The Best Acne Spot Treatment, Plus Top Tips

Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment

Acne spot treatments are good for emergencies, but they do not help prevent acne from forming.

Acne spot treatments let you hit acne and hit it hard. Acne treatments that are too strong to use over your whole face are just right for when they are applied directly to pimples. But you don’t want to use any spot treatment that contains certain problem ingredients.


  • Acne spot treatments are good for cosmetic emergencies.
  • Tea tree oil “gets the red out,” but most products don’t contain enough tea tree oil to do any good. Tea tree oil has to be at least 10% strength to work.
  • Benzoyl peroxide kills acne in pimples, although it can temporarily make pimples even more noticeable. The advantage of spot treatment is that you can use a stronger concentration of benzoyl peroxide on a pimple than on your entire face.
  • Beta-hydroxy acid, or salicylic acid, is a safe exfoliant for loosening whiteheads and blackheads. You have to have the right amount at the right concentration for the product to work, however.
  • Spot treatments only help you remove acne after the fact. A complete acne care system is necessary to prevent blemishes from coming back.

What to Avoid in Spot Treatments for Acne

One ingredient in many spot treatments for acne almost always makes skin problems worse: Alcohol. Rubbing or isopropyl alcohol is great for dissolving fats in the skin, but the problem is, isopropyl alcohol is too good at removing fats from the skin.

A spot treatment that contains 45% alcohol will both break up hardened sebum and kill acne bacteria, but it will not open pores. That is because alcohol irritates the skin, and the skin repairs itself by producing even more sebum. Even if you manage to kill acne bacteria with your spot treatment, you’ll simply keep the pore clogged. This won’t help pimples, and it will make whiteheads and blackheads worse.

For the same reason, it is important to avoid products that contain ingredients to make the skin feel “tingly.” You may be told that the tingle you feel on your skin is proof that the product is working, but the way it is working is by damaging your skin—and causing the production of more oily sebum. Mint, peppermint, witch hazel, and menthol all can make skin oilier the day after you use them—which makes you think you need more.

An Old Acne Spot Treatment That Still Works

Possibly the oldest acne spot treatment still in common use around the world is pure tea tree oil, distilled from the leaves and stems of the Australian melaleuca bush. Tea tree oil has a number of advantages over other spot treatments.

Tea tree oil gets rid of redness while it kills acne bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide kills acne faster slightly faster, in about 48 hours instead of tea tree oil’s 72, but can actually make pimples redder while they heal.

Tea tree oil fights a range of bacteria that benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics do not, especially staph bacteria. Some staph bacteria cause boils that look like especially nasty pimples, with a yellow circle of pus in the center. Other staph infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, can cause disfiguring and sometimes even fatal deep tissue damage. Tea tree oil fights both kinds of staph, although you should seek immediate medical attention if you even suspect you have an infection with flesh-eating staph bacteria!

The reason most people don’t get the full benefit of tea tree oil is that they don’t use products that contain the right concentration of tea tree oil. Just the scent of tea tree oil is not enough to do any good. The product has to be at least 10% tea tree oil to have any effect on acne bacteria. Even Australian-made tea tree oil products usually don’t contain enough of the product to fight bacteria, although they may control redness.

That’s why pure tea tree oil is best. Dab a clean cotton swab that you use only once in tea tree oil, applying it directly to pimples twice a day. You should note improvement in color and sensation literally overnight, and most pimples will clear up in about a week.

Tea tree oil does not help control whiteheads or blackheads. And it should not be used to treat skin problems on boys younger than 14, due to possible interactions with male sex hormones.

Benzoyl Peroxide Spot Treatments

Benzoyl Peroxide is another popular treatment for getting rid of acne bacteria. It kills bacteria fast, and helps open pores. The problem with benzoyl peroxide is that most people experience inflammation, redness, peeling, or itching when they use a concentration of the product greater than 2.5%, and it takes about 10% benzoyl peroxide to zap acne bacteria on contact.

The solution is to use benzoyl peroxide gel just on pimples, not on the rest of your face. This way you can use a stronger product and get faster results. You need to be careful not to get the benzoyl peroxide gel in your hair. One of the byproducts of benzoyl peroxide is hydrogen peroxide, the same chemical that is used to bleach the hair. And you should not get benzoyl peroxide on your clothes, either. It can remove dyes. But a dab of benzoyl peroxide applied directly to a pimple is a great way to heal it fast. Be careful with the product around your eyes.

BHA (Salicylic Acid)

Tea tree oil and benzoyl peroxide are mostly used to treat pimples. BHA, or salicylic acid, is used to treat other acne blemishes, such as whiteheads and blackheads, especially on oily skin or dark-toned, black, brown, or Asian skin. BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid. The only beta-hydroxy acid used in skin care is salicylic acid.

BHA helps break up dead skin that can clog pores, both in the pore and around it. It also helps break up sebum. AHA’s (alpha-hydroxy acids) do the same thing, but BHA has an advantage in acne care that they do not. The BHA salicylic acid, which is chemically similar to aspirin, is a natural anti-inflammatory. BHA is much less likely to inflame the skin, because it soothes while it peels dead skin off the top layer of blemishes. Treatment with BHA also stimulates the growth of collagen, helping fill in scars and giving the skin an even texture.

Any concentration of 0.5% to 2.0% BHA will exfoliate the skin over blemishes. (Higher concentrations, up to 10% are used in wart removers.) The product has to be formulated at a pH lower enough for the beta-hydroxy acid to function as an actual acid. Products at a higher pH to make sure they never burn anyone’s eyes are not acidic enough to remove dead skin. You will always need to be careful with any BHA product that actually works, especially around your eyes.

Some products contain both BHA and benzoyl peroxide. The Clear Extra-Strength System, which retails for $47.85 in the United States, is a good example. But spot treatments always deal with existing acne, they don’t stop blemishes or pimples before they start.

Spot treatments are great for cosmetic emergencies, but for constant improvement in your skin you need a complete skin care system, such as Exposed Skin Care.

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