Here's How to Get Rid of That Pesky Pimple, According to Top Derms

Experts reveal their favorite zit treatments and prevention methods.

woman popping pimple in bathroom mirror

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When I feel a pimple about to rear its ugly head, I whip out all the stops. Face masks that clear breakouts? Check. Zit-zapping spot treatment? You betcha. Viral TikTok hack? Sure, why not? And while some of these treatments have proven effective in stopping my pimple in its tracks, others have left me with blemishes so big that my face should have charged them for rent — so what gives?

With all of the acne-fighting remedies out there, how do we know what works and what doesn't? Rather than keep wishing that the pimple fairy will suddenly appear to us in the night and whisk our zit away (what, just me?), I turned to the pros.

Keep reading to learn what skincare experts had to say about how to get rid of pimples fast — and even how to keep them from forming in the first place.

What are pimples?

Sure, you may have been dealing with pimples since adolescence, but what are they, exactly? Simply put, a pimple is a small growth on the surface of your skin. "Pimples occur when hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells that then can get infected with skin bacteria," says Morgan Rabach, M.D., a board certified dermatologist at LM Medical NYC.

"Pimples come in three varieties: comedonal (whitehead/blackhead), inflammatory (little pus bumps under the skin), and deep cysts," adds Mona Gohara, M.D., an expert in medical and procedural dermatology. "They are all caused by a combination of hormones, increased oil production, irregular shedding of skin cells, and bacteria."

All of these conditions can lead to inflammation that may become buried in the subcutaneous layer of the skin. Most commonly, that occurs on the face, neck, chest, and back, Dr. Rabach tells InStyle. According to Dr. Gohara, "Those with more sebaceous or oily skin, and or those who have a family history of acne may be more likely to have inflammatory or cystic acne." Dr. Rabach agrees: "People with oily skin or overactive oil production are the most likely to get acne."

How to Prevent Pimples

In order to put a stop to breakouts, it's important to understand where they come from. While some causes of acne are out of our control — namely, genetics and hormones — contributing factors related to our lifestyle choices are totally adjustable.

Cleanse your face twice a day.

A healthy skin regimen involves washing your face both in the a.m. and p.m., comments Dr. Rabach. This will remove any buildup that could potentially clog your pores and lead to a subsequent breakout.

Dr. Gohara suggests washing your face with a mild, non-soap cleanser. We like Boscia Purifying Cleansing Gel ($32) because it doesn't contain sulfates, making it perfect for those with sensitive skin.

Steer clear of over-drying products.

"Avoid harsh toners or alcohol-based products that are marketed for acne that can dry out the skin, and in return cause more inflammation, redness, and irritation," advises Dr. Gohara. Dry skin triggers the production of sebum, which can lead to a breakout. So don't forget to moisturize either. "Moisturizing can help keep the skin healthy and acne-free," she adds. However, try not to use products that add oil to the skin if you have acne-prone skin," says Dr. Rabach. That includes mineral oil, coconut oil, lanolin, algae extract, and any other comedogenic ingredient.

Exfoliate — but don't overdo it.

Dr. Rabach recommends exfoliating weekly. Exfoliating will speed up the process of removing dead skin cells, comments Dr. Gohara. Try Philosophy Micro Delivery Exfoliating Wash ($29) for its effective, yet gentle formula. A chemical exfoliant like Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution ($50) also works wonders in unblocking seriously clogged pores.

Stop touching your face.

When your face comes in contact with dirt, oil, and bacteria — whether that be via your hands, your phone, or your pillowcase — your chances of a breakout increase. Since blemishes happen when bacteria get trapped in the pores, one easy way to prevent unnecessary chin breakouts is by avoiding resting our heads on our hands, says celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau. Also, wipe your phone down daily, and wash your pillowcase often.

Try a "clear skin" diet.

Visit a dermatologist and you'll find it's not uncommon for them to make dietary recommendations in addition to topical solutions for breakouts, especially when it comes to dairy, says California-based dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D.

"Diet affects adult acne when people eat a high glycemic diet, aka they eat a lot of sugar that is processed," says Debra Jaliman, M.D., an NYC-based dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "If you are experiencing breakouts occurring on your cheek and cheekbone area, it may be due to excessive acidic foods in your diet like tomatoes, pasta sauce, salsa, and citrus fruits/juices," adds Rouleau. To land that blemish-free complexion, Dr. Jaliman recommends opting for non-starchy fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and complex carbs instead. Oh, and maybe consider cutting out dairy too, notes Dr. Campbell. Rouleau agrees, adding: "The hypothesis is that since the majority of milk in the U.S. comes from pregnant cows (and some cows are given growth hormones), the hormone levels in milk may play a role in excess sebum production, which promotes acne."

Zen out.

Not only can stress lead to exhaustion and increase feelings of anxiety, but it may be playing a role in your breakouts, says Dr. Jaliman. "Stress causes your body to make hormones like cortisol, which prompts glands in your skin to make more oil," she explains. "Excess oil can lead to breakouts." That's why Dr. Jaliman recommends decreasing stress with meditation, exercise, and other lifestyle changes (like catching more zzzs) to not only make you feel more at ease but, perhaps, improve your skin.

Break a sweat in a ponytail.

Hot yoga devotee? Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston-based dermatologist, recommends sweeping your hair up and off of your face before working out. When you're done, make sure you immediately cleanse your face with a product that contains salicylic acid 1% in order to offset acne-causing bacteria.

Drink spearmint tea.

If you want to go the natural route to help neutralize acne-inducing hormones, try brewing spearmint tea, says California-based dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D. It acts as a plant-based anti-androgen, or "a compound that has the biological effect of blocking or suppressing" male sex hormones, like testosterone, that may lead to acne, according to a study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Dr. Campbell recommends consuming three cups of spearmint tea, iced or hot. But take note: "Since this influences hormones, it's important not to do this while pregnant," she says.

Drink hot lemon water first thing in the morning.

As soon as you wake up (and after you've hit snooze multiple times), Rouleau recommends whipping up some hot lemon water, her personal skin secret. Why? It could help flush out and purify the body internally, potentially reducing toxins and bacteria in the small intestine where the cycle of acne may begin for some people.

Consider taking oral probiotics.

Our digestion can be affected by stress, which shifts our inner microbial systems, leading to inflammation, Rouleau tells us. This, in turn, changes the type and number of bacteria that live in the gut to unhealthy bacteria. "Eventually the gut lining becomes leaky and toxins are released into the bloodstream causing inflammation throughout the body," she says. "[This] can result in a flare-up of breakouts due to the shift in gut bacteria, and subsequent inflammation."

For that reason, Rouleau says oral probiotics may regulate the imbalance of bacteria and reduce oil levels to treat acne. You can find supplements in health food stores, or just make probiotics a part of your everyday diet by eating yogurt with live active cultures (assuming dairy isn't your cause of breakouts), miso soup, and sauerkraut. Rouleau notes, "It's important to chat with your doc to find out if this is right for you."

How to Get Rid of Pimples

Use products with acne-fighting ingredients.

"Skincare products with active ingredients like retinols, salicylic acid, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and benzoyl peroxide are the best for helping to control and eliminate pimples," says Dr. Rabach. "My favorite over-the-counter products are Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash ($9) which has salicylic acid. My favorite retinol that is over the counter is Differin Adapalene Gel ($13) and any pharmacy product that has benzoyl peroxide 2.5%." Dr. Gohara's recommendation? Paula's Choice Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment with 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide ($22).

Slap on a hydrocolloid patch.

It's like a Band-Aid but for your pimple. Pimple patches can absorb excess fluids, reduce inflammation, and keep your spot protected (post-pop, especially). You can't go wrong with Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch ($13), a fan favorite.

Get a prescription.

In case OTC medications are not effective in zapping your zit, you might want to consider making an appointment with your derm. They will be able to determine the best treatment for you and that may very well be a prescription medication.

Choose your makeup wisely.

You may be aware of the magic of makeup to cover your acne, but did you also know that makeup can help to treat acne, too? Just make sure to choose non-comedogenic products to avoid clogging pores. And if they're formulated with acne-fighting ingredients, such as It Cosmetics Bye Bye Breakout Full Treatment Concealer ($21), even better.

Pop your pimple properly.

Dr. Gohara recommends avoiding the temptation to pick or pop a pimple that isn't ready. "It can leave you with unsightly discoloration or — even worse — scarring." However, if a ready-to-burst whitehead is staring back at you in the mirror, go ahead and pop it like Dr. Pimple Popper. Simply apply a warm compress to the area, then gently apply light pressure to the sides with clean hands to complete the extraction.

Get a cortisone injection.

Although they should only be used in case of emergency, your derm can administer a cortisone shot to treat your pimple and help to reduce inflammation pretty much immediately.

Home Remedies for Pimples

Looking for a DIY fix? Try checking your medicine cabinet for ingredients you likely already have in your home — like aspirin, for instance. "Aspirin is a derivative of salicylic acid and will technically work to dry up a pimple," says Dr. Rabach. Dr. Gohara instructs, "Crush an aspirin and put it in a little water to make a paste. Place the mixture directly on the pimple and leave it on overnight." However, if you are going to take this approach, Dr. Rabach urges that you do so with caution. "Salicylic acid is only safe for over-the-counter use at 2%. An aspirin/water mixture could be too strong and cause burns, changes in pigmentation, and over-drying if overused."

Another option? Applying a dab of tea tree oil, such as The Body Shop Tea Tree Anti-Imperfection Daily Solution ($22), as it reduces swelling, inflammation, and redness. Ice will also help with these symptoms.

When to See a Professional

If you've been using over-the-counter products for one to two months and still aren't seeing a significant change in your skin, it might be time to turn to the pros, says Dr. Rabach. Also, if you have scars or if your acne is leaving permanent marks, you may need an oral medication prescribed by a board-certified derm, she adds.

When it comes to acne, there's no one-size-fits all solution. Plus, given the different types of pimples out there and the fact that everyone's skin is different, your best bet is to see a dermatologist who will be able to advise on the best solution for you.

InStyle uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Singh M, Pawar M, Maheswari A, Bothra A, Khunger N. ‘Cell‐phone acne’ epidemic during the COVID‐19 pandemicClin Exp Dermatol. 2020;45(7):903-905.

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