There’s nothing like waking up to a fresh breakout that makes you want to frantically Google how to get rid of pimples fast. Acne always seems poised to show up at the worst times: when you don’t have the time or patience to wait out its life cycle for a week and just need it gone immediately. Whether you decide to take matters into your own hands and start picking (a bad idea, which we’ll cover in further detail below) or troll Instagram for a cure-all spot treatment, it’s a natural response to try to speed up your pimple treatment. But, there’s definitely a right way to do so—and a lot of common mistakes that experts will tell you to avoid making.
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 and don’ts of calming inflammation and healing irritated skin on the double.
1. Do ice the zit.
If you’ve got a swollen pimple on your face that’s causing pain, reach for an ice cube. Wrap it 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.
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.
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” on your skin, which in turn leads to “inflammation, infection, and potentially a scar.” Translation: It’ll take that annoying spot 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 to doing it 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., a Manhattan 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 active ingredient once you’ve already broken out. Zeichner recommends checking your label for a concentration of benzoyl peroxide around 2.5 percent. 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 is your best 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 like 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. 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. 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.
8. 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 try 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.”
9. 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.
10. 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 OK? 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 easier 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.
14. Don’t just limit acne treatment to 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.