Short of seeing your dermatologist for a cortisone shot, there’s really only two things you can do when a pimple strikes: spot treat and wait.
Fortunately, there are two potent ingredients available over the counter that are effective for targeting breakouts: salicylic acid for non-inflammatory blackheads and whiteheads, and benzoyl peroxide for inflammatory acne.
But what happens when a pimple appears suddenly, and you're out of your favorite spot treatment? According to the Internet, there are a host of home remedies to try. But do DIY spot treatments really work? We’re myth busting 5 of the most “popular” targeted acne solutions.
4 minute read
Myth: Dab a bit of toothpaste on your pimple right before bed and you’ll wake up to clearer skin.
Fact: This advice has been circulating for decades, but the truth is, toothpaste can be excessively drying and irritating for skin. Depending on the formula, your toothpaste may contain ingredients like hydrogen peroxide and baking soda that counteract excess oil and can cause flaking, burning and peeling. Peppermint and spearmint oils can provide a tingling feeling that gives a false sense that the product is “working.”
Until recently, a variety of toothpaste brands also contained an antibacterial agent known as triclosan, which may have aided anti-acne effects when used on skin. Most brands have reformulated, however, after concerns surfaced about triclosan’s potentially damaging effects to the endocrine system. Instead, try benzoyl peroxide, which kills C. acnes bacteria without the risks of antibiotics (try SLMD BP Spot Treatment).
Myth: Rub the cut half of a clove of garlic on a pimple and leave the juice on overnight.
Fact: Garlic contains a compound called diallyl disulfide, which does kill bacteria. However, it’s also very capable of actually burning the skin. You can tell if you’re sensitive to this chemical if you’ve ever gotten a bit of garlic on your hand when cooking, and felt a stinging sensation.
Garlic burns can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, dark marks on the skin that linger long after your pimple has healed. If you’re allergic to garlic, this “treatment” can also give you a painful case of dermatitis. You’re better off using a pore penetrating beta hydroxy acid product like SLMD Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment, which can help minimize pigmentation while healing.
#3 Hemorrhoid cream
Myth: Smooth a little bit of hemorrhoid cream on top of a pimple to help it heal overnight.
Fact: This one’s grounded in truth, actually — though there are much better alternatives for spot treating. Depending on the brand and where you buy it, hemorrhoid cream may contain phenylephrine, which constricts superficial blood vessels and may reduce redness. Added hydrocortisone is an anti-inflammatory, which calms immune response and could shrink your pimple.
Neither of these ingredients, however, are recommended for long-term or regular use — so you’re better off using a dedicated acne remedy. SLMD Spot Check Acne Patches help shrink pimples while protecting them as they heal. Plus, hemorrhoid ointments and creams can contain occlusive ingredients that could make your breakouts worse over time.
#4 Lemon juice
Myth: Apply freshly-squeezed lemon juice to your pimple with a cotton swab, then wash off after a few minutes.
Truth: Lemon juice does contain compounds that benefit skin. Citric acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, which can exfoliate. Ascorbic acid is a powerful antioxidant, which can aid in healing and protect against hyperpigmentation. Plus, its low pH makes lemon juice quite acidic, which discourages the growth of bacteria like C. acnes.
It all sounds good so far, but there’s a catch: using strong acids can burn your skin. P.s.: That's not a sign it’s working. While it’s not particularly dangerous to dab a little fresh lemon juice on your skin (unless you’re allergic or sensitive), it’s imperative that you rinse it off. Otherwise, sun exposure can lead to a condition called phytophotodermatitis, a form of hyperpigmentation.
#5 Coconut oil
Myth: Smoothing coconut oil on pimples promotes healing.
Truth: It’s hard to come up with a natural skincare ingredient getting more attention lately than coconut oil. And with good reason: compounds it contains (including lauric acid) have been shown to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
But coconut oil is also comedogenic, meaning it’s known to clog pores — which is the opposite of what you want in an acne treatment. Slathering it on your face will moisturize your skin, but it can also promote more breakouts, especially if you’re already oily. You’re better off using a moisturizer that’s formulated for acne-prone skin (like SLMD Facial Moisturizer, or Dual Defender SPF 30).
Dr. Lee’s last word
I see a lot of different acne remedies on social media — some of them crazier than others. While most of them aren’t necessarily harmful, you’re much better off keeping both a benzoyl peroxide and a salicylic acid spot treatment in your medicine cabinet. That way you know you’re covered if an unexpected pimple pops up.
—Dr. Sandra Lee