If you’re looking for a strategy to make an acne flare-up calm down this second, we’ve got you. We talked to top dermatologists to find out exactly what to do when acne strikes and you’re in a major hurry to get rid of it. Read on for the Dos & Don’ts of calming inflammation and healing irritated skin stat.
1. Do ice the pimple.
When you’re dealing with a red, inflamed pimple, head to your freezer instead of trying to pop it. “Applying ice directly to the blemish will help to decrease inflammation, reducing the size and visibility of the spot,” says celebrity facialist Candace Marino. Wrap an ice cube in a thin cloth and set it on the offending spot for three to four minutes. Repeat throughout the day to relieve pain and temporarily reduce swelling. Marino also recommends dabbing on some hydrocortisone cream to help reduce redness and swelling.
2. Do apply a paste made of crushed aspirin.
Aspirin contains salicylic acid, which is a top-shelf acne fighter by all accounts. Applying a paste made of aspirin immediately removes excess oil and dead skin. In other words, it helps to unclog and dry out your angry pores, while simultaneously reducing swelling and redness. It’s one of the home remedies that dermatologists recommend, and it even helps reduce pain at the application site. To make the paste, crush an aspirin with a spoon and swirl it with a few drops of water. Then apply it directly to the pimple.
3. Don’t pick your face.
If you have adult acne, we know you’ve heard this one already. But according to Josh Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, picking tends to cause more harm than good. It can cause what Zeichner terms trauma to your skin, which in turn leads to “inflammation, infection, and potentially a scar.” Translation: Not only will it not get rid of spots fast, it will take them twice as long to disappear.
If your pimple comes to a head and you really can’t stop the urge to pop it, follow the pro-approved guidelines on how to pop your own pimples safely and hygienically. (An even easier fix: Slap on one of our favorite acne patches before going to bed and wake up with a dramatically diminished zit.)
4. Don’t overdry the affected area.
It’s not the chemical you use; it’s the amount you use, says Neal Schultz, M.D., an NYC derm. “People think if a little salicylic or glycolic acid is good, more is better,” he says. “It gets to the point that the active ingredient irritates the skin, making it scaly and flaky and red.” To prevent irritation, try a lower concentration of the active ingredient once you’ve already broken out. Zeichner recommends checking your label for a concentration of benzoyl peroxide around 2.5%. One that really works: Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment.
5. Do tone down on toner.
When you have a, shall we say, disturbance in the force, any astringents can “disrupt the skin barrier and cause inflammation and irritation,” says Zeichner. Unless you have very oily skin, skip the zit itself when you’re doing this step in your skin-care routine. (And in that case, a gentle toner like Avene’s Eau Thermale–or any of these best toners—is your safest bet.)
6. Do use makeup with salicylic acid.
Slathering makeup over a breakout seems like a necessary evil: You want to hide the offender in question, obviously, but it can feel as if you’re also suffocating it. However, certain formulas can actually address pimples while providing coverage. “Salicylic acid is a common acne ingredient that is useful in preventing or treating pimples and can be found in several makeup brands,” says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in New York City. Clinique Acne Solutions Liquid Makeup is a classic for a reason, though E.L.F. Cosmetics Acne-Fighting Foundation makes for a great budget pick. For touch-ups, try a concealer with it too, like It Cosmetics Bye Bye Breakout Full- Coverage Concealer.
7. Do change your pillowcase.
We hate to add to laundry to your to-do list, but keeping your pillows clean is a top beauty secret. Pillowcases can hang onto dirt, oil, and bacteria from our faces, hair, and environment, and can become a breeding ground for acne. Swap out your pillow covering at least once a week to reduce the risk of breakouts. (Treat your face masks the same way, and swap them out, or wash them, as much as possible to discourage maskne from forming. Ditto for washing your makeup brushes.)
8. Don’t wear makeup with pore-clogging ingredients.
For all the salicylic acid out there, there are certain ingredients to steer clear of. “People who suffer from acne should avoid makeup that contains mineral oil or lanolin,” Nazarian says. “These ingredients are comedogenic, meaning they have a high likelihood of clogging pores and triggering acne.” Check the labels to make sure your complexion products don’t contain either.
9. Do layer your beauty products properly.
No surprise if your instinct is to simply cover your pimple with as much concealer as you can get your hands on. But to zap a zit, it’s better if you follow a few steps first. “Starting with a clean face, apply a thin layer of oil-free moisturizer [we like Neutrogena Oil-Free Daily Moisturizer], and then a small amount of acne medication to your entire face,” says Nazarian. She’s a fan of gels with adapalene, since they regulate skin cells to prevent clogging of pores. Her favorite is ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1%, which she notes “can be applied very nicely under makeup.”
10. Don’t lose track of your trigger foods.
Is chocolate your enemy? Are late-night McDonald’s runs getting the better of your skin? These so-called trigger foods don’t affect everyone, but Schultz warns that you should keep tabs on whether certain foods tend to correspond with sudden onset breakouts. (For example, there’s been a recent connection between skim milk and acne.) The hard part, of course, is avoiding whatever it is that’s making your skin spaz.
11. Do resist the urge to squeeze.
“It’s never a good idea to squeeze a pimple,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care and assistant clinical professor at George Washington University Medical Center. What is okay? Drawing out a big pimple once the whitehead is poking through your skin. Tanzi recommends using a washcloth with hot—“but not scalding”—water to excavate the pus before applying your spot treatment.
12. Don’t believe every DIY hack you see.
While it’s tempting to mix up a cure-all witch’s brew of whatever drying agents you have in the house, Tanzi says she sees a lot of irritation from DIY skin-care products. Even toothpaste isn’t the remedy it was when we were teens. According to Zeichner, triclosan (the ingredient in toothpaste that has antimicrobial properties) is rarely used these days. But if you are in a pinch and need to DIY it, here are some tips that are actually legit—and derm- approved.
13. Don’t opt for a stronger cleanser.
Swapping your usual face wash for something harsher seems like an obvious fix. Not quite. Your cleanser needs to be gentle so topical products can penetrate your skin, says Schultz. It’s best to stick to your regular skin-care routine with a hydrating cleanser, like CeraVe Hydrating Face Cleanser, until the breakout disappears, then see a dermatologist if you think you’re in need of a full-time acne cleanser.
14. Do consider zinc supplements.
Not all supplements have scientific backing when it comes to acne treatment, but zinc shows promising results. “In a double-blind study comparing zinc to the prescription oral antibiotic Minocycline, both have comparable results by one month—although continued use of Minocycline was superior as the study progressed,” says dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skin care, Loretta Ciraldo, M.D. Zinc also has wider availability; you can buy it over the counter at your nearest drugstore or supermarket, and it doesn’t come with the dizziness and skin pigment changes that Ciraldo says can be (rare) side effects of Minocycline.
On the other hand, she’s skeptical of other touted supplements that claim to heal breakouts. “I haven’t found much evidence that fish oil will help acne,” she says.
15. Don’t limit acne treatment to just your skin-care products.
While you can primarily treat your pimples with things actually meant to go on your face, Ciraldo points out that prevention begins with paying attention to anything else that goes near it. “Sometimes acne is caused by or worsened with certain hair products you may be using,” she says. “Sulfate-based or heavily fragranced shampoos can promote acne.” To check if this applies to you, look at the distribution of your breakouts. If you notice that they tend to pop up on the sides of your face, swap out your shampoo and conditioner. Ciraldo likes Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo, which contains 3% salicylic acid.
“Also, if you find that you are holding your cell phone up to your face and your acne is concentrated on those areas, switch to using speaker or headphones,” she says. It’s a good reminder to also keep your pillowcases and face towels clean— and swap them out frequently.
16. Do think about long-term swaps for treatment and prevention.
“Acne has a genetic component to it, with children mimicking what their parents had, so we can’t control it completely,” says dermatologist Morgan Rabach, M.D., cofounder of LM Medical NYC. Essentially, you can’t rule out last-minute breakouts entirely, but you can adopt some changes in the long term that make it less likely you’ll be faced with a sudden pimple. “Continuous use of retinols is key,” she says. “Retinol causes skin cells to turn over at a faster rate, making dead cells on the outer layer shed. It also decreases the amount of sebum you produce, which in turn decreases clogged pores.”
If you’re new to the ingredient, start off with a low dosage and ease it into your routine slowly. (You can also try buffering—a trick to minimize retinol burn—to lessen the possible side effects.)
17. Don’t stress.
We know “stressing less” is much easier said than done, but it’s something to consider. “Our bodies and minds are directly linked, and stress or lack of sleep can often manifest itself in health conditions and exacerbate skin problems like acne,” says Smita Ramanadham M.D, a board-certified plastic surgeon. “Stress and lack of sleep induce the hormone cortisol, which triggers our skin to produce more sebum or oil.” This increase of oil then can clog pores and lead to more breakouts.
“It’s so important to set aside time during the day for self-care, even if it’s just for a few minutes,” says Ramanadham. “It can be working out, reading a book, meditation, whatever works for you to destress and unwind.”
18. Do seek out a derm.
If your pimple escalates from a few lone bumps to persistent cystic acne, then consider booking a derm appointment. Treatment options at that point include antibiotic creams and oral medications (like antibiotics, spironolactone, and the controversial isotretinoin). While there are plenty of topical and oral options available for even the most severe of breakouts, note that these will require a prescription and a conversation with your doctor.