I used to think spot treatments for acne were complete hogwash. After trying practically every drugstore formula that claimed to zap, clear, bust, or essentially exterminate my acne with little to no avail, I threw my hands in the air and gave up. Clearly, I thought to myself at the time, spot treatments are a complete gimmick, a genre of skin products imparting false hope and existential doom to me and my breakout-prone skin. (Because, yes, many times when I would try a new treatment, my spotted little friends would actually get worse.)
Now, however, I know better. Certain spot treatments for acne are better suited for certain types of pimples and breakouts, for instance, and knowing which formulas and ingredients are the most effective for your goals and concerns is paramount (along with knowing when and how to apply them). I've gleaned a lot of information on the subject since becoming a beauty editor—and now have a very effective arsenal of acne spot treatments, thank you very much—but I wanted to reach out to some of the best experts in the skin industry to shed some light on the subject. Keep scrolling to find out everything you ever wanted to know about spot treatments for acne along with our top product recommendations.
Are spot treatments an effective way to help treat acne?
Despite what some naysayers might want you to think, spot treatments are, indeed, an effective (and speedy!) way to treat stubborn spots. But there are a few caveats, and before putting all of your stock in your shopping cart of products, you'll want to make sure certain lifestyles habits are in check.
"The best way to treat acne is to prevent it from occurring in the first place," says Anthony Rossi, MD, FAAD, FACMS. "A great skin regime, diet, exercise, and hydration are all so important for skin health, including acne. That said, when a breakout does occur, acne spot treatments are an effective treatment for one or two pimples." If your breakouts are more volatile or more frequent, however, Rossi says you'll want to see a board-certified dermatologist who can help assess the situation.
Is there a right way to use an acne spot treatment?
Yes, yes there is, and sorry to burst your bubble, but according to celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau, you are probably using your acne spot treatments incorrectly. What's more, you could even be making them worse.
"Spot treatments for acne can be very effective. However, in my experience, the way many people use their spot treatments is actually making a blemish stick around longer," Rouleau warns. "This leads to a prolonged recovery time with increased risk for scarring. For a spot treatment to work, there is a proper way to apply the treatment."
When a blemish first appears, she says you'll want to apply a soothing, anti-inflammatory spot treatment right away. If and only when a whitehead comes to the very surface of the skin, you can gently squeeze it out. Then, once the whitehead is removed, you can apply a powerful spot treatment to help dry out any remaining infection in the pore. After the area is healed and cleared of any scabbing, you might notice some lingering scarring or discoloration. Proceed by using a fading gel.
Are certain types of acne spot treatments better than others?
Take a jaunt through your local drugstore or Sephora aisle, and you'll likely see acne spot treatments of all shapes and sizes, and the sheer wealth of options can definitely be overwhelming. "Spot treatments can come in the form of creams, gels, pastes, and even spot patches," notes Rossi. "They all can work, mainly via a mechanism of drying out an inflamed lesion."
Rouleau agrees, saying that while some spot treatments are created with a specific type of blemish in mind, there are a variety of treatments for all types of blemishes from cystic blemishes to pustular blemishes and more. "For example, if you have surface, pustular blemishes, the goal would be to dry out the infection for a quick recovery. The spot treatment would most likely be formulated with a drying agent and an antibacterial/antiseptic."
What are the most effective ingredients found in the best spot treatments for acne?
Camphor: drying agent
Zinc Oxide: antiseptic/anti-bacterial
Lactic Acid: ethyl lactate (the purified form of lactic acid ester), which purifies within the pore to clear and calm visible cysts and bumps
Green Tea Extract + White Tea Extract: anti-inflammatory tea extracts that soothe signs of redness and irritation
Glycolic/Amino Acid Complex: exfoliating AHA with minimum discomfort
Salicylic Acid Complex: betaine salicylate, an exfoliating BHA that helps reduce oil/bacteria deep within the pores
Beta Glucan: supports the skin's visible self-repair process
Tea Tree Oil (4-Terpineol): reduces bacteria in a gentle, non-irritating way
Licorice: dipotassium glycyrrhizate, which soothes and calms visible signs of redness, puffiness, and irritation
Benzoyl Peroxide: antibacterial and can help dry out an oozing pimple (tread carefully, can be more irritating, and cause excessive drying)
Is there anyone who shouldn't use spot treatments for acne?
"Anyone can benefit from using a spot treatment," says Rouleau. However, as Rossi points out, if you're someone who has sensitive skin, many of the most effective ingredients found in acne spot treatments might irritate your complexion. Only use the recommended amount, and abide by the product's instructions, only leaving the formula on for as long as it's recommended on the packaging.
"The easiest and most efficient way to use an acne spot treatment is at night as the last step of a skincare routine," Rouleau explains. "However, a spot treatment can also be used during the day if the product goes on clear and isn't visible or if it's recommended for daytime use. If that's the case, perform your usual daily skincare routine. (Be sure to apply sunscreen!) Gently wipe the blemish to remove the skincare products applied, and then apply the acne spot treatment, and let it dry. Be sure to pat in your sunscreen once complete."
Do acne patches treat breakouts in the same way as acne spot treatments?
"Patches and stickers are convenient, compact, and mess-free," Rossi tells us. "And, for the most part, they keep the affected area covered so you can't touch it or irritate the pimple further." However, as Rouleau points out, pimple patches won't prevent acne and are really only an effective alternative if you're dealing with pimples on an individual basis. (As someone who once tried to apply five patches side by side on a lot of real estate of acne, I can confirm she is correct.)
"If you’re breaking out consistently, you really want to make sure you have a good routine for acne-prone skin," she stipulates. "I think acne patches work best on surface-level inflammatory acne that comes to a head. In this case, the main benefit you’re getting from a patch is the hydrocolloid technology, which helps gently draw out the infection while keeping the surrounding skin healthy and moist."
The 15 Best Spot Treatments for Acne
Best for Nighttime: Renée Rouleau Night Time Spot Treatment
Best for Normal to Oily Skin Types: Malin+Goetz Acne Treatment Nighttime
Best for Cystic Breakouts: Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution
"This spot treatment is great for treating cystic blemishes—aka those hard, sore, 'underground' blemishes that rarely surface and can linger for weeks. It utilizes key ingredients like lactic acid (ethyl lactate), methyl gluceth 20, and citric acid." —Rouleau
Best Natural: Naturopathica Chlorophyll Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment
Best for Under Makeup: Renée Rouleau Daytime Blemish Gel
"For use under makeup to prevent dirt and debris from getting into blemish openings and impeding the recovery process. It creates an invisible seal to keep debris out while using advanced acne-fighting ingredients like a salicylic acid complex, beta-glucan, tea tree oil, and licorice to heal inflammation." — Rouleau
Best for Whiteheads & Blackheads: Versed Game Over Acne Drying Treatment
I've tried lots of acne spot treatments in my time as a beauty editor, and the first time I tried this, I believe "miraculous" was the word I sputtered. I've never tried a formula that was able to smooth out my stubborn whiteheads and significantly reduce blackheads, too. Plus, it won't leave your skin dry and crusty. Big fan. The secret is the mixture of sulfur plus bentonite and kaolin clays.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Beautycounter SOS Acne Spot Treatment
Anyone with sensitive, finicky skin knows drying or hyper-strong spot treatments can wreak all sorts of havoc like flaking, redness, and painful irritation. This lightweight acne spot treatment from Beautycounter was created for distressed skin, looks invisible upon application, and deeply penetrates the pores to reduce blemishes without overdrying or plaguing your complexion with harsh irritants.
Best Amazon Gem: Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch
I love acne patches for a variety of reasons. A) They keep my pick-hungry fingers at bay and stave off unwanted bacteria intruders, and B) they give your breakout bubble a place to heal quickly and efficiently. Rouleau is actually the person who taught me how to *safely* pop a pimple once it's come to a head, and slapping one of these on afterward basically ensures fast and healthy healing sans scars. They're always in my Amazon cart.
Best Surface-Pimple Patch: ZitSticka Goo Getter
This is another stellar pick from the patch genre of acne spot treatments. ZitSticka is basically the Maserati of any and all acne-care products, and these goo-slurping patches (sorry for that visual) are next-level effective. Not only do they boast that same healing hydrocolloid action, but they're strategically laced with niacinamide, salicylic acid, vitamin C, and tea tree oil to shrink breakouts and speed up healing. They're like an extraction tool in sticker form.
Best Spot Treatment/Mask Hybrid: Control Corrective Sulfur Calming Mask
Of all of the acne spot treatments and masks I've tried, this brilliant and wonderfully calming hybrid offers the best of all worlds. It was recommended to me by celebrity facialist Shani Darden when I was dealing with a random bout of acne and perioral dermatitis, and after applying a thin layer to the affected area nightly for about a week, my breakout was completely gone. My only complaint is that it's pretty drying, but that's not anything a high-quality moisturizer can't handle.
Best for On-the-Go: Glossier Zit Stick
This zit-zapping pen is more than just a cute face in convenient packaging. The easy-to-apply formula features an acne-clearing trifecta of 5% benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, and salicylic acid. It dries quickly, and according to the brand, you can reapply it up to three times a day for faster results.
Best for Fading: Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Mark Fading Gel With Salicylic Acid
Kate Somerville makes some of the best (and most iconic) acne- and spot-clearing products on the market, and this new launch is no exception. It's expertly formulated to not only prevent breakouts from occurring in the first place but also diminish post-acne marks in just three days (while keeping the integrity of your skin barrier healthy and intact to boot).
Best Cult Classic: Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
I dare you to name a more iconic acne spot treatment. Mario Badescu's cult-loved formula is the original, on-the-spot solution that targets surface-level blemishes, drawing out impurities while you log your beauty sleep. There's no need to shake the bottle (in fact, absolutely do not shake the bottle) and simply dip your Q-tip into the pink sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Dab it lightly on the surface of your blemish, let it dry, and then let it work its magic before rinsing off the following morning.
Best Medicated Concealer: End-Zit Acne Control Drying Lotion
I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but this was another wonderful acne spot treatment discovery foisted on me by a celebrity facialist. It's unique in that it blends into your skin like a concealer (there are a variety of shades) so you can surreptitiously apply it and wear it around during the day. You get a nice dose of coverage while simultaneously nixing blackheads, whiteheads, blemishes, and lingering acne scars fast. That said, the sulfur smell is a bit potent, so bear that in mind before you apply and head out of the door.
Best for Clearing and Preventing: Kinship Pimple Potion Retinal + Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment
So many beauty editors I know absolutely swear by this aptly named pimple potion from Kinship. It's lightweight, sits comfortably on top of your skin, and features a unique, down-to-business ingredient profile of retinal (a potent derivative of retinol), salicylic acid, bakuchiol, and Kinbiome—aka the brand's plant-based complex of probiotics that promotes a healthier, acne-proof skin barrier.