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Acne Spot Treatments according to Dermatologists

Acne spot treatments

We've all been there - you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and BOOM. A huge, inflamed, angry-looking pimple splats in the middle of your forehead that seems to scream, "Look at me!" to everyone who crosses your path. When breakouts push their way to the skin's surface, many of us panic.

Forget about letting it run its natural course; now we need this thing gone! You immediately break out the heavy artillery and fight back with the strongest spot treatment you can find… only to end up with a dry, scaly, irritated mess that's impossible to clever up. Now what??

It's important to fully understand acne spot treatment before you start slathering them onto every blemish and zit you see. When you correctly use the correct spot treatments, they can be handy products that deliver quick, effective results.

What is acne spot treatment?

Spot treatments are very concentrated, high-strength products that deliver active ingredients straight to the blemish. Unlike cleansers, toners, or serums, spot treatments are used to heal specific, individual pimples and are not used over the entire face. Some spot treatments are meant to be left overnight, while others dry clear and are used during the day. Even patches can be used as miniature "pimple bandaids" to speed up the healing process. Generally, spot treatments work best for surface-level papules and pustules. They don't work as efficiently on more severe blemishes like acne cysts or nodules. Beware to prevent future breakouts; effective anti-acne topical medications must be applied to the whole area, not just single pimples.

Benefits of acne spot treatment

Spot treatments deliver acne-fighting ingredients straight to the source. They help reduce redness, pain, and swelling of stubborn pimples and can loosen the blockage within the pore that caused the blemish in the first place! Spot treatment can also decrease the risk of infection by minimizing bacteria on the skin's surface.

How to choose the best acne spot treatment for you?

When choosing an effective spot treatment for you, finding products with the correct percentages and types of ingredients is essential. Many options have different percentages and key ingredients; these make a huge difference for oily skin vs. dry skin vs. sensitive skin vs. acne-prone skin. If you are unsure what ingredients your skin responds to best, ask your dermatologist which actives they recommend.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), concentrations available for topical over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide (BPO) treatments range from 2.5 - 10%, and salicylic acid is available in 0.5 - 2% concentrations. To avoid irritation, dermatologists advise that people start products with a lower 2.5% BPO or salicylic acid concentration before moving to higher concentrations.

What are the best spot treatment ingredients?

There are countless numbers of acne spot treatments on the market. From bargain, drugstore finds to over-the-top priced name-brand options. Whatever you choose, it doesn't matter if it contains proven active ingredients. The most effective acne spot treatments will include one of the following:

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is arguably the most effective over-the-counter acne treatment around. It reduces inflammation and kills acne-causing bacteria. Those with mild to moderate acne may find that with continuous use, benzoyl peroxide can make a noticeable improvement on the skin in just a couple of days! Though evidence shows it can dry when used in large quantities, limiting this spot treatment to 1 - 2x daily is best.

Benzoyl peroxide formulations are not all alike. When choosing a benzoyl peroxide product, avoid the one size fits all Sephora benzoyl peroxide gels and look for micronized benzoyl peroxide cream preparations. These new kinds of benzoyl peroxide are more effective and less irritating than the older BPO gel products and can be used by everybody, including people with sensitive skin.

Salicylic acid

Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid works wonders when it comes to drying up gunk stuck in your pores. This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) is naturally sourced from willow tree bark and can penetrate the skin to remove pore blockages. It breaks down follicle buildup and removes excess oil (sebum) from the skin's surface, ultimately cleaning out and drying up even the most stubborn pimples.

Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is also very effective as a whole-face anti-acne treatment. It can unclog the skin pores and help remove and prevent new blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid can also exfoliate the upper skin layer, remove dead skin cells, and improve the skin's texture and natural glow.


Retinoids are a group of substances that are derived from vitamin A. They work by reducing acne inflammation and preventing the formation of new blemishes. Retinols have proven effective against all acne types, though dryness can occur, so starting with a lower strength is recommended and increasing as needed. Another benefit of retinoids is they are great for reducing acne scarring and smoothing out the skin by increasing the speed at which your body replaces old skin cells. In turn, the regulated skin cell turnover also helps reduce some signs of aging.

Having said all that, retinoids are very useful for acne spot treatments. Over-the-counter (OTC) products like adapalene (differin) are usually too irritating and less effective than salicylic acid and benzoyl in drying or preventing acne.


Hydroquinone is a medical-grade ingredient that lightens skin areas such as post-acne dark spots, age spots, and acne scars. You can find OTC products containing this ingredient in concentrations of 2% or less and prescriptions with 4% or greater. Hydroquinone works by inhibiting a melanin-producing enzyme that can cause dark spots. Though this ingredient can help with hyperpigmentation and scarring, it will not affect active breakouts. In some cases, skin lightening can be seen in as little as two weeks - it's no wonder hydroquinone is known as "the gold standard" for dermatologists' treatment of dark spots and scarring! Check out MDacne's top-rated dark spot remover here!

Spot treatment types

Acne pimple patches

Acne patches are relatively new to the skincare game and can be a real lifesaver. Place these hydrocolloid adhesive dots on your pimple, and watch it fade away in just hours! These patches work like a little vacuum to suck out all the unwanted "stuff" from your plugged pore. To use an acne pimple patch most effectively:

  1. First, watch the skin with a gentle cleanser.
  2. Follow up with a balancing toner.
  3. Wait for the skin to dry thoroughly, and place the patch directly on the pimple.
  4. Remove the patch in 6 - 8 hours, and wash your face with a gentle cleanser.
  5. Tone, moisturize, and you're on your way!
  6. Acne patches also help increase the skin's recovery by preventing you from touching or picking at irritated blemishes.

Using your pink clay mask as a spot treatment

Applying a small amount of the MDacne pink clay mask as a spot treatment is an excellent spot treatment option. You can apply your MDacne night cream to the whole face and then a tiny amount of the pink clay mask to single pimples. You can leave it on the skin overnight and wash it off in the morning.

Zinc oxide Acne spot treatment

Creams and gels are the more traditional targeting methods to attack blemishes. After washing and toning your face, apply an over-the-counter pimple product of your choice. Once applied, please keep your hands away from the infected area to allow the treatment to work to its full ability. The oldest types of acne-drying lotions are based on zinc oxide. All you need to do is dab them on the pimples. Zinc oxide lotions can reduce redness and dry up single pimples but, unfortunately, will not help prevent new acne pimples.

Acne spot treatment mistakes

Spot treatments can be helpful in your pimple-fighting arsenal, but only if used correctly. To get the most out of your skincare routine, you should avoid these mistakes.

Using treatments that are not made for the skin

Put down the Windex, garlic paste, lemon juice, and toothpaste. These strange remedies won't work and could worsen things by causing unnecessary inflammation.

Using spot treatments as your primary and only acne treatment

Spot treatments should only be used on individual pimples that have already formed. While it might seem logical to use treatments as a precautionary measure, it won't help. To have clear skin, you must stop blemishes from appearing in the first place. You can do this by establishing a sustainable acne treatment routine.

Using treatments too often

Using any spot treatment too often can dry out the skin and cause serious irritation. It may be tempting to douse pimples in spot treatments at every opportunity, but treatments should be used a maximum of 2x daily.

How to prevent future breakouts?

The ultimate goal of people with acne should be to recent future pimples. To achieve this goal, one needs to use the right cleanser and daily moisturizer and apply the acne treatment cream on the whole area, not just single pimples.

Using the face wash with salicylic acid can remove oil and dirt from the skin and prevent clogging of the skin pores openings. An active oil-free moisturizer with niacinamide and oil-free sunscreen will also help prevent your next acne breakout. People with body acne will benefit from a cleanser with a higher concentration of salicylic acid and a body acne treatment cream with benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil.


Pimple Master Patch Duo
MDacne pink clay mask

More info:

The Best Pimples Patches For Acne Spot Treatment


Acne Vulgaris: Treatment Guidelines from the AAD
Flattening of atrophic acne scars by using tretinoin by iontophoresis
Hyperpigmentation Therapy: A Review

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