As someone who has long struggled with acne, I've tried many topical treatments throughout the years. I lobbed on Pepto-hued Mario Badescu Drying Lotion in my teens and later found Indie Lee's Banish Solution—both of which I still reach for every now and again. That said, the promise of an equally effective, more discreet (like a thin, clear patch that can be worn day or night) ,or even very playful (like a colorful star-shaped patch) option is an appealing proposition. Based on the popularity of pimple patches, it seems I’m not alone in my thinking.
To be clear, pimple patches are not new—just new-ish to the U.S. market. These handy little blemish-busters have been a staple across Asia for quite some time. As American consumers’ obsession with all things K-beauty grew, it spawned an influx of many types of complexion saviors from essences to acne-specific patches. These days, mass retailers like CVS as well as specialty shops stock many different types of dots aimed at combating breakouts—some imported from Japan and Korea and others are homegrown. Basically, there are a lot of options.
While most are designed to be clear or flesh-colored, one brand is breaking tradition in a positive and playful way. “Starface was born just as the category was gaining traction stateside," explains Julie Schott, co-founder of Starface. "At that time, all the available options had a similar goal: to be clear, undetectable, and draw as little attention to breakouts as possible. To me, that strategy felt like a reflection of the broader paradigm in the skincare industry that had conditioned us to believe that acne, a near-universal experience, was something that needs to be hidden." She continues, "Our pioneering decorative approach to pimple patches goes beyond clinical treatment to really change people’s relationship with their skin. There’s something inherently positive about giving yourself a star—it feels like earning a prized golden sticker when you’re a kid."
As someone with a vested interest in figuring out exactly how to use pimple patches—of the clear or colorful variety—as an effective tool in my skincare arsenal, I figured it would be most best to talk to some real-deal skin experts to help me break it all down. Together, we’ve put together a definitive guide with everything you need to know about pimple patches.
Meet the Expert
- Reid Maclellan, MD, is the founder and CEO of Cortina, adjunct faculty at Harvard Medical School, and director of Proactive Dermatology Group
- Jeannette Graf, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
What are Pimple Patches?
Pimple patches are little stickers made from hydrocolloid (some are infused with other acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid) that work to absorb fluid and reduce inflammation to help skin heal faster. As an added benefit, creating a barrier between an active flare-up and your hands (that often have a hard time not picking at said spot) is helpful.
Types of Pimple Patches
There are many types of blemishes and each has its own lifecycle. Here’s what to reach for at every stage in the breakout game:
- Hydrocolloid: "Hydrocolloid absorbs excess liquid,” explains Dr. Reid Maclellan, MD. "This type of pimple patch without other added ingredients is ideal for blemishes with a visible white head, as it will help to draw out that inflammatory excess pus and sebum and accelerate the healing process." We love Starface's Hydro-Stars.
- Hydrocolloid + Salicylic Acid: "Salicylic acid is a good ingredient to look for in pimple patches because of its antibacterial properties," says Dr. Jeannette Graf, MD. "Its ability as an oil-soluble acid to dive deep into the pores and break up sebum further aids the hydrocolloid in getting any unnecessary fluids out of the pimple." We love Peace Out's Salicylic Acid Acne Healing Dots.
- Microdart with Salicylic Acid + Niacinamide + Hyaluronic Acid: Microdart patches infused with salicylic acid, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid work really well to inject a cocktail of acne-fighting and healing ingredients into early-stage spots and/or deep zits that sit below the surface. We love Hero Cosmetics' Mighty Patch Micropoint for Blemishes.
- Hydrocolloid + Madecassoside + Tea Tree Oil + Aloe: Adding soothing madecassoside and aloe, as well as antibacterial tea tree oil to hydrocolloid can be an effective mix to combat irritation and promote healing. We love Hanhoo's Soothing Blemish Patch.
- Hyaluronic acid + Niacinamide + Licorice Root Extract + Kojic Acid: After a big breakout is gone, post-acne hyperpigmentation may pop up. Ingredients like niacinamide, licorice root extract, and kojic acid help to fade dark spots, while hyaluronic acid lends its hydrating abilities. We love ZitSticka's Hyperfade Patches.
Depending on the ingredients in your chosen patches, the treatment can offer many skin benefits.
- Promote Healing: As mentioned, most pimple patches have a hydrocolloid base, which helps drain inflammatory pus and promote healing.
- Unclog Pores: Salicylic acid is well-known beta-hydroxy acid that’s ideal for those with oily, acne-prone skin. “Because it’s oil soluble, it can penetrate into the pores and break up excess oil and sebum, unclogging them,” notes Graf. “It also exfoliates dead skin cells and is antibacterial, so it can aid in the blemish healing process.”
- Ease Inflammation: Niacinamide acts as an anti-inflammatory for spots, beneficial for combating hyperpigmentation, and helps restore your skin’s lipid barrier by retaining moisture. Patches with aloe work well to moisturize the skin and prevent the pimple from drying out too much.
- Provide Hydration and Moisture: Hyaluronic acid is a humectant naturally found in the skin. When used topically, it’s effective at attracting water to the skin to provide hydration and create more suppleness.
- Kill Bacteria: Tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory and naturally antimicrobial. Using a pimple patch containing tea tree oil can kill bacteria that’s involved in the formation of acne.
- Strengthen Skin Barrier: Madecassoside works to repair and strengthen the skin barrier, which breakouts can damage.
- Limit Picking: Unlike other over-the-counter spot treatments, these little stickers actually keep you from touching and picking at pimples. Graf would like to remind everyone that action spreads dirt and bacteria, so it’s a big no-no.
When to Use a Pimple Patch
According to both experts, there's a time and type of breakout each patch will help most. For early-stage zits, reach for pimple patches with microdarts that penetrate the pimple before there’s a whitehead on it. When a pimple is forming (aka it’s about to come to a head), active ingredients like salicylic acid or tea tree oil are helpful because they kill bacteria. When you can see the whitehead, a hydrocolloid patch is effective at sucking out the “gunk” from the pimple and promoting the healing process. When just a dark spot is left after the pimple heals, look for ingredients like kojic acid (which slows melanin production) and niacinamide to even tone.
How to Use a Pimple Patch
- First up, give your hands a good scrub with soap and warm water to remove any bacteria (this prevents it from getting trapped between a patch and your active breakout). Now you’re ready to cleanse (ideally double cleanse) your face.
- Once dry, it’s time to apply the pimple patch. The beauty writer in me wants to tell you to peel the patch off with sterilized tweezers to avoid contamination, but if you feel your hands are sufficiently clean, I’m not going to judge.
- Follow the directions on your particular patch for how long to leave it on—most will say to keep it on the affected area for at least four hours. Overnight is even better. "For removal, whether you’re using your hands or a tool, remember to sterilize," reminds Graf.
As diligent as we may be about drinking enough water, getting plenty of sleep, and using a derm-advised topical regime, zits still happen. And while breakouts are totally normal, that doesn’t mean we can't use targeted products to heal them. Pimple patches are little blemish-busting helpers for when a spot surfaces—and you can customize them to your needs. As someone who has struggled with breakouts, this is a helpful, easy to use, and very effective skincare category.
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