Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist
Blackheads and whiteheads are ugly. Pimples are even uglier, plus they itch and hurt and can leave nasty scars. Preventing whiteheads and blackheads from becoming pimples is the first step in successful acne treatment that can save you years of disfigurement and embarrassment1 down the line.
The redness, itchiness, oozing, and irritation of a pimple can be treated with sulfur, benzoyl peroxide, or tea tree oil.
As you get your pimples under control, five easy steps—and an acne treatment kit—can keep pimples from coming back.
What Are Pimples?
A pimple is inflammatory acne. The medical literature refers to pimples, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts as “inflammatory comedones,” which is just saying that a plug of hardened oil in a skin pore has trapped an infection that has triggered inflammation on the skin.
If you treat a pimple soon enough, the infection is confined to a pore. If you pop, mash, smash, pick at, or prick a pimple and break the walls of the pore, it can spread underneath the skin. The skin can grow over the pimple and create a nodule or a cyst. When the infection escapes the pore, it can grow into a large knot that is protected by tough skin. High-risk medications or surgery are then required to remove it, but you can stop pimples before they start.
First, however, let’s take a look at how to treat pimples on your own.
Treating Pimples Safely
There are three basic kinds of home pimple treatments that don’t cause more problems than they repair. One is the traditional remedy for infected pimples3 , sulfur. You don’t have to descend into the pits of hell and bring back brimstone to treat your pimples. These kinds of products just smell that way. The Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask really does help stop acne infection, and it also relieves redness. Probably, however, you don’t want your friends asking what died, so you will want to try benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil, or both.
Benzoyl peroxide is the world’s most popular acne treatment. It is a combination of two chemicals that fight bacterial infection very well4. It really is not designed to stop inflammation. Your own immune system stops creating inflammation when it no longer senses the presence of active acne bacteria. A small percentage of people who use benzoyl peroxide are sensitive to the chemical and actually get worse inflammation after using it. That is why it is always best to start with a product that is just 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, like Neutrogena Overnight Acne Control Lotion.
Tea tree oil, on the other hand, kills acne bacteria more slowly than benzoyl peroxide, but fights inflammation through other mechanisms. Using tea tree oil gels or lotions can begin to clear up pimples in just 3 or 4 days, compared to 10 day to 2 weeks for benzoyl peroxide. The only drawback to tea tree oil5 is that a few people will be allergic to it, so before you smear tea tree oil or gel all over your face, test a little dab on your arm overnight to make sure it does not make you break out.
Treating pimples safely takes time. It may take 2 or 3 months of diligent treatment with either benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil to get rid of most of your pimples. Any product or procedure that gets rid of 80% of pimples is considered to be an enormous success. Then it’s important to keep them from coming back.
Simple Steps for Pimple Prevention
The basic principle of pimple prevention is simple. If you never get whiteheads or blackheads, they never get a chance to develop into pimples. Here is what you need to do.
Eat right. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate6, makes pimples multiply. Avoid it. Don’t overindulge in these foods that contain iodine that can make the skin break out: Seaweed (usually not a problem!), shellfish, and ocean fish. It is also important not to eat too many tomatoes or too much sweet corn, since they contain trace plant chemicals that increase sebum production in the skin.
Wash gently7. It’s more than just OK to have some oil on your skin. Oil is what keeps your skin lubricated so it doesn’t wrinkle when you talk, laugh, smile, or eat. You can’t scrub acne away, and you shouldn’t try to get all the oil out of your skin. Gentle washing with gentle cleansers (that don’t make big bubbles or leave your skin feeling tingly) is the key. Let the cleanser do the work. Just place cleanser on your skin and then rinse it off. No rubbing is necessary.
Don’t dry out your skin. This means that you should not apply any product that contains alcohol on your skin. Ironically, some “moisturizers” are mostly alcohol! Don’t use them. Anything that is dissolved in alcohol, such as aftershave or perfume, also tends to dry out the skin8.
Protect your skin from the sun with mineral-based sunblocks. Sunscreens made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide will help protect your skin from the sun without clogging your pores (although they may leave a noticeable white cast on your skin if you have dark brown or black skin.) The reason stopping sunburn stops acne breakouts is that any kind of inflammation closes pores. Blocked pores are where whiteheads and blackheads begin, and if you never get whiteheads or blackheads, you don’t get pimples.
Treat other skin infections promptly. If you get a tender, elevated bump on the skin where you have not previously had a whitehead or a blackhead, it technically is not a pimple. Most likely it is a staph infection of the skin9. Everybody’s skin has staph bacteria all the time. They are only a problem when they multiply out of control. This usually happens when the skin has been exposed to a harsh, foaming detergent soap that takes the so much oil off the skin that the skin cracks, and staph bacteria find moister, more nutrient-rich home. Benzoyl peroxide will not treat minor staph infections of the skin, but tea tree oil will.
The other thing to remember in preventing pimples is that you don’t have to do all the work on your own. Acne treatment kits like Exposed Skin Care take the guesswork out of pimple prevention, and come with a money-back guarantee.
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Totté J.E.E., van der Feltz W.T., Bode L.G.M., van Belkum A., van Zuuren E.J., Pasmans S.G.M.A. A systematic review and meta-analysis on Staphylococcus aureus carriage in psoriasis, acne and rosacea. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. 2016;35:1069–1077.