skin, but it won’t do anything for the pimple itself. “Those are just going to temporarily alleviate the discomfort, but the medication is going to be more effective for actually getting rid of the pimple,” she says.
So, while there are several things in your medicine cabinet that could work in a pinch, it might be worth investing in a benzoyl peroxide-containing product to have on hand for skin care emergencies.