While it may seem like some pimples pop up overnight, truth be told, they don’t. Blemishes take one to four weeks to surface, and a consistent skin-care routine is key to keeping them at bay. But even if you are diligent about what you use on your skin, there’s no way to prevent every single acne breakout. That’s because pimples form when there’s a mix of dead skin cells, an overproduction of sebum, and acne-causing bacteria trapped deep within the pores. Add stress, hormones, weather changes, an inflammatory diet, and new products to the mix, and the onset of larger-than-life zits can arise.
Whether heavy-duty acids or at-home zit-zapping devices, we’ve all got our go-to methods for keeping those breakouts at bay. But as much as we know about caring for our own complexions, dermatologists always seem to have another trick up there sleeves. To help you up your acne-fighting arsenal, we asked five dermatologists to share their best-kept skin-clearing secrets. The best part? Each and every one of them gets the job done fast.
1. Swap your hair-care products
“Most people don’t realize that everyday haircare products like shampoo and conditioner can cause skin issues, including acne and breakouts,” says Iris Rubin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of SEEN Skin & Hair Care. “This is because these products come into contact with the skin as they are rinsed off and trickle down the scalp, face, and body in the shower. But here’s the catch: when you wash off these products, they can deposit residue on the skin that lasts for hours. That residue transfers from the hair to a towel or a pillowcase and then to the skin. To make matters worse, if your shampoo or conditioner contains pore-clogging ingredients, such as coconut oil, certain waxes and even polymers, you could be rolling around in them on your pillowcase all night. That’s why washing your pillowcase and towels at least once a week is important.”
“People with acne-prone skin need to look closely at their skincare and haircare to make sure it is non-comedogenic (won’t cause breakouts). Sometimes, swapping your regular shampoo or conditioner for one that’s non-comedogenic and safe for acne-prone skin, like SEEN, is all it takes to help clear up breakouts quickly.”
2. Layer salicylic acid under a pimple patch
“What’s even better than leaving a pimple alone is dabbing on a spot treatment with maximum-strength acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid,” says Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), board-certified dermatologist and founder of SLMD Skincare. “Let it dry, and then seal in the salicylic acid with a pimple patch containing salicylic acid. Leave that on for a few hours, and then repeat it. I like this hack because it doubles up on salicylic acid, which has pore-clearing and anti-inflammatory properties.”
3. Book a pro-grade chemical peel
“When a red, angry pimple rears its head, there are a few go-to’s that I rely on simply because they work fast. A topical steroid lightly layered on the skin will help, as will a professional chemical peel, which most people associate with skin maintenance,” says board-certified dermatologist Papri Sakar, MD. “Salicylic or glycolic acid peels can help shrink the size of a super inflamed cyst, but there are also a lot of combo peels that use a small amount of several different ingredients, too. Salicylic acid is the easiest to use because the skin doesn’t necessarily have to ‘peel’ for it to work. The treatment is pretty fast—it takes 20 to 30 minutes in the office—and I typically treat the entire face as opposed to an isolated breakout…If you’re in a pinch and need a quick fix, a peel generally works well.”
4. Try topical steroids
“A pimple can appear as a small asymptomatic red bump, a small pustule with a whitehead at its center, or a deep, painful cystic acne pimple,” says board-certified dermatologist Kseniya Kobets, MD. “If you have topical steroids at home, like over-the-counter hydrocortisone, it’s worth using as a spot treatment for a few days to up to one week, especially if you develop irritation or sensitivity from benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to calm active pimples. However, a word of caution when using topical steroids: applying them all over the face or long term is not a good idea since it can lead to skin thinning, dilated blood vessels, stretch marks, and even worsening acne.”
5. Use a few drops of Visine
“Many people ask me what to do if they get a pimple when they travel because so many of us break out when we are away from home due to increased stress and dirt and impurities that get on the skin. I advise people to travel with Visine,” says Nazanin Saedi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Plymouth Meeting Dermatology. “The over-the-counter eyedrops contain tetrahydrozoline hydrochloride, a vasoconstrictor that constricts superficial blood vessels to reduce redness temporarily. However, you only want to use Visine on a pimple for a maximum of a day or two because it can cause rebound redness.”