Acne Spot Treatments

What Works, What Doesn't, and How To Use Them to Heal Your Pimples

Girl applying acne medication in mirror
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We've all had that particularly annoying pimple that we wish we could quickly zap away. In a way, you can… with an acne spot treatment.

What are spot treatments?

Spot treatments are over-the-counter acne products that help to heal those pesky pimples.  Unlike other types of acne treatments, they are meant to be used only on existing blemishes.

Some spot treatments are meant to be left on overnight; others dry clear so you can wear them out during the day.

You can even find tinted spot treatments that help camouflage breakouts. Whichever product you choose, make sure to read and follow the usage directions.

Spot treatments can help heal individual pimples, but won’t completely clear up acne.

Spot treatments are probably most helpful for people who only succumb to the occasional zit here and there (if that describes you, you’re so lucky).   

For those of us who battle with more frequent breakouts, spot treatments aren’t going to be as quite as beneficial.  Since spot treatments aren’t applied over the entire face, they won't clear up a case of acne.

For that, you'd need a different type of treatment.  If your acne is mild, an over-the-counter acne product might be enough.  But if your acne is more stubborn, inflamed, or severe, you need to get yourself a prescription medication, either topical or oral. These medications, like BenzaClin, Differin, or isotretinoin help stop breakouts before they start.

You can still use spot treatments to help heal individual pimples quicker, even along with your regular acne medications, so long as your dermatologist gives you the go ahead.

Get a spot treatment that contains effective ingredients.

There are so many spot treatments available, from bargain drugstore finds to expensively-chic skin care.

  It really doesn’t matter which brand you get, because the benefit is in the active ingredient.

Take a look at your spot treatment and look for these ingredients:

Benzoyl peroxide

It’s the most effective OTC acne treatment around.  It helps reduce inflammation and makes the pore an inhospitable place for acne-causing bacteria to hide.  It can be drying, though, so only use it once or twice daily, max. 

FYI – don't apply a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment over (or under) Retin-A (tretinoin). Tretinoin breaks down chemically when applied with benzoyl peroxide, so it won't be as effective.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid.  It helps clear out gunk that’s trapped in the pores.  It also can dry up pimples. 


Sulfur is another ingredient that dries out pimples and helps reduce inflammation.  Like benzoyl peroxide, sulfur can be drying to the skin.


I just had to throw this one in here, because it is one of my favorite “spot treatments.”  It works best on those monster zits under the skin, called nodules, rather than pustules.

  (The other spot treatments don’t work real well on nodules anyway.)  It won’t actually heal them faster, but icing down large pimples can help ease inflammation and makes them feel less sore.

Beware of these spot treatment dangers!

Don't use them too often.  We’re all guilty of this one, I think.  Because we want that pimple to go away super fast, we douse it with spot treatment at every opportunity.

But using any spot treatment product too often (and if you’re using it more than twice a day, you’re using it too often) will dry out the skin.  And the only thing worse than a pimple, is a dry, red, flaking pimple. 

Don’t use “spot treatments” that aren’t meant for the skin.  We’ve all heard of those oddball pimple cures – Windex, toothpaste, garlic.  If any of those weird treatments really worked all that well, we’d all be using them.  Truth is, these types of remedies don’t work, and they could really irritate your skin. 

Don’t use them if your skin is already dried out from your regular acne treatments.  If your daily acne treatments already leave your skin teetering on the verge of dryness, I’d skip the spot treatments altogether.  You could end up with majorly irritated skin.  Instead, just keep using your regular acne treatments to help get you over that breakout.

And if your regular acne treatments aren’t doing enough to keep you breakout-free, it’s time to up the ante.  Using OTC products?  Consider a prescription medication.  Already using a prescription treatment?  Let your dermatologist know you’re not happy with the results.  You may need to switch to a different medication.

The goal is to get your acne cleared to the point that you’re not having to worry about using a spot treatment at all. 

Next Steps:

Breakout 911: How To Heal Pimples FAST

How To Heal a Popped Pimple

I Have a Big Zit that Won't Go Away!


Decker A, Graber EM.  “Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review.”  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol.  2012 May; 5(5):32-40.

Titus S, Hodge J.  “Diagnosis and treatment of acne.”  Am Fam Physician.  2012 Oct 15; 86(8):734-40.

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