So, you woke up feeling as if a behemoth of a zit had formed somewhere on your face. But when you ran over to the mirror to look, there was nothing in sight. We’ve all been there—such is the reality of underground cystic zits.
And while we’ve all likely made the horrible decision to try to get hands-on with such a zit, we’ve also likely learned that that’s just about the worst thing you can do for your skin. After all, more often than not, those deep, often throbbing pimples will not pop to the surface from manipulation, meaning the only thing you’ll get out of squeezing is a whole lot of redness and an even longer recovery time. This ultimately begs the question: How can you stop a zit from forming? To find out, we chatted with three board-certified dermatologists for their top tips. Keep scrolling to commit them all to memory.
Meet the Expert
- Tina Alster, MD, is a Washington, D.C.–based board-certified dermatologist and the creator and co-founder of The A Method.
- Michele Green, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
- Dendy Engelman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She is a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board.
Keep Your Skin Clean
If you feel a pimple coming on, the last thing you want to do is give it reason to fester any further. With that in mind, board-certified dermatologist Tina Alster, MD, says to keep your skin as clean as possible when trying to halt a zit in its path.
“Not only will this tip help to prevent those breakouts, it will also reduce the duration and severity of a breakout episode,” she explains. “So, if you feel a zit forming, you will want to make sure you are properly cleansing your skin. Remember, it's never too late to start!” With that in mind, she recommends using a cleanser formulated with glycolic, salicylic, and/or lactic acids (like Cetaphil’s new Gentle Clear Clarifying Acne Cream Cleanser, $9.99), which she says will not only help to clean the skin but also keep pores clear of cellular debris.
Wear a Clean Mask
“With ongoing mask mandates, our faces can become a breeding ground for bacteria,” says Alster. “Maskne (mask-induced acne) can not only produce a sudden outbreak on the surface but also spawn those zits that develop in deeper layers of the skin.” The reason being that dead skin cells, surface bacteria, and sweat get trapped under the mask, as well as within its fibers. So if you are a repeat wearer, you could be unintentionally exposing your skin to acne-causing bacteria. In other words, convenient as it may be, Alster says to always reach for a new, clean mask.
Whatever You Do... Don't Touch Your Face
It’s not just about trying to avoid popping a pimple—it’s about not touching your face at all. After all, even with hand sanitizer almost always in reach these days, bacteria still lives on your fingers and hands, and touching your face is the quickest way to accidentally transfer it.
But, while we’re on the topic of touching, just in case you aren’t fully convinced not to try your hand at popping, board-certified dermatologist Michele Green, MD, has a word of warning.
“Popping a pimple is never a good idea, but even less so when the pimple has not yet come to a head,” she explains. “Because the pimple does not have a channel connecting it directly to the surface of the skin, the sebum, dead skin cells, and debris trapped inside the skin cannot be successfully extracted yet.” As a result, picking and attempting to pop can force that debris to swell under the surface, which can potentially lead to an infection, not to mention permanent scarring. So, again, hands off!
Control the Inflammation
Cystic zits are known for their throbbing, swollen nature—even when there’s no head in sight. And it’s because of those uncomfortable side effects that folks try to take matters into their own hands by popping. Instead, Green recommends applying a warm compress, which can encourage pores to open up, which will relieve some of the pressure. If you prefer cold temperatures, though, Alster says that applying ice can also help to relieve pain and irritation associated with angry, under-the-surface acne.
Balance Oil With Oil
Now this might sound counter-intuitive, but board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, says that applying a facial oil to the inflamed area can actually help soothe the spot. “Balance oil production and clear pores with Lord Jones Pore Detox CBD Face Oil ($68),” she recommends. “This is an incredible hydrating CBD facial oil that helps clarify skin by balancing sebum (oil) production and soothing redness with blue tansy, tea tree oil, and niaouli oil. I recommend incorporating it into your regular skincare routine to improve skin tone over time, but it also works great for spot treating.”
Treat the Area
Speaking of treating the area, there are a number of spot treatments that can help with under-the-surface bumps.
“Zit Stopper, from my brand The A Method by Tina Alster, M.D., contains several key ingredients that will combat stubborn acne at the root,” Alster shares. “Formulated with adapalene—previously available by prescription only—Zit Stopper does exactly as the name says: It stops zits from forming under the skin. Adapalene will help promote cell turnover, thus preventing pores from clogging. The hydrocortisone ingredient will provide anti-inflammatory benefits to reduce the appearance of redness and swelling around the blemishes. And, adding in glycerin and hyaluronic acid helps ensure that the skin stays hydrated, soft, and smooth.”
“Putting an acne spot treatment on the area where you can feel a pimple beginning to form is a great way to get ahead of an acne lesion before it comes to a head,” Green says, noting that for her acne-prone patients, she often suggests her own MGSkinLabs Acne Spot Treatment, which is formulated with 5% benzoyl peroxide to manage any blemishes before a breakout gets out of control.
Engelman also recommends a benzoyl peroxide–based spot treatment. “Humane Acne Spot Treatment Gel is an awesome, quick solution when you notice a pimple starting to form,” she says. “This clear gel penetrates deeply into the skin, killing acne-causing bacteria with benzoyl peroxide and calming redness with antioxidant-rich botanicals.”
Another spot treatment Engelman swears by? Pimple patches.
“Pimple patches are an excellent way to stop pimples in their tracks and heal them overnight,” she says. “I recommend ZitSticka™, which packs its patches with ingredients like salicylic acid and niacinamide to quickly clear pores and soothe redness. I also like that they offer different patches designed to target different types of pimples; the Killa™ Kit is perfect for early-stage and deeper zits, and includes self-dissolving patches as well as pre-soaked towelettes to help pimples fade fast.”
Add Retinol to Your Routine
Remember: Adapalene is a vitamin A derivative that can treat acne. Retinol is also a vitamin A derivative and one of Alster’s top picks for preventing zits from becoming fully formed. “Retinol will help to increase the cell turnover rate,” she explains. “This, in turn, will help rid your skin of the dead cells that could be responsible for clogging pores.”
The Final Takeaway
Even with all the prevention in the world, some people will still experience drawn-out cystic acne timelines.
If you have frequent, painful "blind breakouts" or a nodule or cyst that won't go away, Alster says that a trip to your dermatologist can help. “A cortisone injection may be helpful, or your dermatologist could set you up on a more individualized treatment plan,” she says.