There’s nothing like a big angry zit to light a fire under your skin care regimen. Whether it’s chronic picking, trolling Instagram for a cure-all spot treatment, or frantically Googling “how to get rid of a pimple fast,” a breakout always feels like a call to do something. (And of course, the breakout always happens the day before a party where you know you’ll run into two exes and five frenemies.)
If you’re looking for a strategy to make an acne flareup 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 do’s and don’ts of calming the inflammation and healing the 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 sit 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 pore, 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 an aspirin paste, crush an aspirin with a spoon and swirl it with a few drop of water, creating a paste. Then, apply it directly to the pimple.
3. Don’t pick your face.
We know you’ve heard this, and we also know you’re dying to do it. But according to Josh Zeichner, M.D., director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mt. Sinai, picking tends to cause more harm than good. It can cause what Dr. 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. So hands off.
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. Dr. 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 ($17).
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 Dr. 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, $20, 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. But 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 ($29) is a classic for a reason, though ELF Cosmetics Acne-Fighting Foundation ($6) makes for a great budget pick. For touch-ups, try a concealer with it, too, like It Cosmetics Bye Bye Breakout Full-Coverage Concealer ($28).
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,” Dr. 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 take a few steps first. “Starting with a clean face, apply a thin layer of oil-free moisturizer [try Neutrogena Oil-Free Daily Moisturizer, $8, and then small amount of acne medication to your entire face,” says Dr. 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% ($36), 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 Dr. 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 spazz.
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 okay? Drawing out a big pimple once the whitehead is poking through your skin. Dr. Tanzi recommends using a washcloth with hot—“but not scalding”—water, to excavate the puss before applying your spot treatment.
11. Don’t believe every DIY hack you see.
While it’s tempting to mix up a cure-all witches’ brew of whatever drying agents you have in the house, Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. Schultz. It’s best to stick to your regular skin care routine with a hydrating cleanser, like CeraVe Hydrating Face Cleanser ($15), until the breakout disappears, then see a dermatologist if you think you’re in need of a full-time acne cleanser.
For more advice on treating acne, don’t miss:
–The Best Face Serums for Acne, According to Derms
–The Totally and Completely Unfair Reason You’re Still Breaking Out in Your 20s and 30s
–The Best Ways to Treat Every Single Type of Acne Imaginable
–This Genius Concealer Hack Will Keep Pimples Hidden All Day Long