When I started getting acne in the fifth grade (lucky me) I remember being told, “Don’t worry, it’ll go away once you’re out of your teens.” Guess what–it didn’t. I have not been blessed with a cooperative complexion and it’s taken me a long time, and buckets of products, to figure out what regimen my skin needs to be happy and healthy. But no system is perfect and there are always times when my skin falls back into its old habits and I need to get out my acne spot treatments. Acne can be an embarrassing thing, and it shouldn’t be because every single one of us has dealt with it at some point in our lives. But we’re living in a time when there are countless creams and gels and serums that can treat these blemishes so we might as well take advantage.
Let’s go over what causes acne, how spot treatments work, and what treatments work and don’t work.
Our skin is covered in thousands of tiny openings for sweat glands and for hairs to grow out of. With all these microscopic divots, it’s inevitable that some of these are going to end up accidentally plugged up. That’s acne. It’s all your hair follicles’ fault, too. Your sweat glands are off the hook for your break outs. Hair follicles produce sebum, which is a natural oil that keeps your skin from drying out. Sometimes your body makes too much sebum and it gets stuck in your pores. Dead skin that should have flaked off but didn’t can also block up your pores. Once that happens, you’ve got perfect conditions for bacteria to collect and grow. How that manifests depends on the person, but this combination leads to comedomes (blackheads and whiteheads,) pimples, pustules, and cysts.
Lots of factors contribute to acne. Hormones are a major player and can mess with the skin of all genders. Androgens, the hormones responsible for traditionally male traits, are the main culprits because they increase sebum production. PMS breakouts are largely caused by a spike of androgens. Stress, genetics, and certain medications can also cause or make acne worse. Contrary to myth, there is no real research that proves eating greasy foods causes acne, so if you’re feeling lousy, eat that pizza. No one can stop you.
What can we do about it?
Lots, which is pretty great. There are tons of treatments out there for both prevenative measures and spot treatments for when the preventatives don’t quite cut it. Preventative measures include moisturizers to reduce sebum production, cleansers to remove oil and bacteria, and chemical peels to remove dead skin and reduce acne scars. Peels are not as scary as they sound and most often are derived from foods we eat every day. Check out a friend’s guide to the best home facial peels. And because we know acne isn’t just a face problem, see my guide to the best body peels.
Okay, but what if you have zits now and you need them to go away. Home remedies like garlic, toothpaste, and window cleaner, don’t work and are likely to make the situation worse. Here are the ingredients you want to look for that are proven to zap zits when it counts.
Benzoyl peroxide. This is probably the most effective treatment we’ve got. It kills acne-causing bacteria and helps clear the excess oil out of your pores while reducing inflammation. But too much of a good thing and it can dry your skin out. You always want to start slow and see how your skin responds. It will also bleach your fabrics so keep it off the towels and pillowcases you like.
Salicylic acid. This is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow and birch trees. You can find more information about how awesome BHAs and AHAs are in my body peels post. Salicylic acid is absorbed deep into your pores and clears out oils and built up dead skin, while creating an inhospitable environment for future zits. It can cause stinging to those with sensitive skin.
Alpha hydroxy acids. These are food-derived acids that can’t soak deep into your pores and work on the surface of your skin. They clear away dead skin and are the main ingredients of most peels. Examples are lactic acid from milk, citric acid from citrus fruits, and malic acid from apples.
Sulfur. Sounds weird but it works. Sulfur kills bacteria and cleans out oil and dead skin. It can be drying and isn’t usually used alone. Just be aware that it isn’t always easy to hide the sulfur smell (think boiled eggs) but some products do better than others.
Tea tree. Tea tree oil is one of the natural spot treatments that dries up pimples and kills bacteria. It is gentler on skin than some of the others, but not as effective.
General tips for getting the most out of your spot treatments.
Less is more. I know you want that zit gone now but dabbing at it with a spot treatment every few hours will only dry out your skin and make it feel and look worse. Stick to the instructions and start slow.
Don’t double up spot treatments with harsh cleansers and retinol. You’re more likely to irritate and dry your skin. It can also make you extra sun-sensitive and end up with a nasty sunburn.
For deep nodule acne, spot treatments probably aren’t going to be much help. Spot treatments are great for acne at the surface of the skin, but for nodules, you’re best off seeing a dermatologist or trying a chemical peel.
And lastly, seriously, don’t touch it. I know, I know. You want to. It’s right there and, in your mind, flashing like a big red sign to everyone you pass. It’s not. I know it seems impossible, but try to leave it alone. Let the spot treatment do its thing.
Everyone is going to have a treatment that works better with their body chemistry than others. Here are the best acne spot treatment on the market right now.
1. Spot Correction Acne Eliminating Treatment by HydroPeptide
This spot treatment uses a combination of sulfur, tea tree, and the alpha hydroxy acid lactic acid to fight acne on all fronts. It reduces redness, removes oil and bacteria with sulfur, prevents acne with tea tree, and removes dead skin with lactic acid. You can use the Spot Correction Acne Eliminating Treatment up to three times a day, but because the sulfur can be drying, start with just one application a day and move up from there if you even need to. It also contains peptides from sake and botanicals like radish root and rosebay willowherb to soothe and clarify skin. The high concentration of peptides and antioxidants have anti-aging properties as well so it works on fine lines at the same time. This spot treatment is free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, gluten, and PEG’s.
- Triple action with sulfur, tea tree, and lactic acid
- Soothing botanicals
- Paraben, phthalate, and gluten free
- It can be drying if you use too much
2. Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion
This is powerful stuff for people who need results now. The Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion is so drying that it has to be kept under a liquid. What else do I need to say? It works great for shrinking and reducing the redness of cystic acne which is always stubborn and inflamed. It contains sulfur, salicylic acid, camphor, and calamine. Camphor is used in a lot of backache lotions because it has a cooling, pain relieving sensation and reduces redness. Calamine, which is the reason the lotion is that baby pink, is a soothing and drying product. I grew up using calamine on bug bites because it soothed the pain and stopped the itching. Healing is itchy work and when you’re healing your acne, scratching it can make things worse.
When you get your bottle of Drying Lotion, you’ll see it’s separated with clear liquid on top and thicker pink cream on the bottom. You will want to shake it. Don’t! The pink is the drying lotion that you want. The rest is rubbing alcohol that keeps the lotion from being exposed to air. To apply, you gently dip a cotton swab straight down into the pink lotion and then back up. That one dip should be all you need for your treatment, so it’s a small bottle but it goes a very long way. This is an overnight product that you don’t want to use during the day because you’ll have pink spots all over your face. The lotion will dry and shouldn’t rub off on your pillow. Wash it off in the morning and repeat as needed. It’s not a miracle overnight product, because that doesn’t exist, but Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion is close. Your skin won’t be totally clear overnight, but you will see a difference.
- Results overnight
- Effective against cystic acne
- Quadruple action with sulfur, salicylic acid, camphor, and calamine
- Long lasting bottle
- You will have visible pink dots
- Some people prefer to avoid camphor
3. Act! Acne & Blemish Treatment Gel by Bauana Naturals
If you’re looking for more natural alternative, ACT! is a great option. ACT! uses a mild concentration of salicylic acid, witch hazel, arginine, and aloe vera. The salicylic acid sinks deep into pores to fight bacteria, reduce oils, and remove dead skin. Witch hazel reduces inflammation, speeds up healing, kills bacteria, and reduces the size of pores. Arginine also speeds up healing time and aloe soothes the inflammation. Apply twice a day and no need to wash this one off because it dries clear. ACT! contains a bunch of other botanticals to nourish your skin including gotu kola, dandelion, and geranium extracts.
Price: $49 (30 percent off MSRP)
- Natural and organic ingrediants
- Great for people whose skin is irritated by common acne treatments
- Made in America
- Not strong enough for severe acne
4. BPT 3.1 by Create Cosmetics
I like the BPT3.1 by Create Cosmetics because you have a choice of strengths. BPT3.1 uses the big hitter ingredient of benzoyl peroxide as its main treatment and you can choose a 3 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide for a gentle treatment or a 10 percent concentration if you’re not messing around. On top of that, this spot treatment also contains tea tree and witch hazel for a multi-faceted approach. It’s very effective for all sorts of acne, but it is drying on your skin. Create Cosmetics addressed that by including jojoba oil, shea butter, and macadamia seed oil to moisturize and reduce the production of sebum. For most of us that’s a great way to offset the drying effect of benzoyl peroxide, but if you’re someone who has skin that needs to avoid oils at all costs, you should keep that in mind with this product.
- Choice of 3 percent or 10 percent benzoyl peroxide
- Also contains witch hazel and tea tree
- Includes moisturizing oils
- It is drying
- May cause oil-sensitive skin to break out
5. TreeActiv’s Invisible Acne Spot Treatment
For another natural teatment, the Invisible Acne Spot Treatment by TreeActiv is a vegan, non-GMO, and cruelty-free option. It comes in an easy to carry little jar so you can apply anywhere. The treatment goes on clear and can be worn under makeup. This is a good option for extremely sensitive skin because unlike some of the stronger treatments on the list, this product’s directions say it can be applied “as often as desired.” Its main active ingredient is tea tree and uses both tea tree oil and tea tree water. It contains an alpha hydroxy acid in the form of citric acid which is great for helping break down built up dead skin.
The treatment is full of essential oils including peppermint, clove, eucalyptus, lemon, orange, grapefruit, and tamanu essential oil. These are meant to fight acne and soothe inflamed skin. This isn’t going to be strong enough for many people. TreeActiv does make a stronger formula called Cystic Acne Spot Treatment, which adds witch hazel, aloe, and bentonite clay into the mix. It’s a great pick if others are irritating, but many of us need to use the strong stuff.
- All natural, vegan, cruelty-free, and handmade in America
- Goes on clear
- Can use it as often as you want
- Choice of regular or cystic acne formula
- Not going to be strong enough for some
6. Acne Tinted Spot Treatment by Glytone
At 8 percent sulfur, the Acne Tinted Spot Treatment is a much stronger product than some of the more “natural” treatments we’ve looked at. I use quotes because sulfur is absolutely found in nature, but you know what I mean. The sulfur really works to bring swelling and inflammation down as well as create a landscape that no bacteria want to settle down in. It has a bit of a sulfur smell, but it doesn’t stick around and it’s worth it. This spot treatment also contains 2 percent resorcinol which is an antiseptic and works to exfoliate built up dead skin cells and prevent pores from becoming clogged. The directions say you can use it two to three times a day as needed, but it is a very drying product so you probably want to start with once a day or every other day and work up as your skin can tolerate it.
Here’s my big problem with the Acne Tinted Spot Treatment: if you have light skin this treatment blends in like foundation, but not everyone is tinted like that. The cream has a very light tan color that only blends into very light skin. Those with more tan skin and people of color are only going to be able to use this either under foundation or only at night because it won’t blend in. So I dock this treatment points for not making it clear what skin tone it is made for and for not offering a line of several different tint colors.
- Rated 4.8 out of five stars by users on Amazon
- Very effective at reducing swelling
- Blends into lighter skin tones to cover redness
- Not great for darker skin tones
- Has a sulfur smell
- Can be drying if overused
7. Emergency Blemish Relief by Proactiv+
You can’t talk about acne treatments without mentioning Proactiv+. They’ve been the big name in intensive acne treatment and prevention for years and for good reason. Their formula works for a wide range of people, and the Emergency Blemish Relief treatment is no different. It’s a 5 percent benzoyl peroxide concentration with dry up pimples fast though it does have a tendency to dry out skin. It’s non-comedogenic so it doesn’t have the type of oils that can cause blemishes later. The rest of the ingredients are honestly a bit of a mystery. I can’t pronounce them and don’t recognize a few at all. Whatever they are, they’re magic. So if you’re down with that and just need something to work, the Emergency Blemish Relief may be for you. This spot treatment works both alone and as part of the full Proactive+ line.
- Effective against even large, swollen acne
- Trusted brand
- Works fast
- Unpronounceable ingredients
- Comes in very small tubes
8. Acne Spot Treatment by Beauty Facial Extreme
This spot treatment uses benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid to treat and prevent acne. Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid made from sugar cane and is the favored ingredient of most face and body peels. This gentle acid breaks down built up dead skin so you can uncover all the healthy, new skin underneath. Glycolic acid peels can even help reduce the visibiliy of old acne scarring. Chemical exfoliation keeps pores from being clogged in the future and breaks down the current clogs that are ruining your day. If you want more info on glycolic acid, check out my article on body peels.
The 5 percent benzoyl peroxide dries up problem areas and kills bacteria. Beauty Facial Extreme’s Acne Spot Treatment also contains lots of great botanicals like soothing calendula, calming lavender, and arnica which I use on my shoulders for muscle pain but is also great for acne scars. As a spot treatment this can be drying so start slow and reduce your applications if your skin starts getting too dry. It’s all about finding the right balance.
- Benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid combination
- Soothing botanicals
- Great for hormonal breakouts
- Can be drying
- Cream might be a little thin for some
9. Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel
This is a cooling gel product that is clear enough to be worn during the day, but it does dry a little thick so you might want to stick to this being a nighttime treatment. It’s main active ingredient is 1 percent salicylic acid which absorbs deep into your skin to clean out clogged pores, reduce oil production, and kill bacteria. It’s a low concentration, but it can still be drying to some people so start slow. This can be used as a spot treatment or as a full face treatment for severe acne, but always do a spot check first before covering your face.
It does contains denatured alcohol which can be very drying to people sensitive to it. For botanicals the Clinical Clearing Gel includes witch hazel, algae, and sea whip extract which reduce inflammation, regulates oil production, and speeds up healing times. The gel it self is easy to apply, but doesn’t have a great smell to it and has a tingling feeling when you put it on. I like that the tingling shows it’s working its magic but that could be unpleasant for some people. While nothing will fix problem areas overnight, you will be able to see a difference.
Price: $26 (32 percent off MSRP)
- Salicylic acid treatment
- Clear gel is easy to work with
- Fast acting
- Healing botanicals
- Tingling or stinging sensation is common
- Not for people sensitive to smells
- Not strong enough for severe acne
10. Ain’t Misbehaving Acne Mask and Emergency Spot Treatment by DERMAdoctor
To combat zits, kill bacteria, and reduce redness and oil, this treatment uses a 10 percent sulfur concentration along with both alpha hydroxy acids (like citric acid) and beta hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) to work as a gentle chemical peel which lifts clogging, dead skin and helps reducing scaring. It’s a thick white cream so it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to keep in your bag and dab on throughout the day. You can use it as a spot treatment which you leave on for 15 minutes and then rinse off. If your skin isn’t prone to drying, it can be worn overnight when you really need this pimple to go away. The cream can also be used as a preventive mask which you leave on for 15 and then rinse.
The Emergency Spot Treatment contains kaolin and bentonite clay which are both soothing and absorbent as well as useful to lighten acne scarring. Chamomile, witch hazel, oat, and Japanese white tea round out the botanicals with extracts that calm sensitive skin and balance sebum production. It is 10 percent sulfur so expect it have a smell. They did add a fragrance to cover it, but there’s only so much you can do with sulfur. It’s well worth it since the Acne Mask and Emergency Spot Treatment works on even angry, cystic acne.
- Sulfur, salicylic acid, and other chemical exfoliants
- Works on even cystic acne
- Nourishing botanicals
- Can be used as a spot treatment or mask
- Can be drying if overused
- Sulfur smell