The Science of Beauty: How Do Zit-Zapping Products Actually Work?
In our new series, The Science of Beauty, we're going to do a bit more research into the making of a great beauty product. While we've talked about the textures, scents, and efficacy of our favorite formulas in our Reviewed series, this one is meant to feed the other side of the brain—the side we perhaps haven't tapped into since chemistry class. We'll talk science, experiments, and the ingredients that make each product work with experts in each specific field. Then we'll check back in with our favorite hair and makeup artists to get a breakdown on how to best use the products once they're out of the lab and back in our bathrooms.
We can't pinpoint exactly who started it, but somewhere along the line, an insidious rumor crept into the cultural dialogue, leading everyone to believe that pimples only happen to teenagers. In high school, we were all promised that adulthood would bring not only legal freedom but flawless skin. Then we got here and realized that the battle against pimples would be a lifelong one. Le sigh.
Because adulthood comes with obligations more pressing than anything we experienced as teens, our zits actually seem worse now. We've all had the experience of waking up the day before a wedding or big meeting to find a meteoric zit taking up its own zip code on our faces.
In these moments, we rely on spot treatments—products that promise overnight pimple eradication. Sometimes they work like magic, but sometimes they leave something to be desired. Which begs the question: What is the science behind these products? What ingredients work best to banish zits? And how can we wield them most effectively?
For answers, we spoke to three zit-zapping experts: celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, Clean & Clear dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, and NYC dermatologist and founder of BeautyRx, Dr. Neal Schultz.
Keep scrolling to find out the science behind blemish-fighting products (and which ones work best)!
According to Rouleau, acne spot treatments come in many different forms. Here are the main ones: There are products that work to reduce the bacterial growth within the infected pore where your zit is (this helps to decrease swelling). There are also products that act as keratolytics, which means they help break down the buildup of oil and cells on the pore's surface. Then there are acids, which speed up cell turnover; there are anti-inflammatories to reduce redness and encourage healing; and, of course, there are products that combine several of these operations.
So out of all the zit-zappers available, how do you know which kind to choose? If you're looking for fast action, Schultz says to focus on two techniques: reducing inflammation and drying that sucker up.
There are about a dozen active ingredients found in spot treatments, each of which serves a slightly different purpose, as outlined above. According to Rouleau and Schultz, the ingredients that work fast include benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, which help destroy painful bacteria and exfoliate dead cells, respectively. Sulfur, tea tree oil, and over-the-counter cortisone, which are anti-inflammatory, work even quicker. These ingredients lessen redness and irritation, making the most visible overnight difference.
There are also prescription treatments that you can acquire at a derm's office for even stronger results. "One of the prescription-strength products that I sell in my office is a combination of a topical antibiotic and a topical cortisone triamcinolone," says Schultz. "The two of these work together in a very thin solution to reduce redness, kill the bacteria, and really make a meaningful difference overnight."
Not all ingredients work the same way for every kind of pimple and skin type. For pus-filled pimples, Bhanusali recommends using a salicylic acid-based product. For painful, inflamed pimples, opt for benzoyl peroxide or one of the anti-inflammatory ingredients. "If benzoyl peroxide is too irritating, you can substitute tea tree oil or alternate the two," Bhanusali recommends.
Our experts agree that combining treatments is often most effective in nipping zits in the bud fast. "One of my favorite derm-hacks is applying your spot treatment and a little 1% [cortisone] on a pimple and covering with a Band-Aid before bed," says Bhanusali. "When the person wakes up, the lesion looks a ton better."
However, it's important to note that there are certain types of pimples that don't respond to spot treatments overnight. "Big, deep painful cysts are not going to be that much improved with any product overnight, not even my prescription products," says Schultz. "Blackheads and whiteheads are not going to be affected overnight either." The types of pimples that will look most improved overnight are inflamed red pimples and pus-filled pimples, since these are the ones that best respond to those speedy anti-inflammatory ingredients.
Rouleau also stresses the importance of making sure you apply your spot treatment at the "right stage of the breakout cycle." If you apply a spot treatment the minute you spot a blemish, you could trap the infection under the skin, slowing the healing process. Ideally, Rouleau says to wait until the infection appears as a pus-filled white bump to spot-treat it. Once it does, apply a hot compress for a minute or two to soften the skin, then wrap your fingers in a tissue and gently squeeze the pus out. Then you can dab your spot treatment on the pore.
When we spot treat a zit, we expect/hope/pray that by morning, it will have disappeared. But Schultz urges us to adjust our expectations. "There’s a difference between overnight improvement and overnight cure," he says. "Everybody wants to promise everybody else the stars and the moon, and that’s what we want to believe when we buy these products, but we have to temper our enthusiasm."
Here's a realistic timeline: "When the blemish is in its painful, active stage (meaning bacteria is present), the results from spot treatments can start to work within one to three days," says Rouleau. Once the blemish is healed and the scab is gone, you can use a brightening spot treatment to fade the dark scar left behind. For this, you can expect results within a week or two, "depending on the severity of the discoloration and if a person picked at the blemish resulting in increased discoloration," says Rouleau.
Now that you know how spot treatments work, shop some of our favorites below!