There's no shortage of old beauty wives' tales out there: cold water will shrink your pores, shaving makes hair grow faster, pull out a gray hair and two will grow back in its place. We're sure you've also heard of putting toothpaste on a pimple to make it go away (Gigi Hadid swears by this trick). But this is without a doubt one of those beauty hacks that needs to be put to bed. In other words, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, and do not, we repeat, do not apply toothpaste as a spot treatment. Ahead, Rachel Nazarian, M.D. of Schweiger Dermatology Group, board-certified dermatologist, Nikhil Dhingra, M.D. of Spring Street Dermatology, dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, and Amanda Doyle, MD, a dermatologist at Russak Dermatology Clinic (all based in New York City), explain exactly why using toothpaste to treat pimples is actually a scary idea.
Toothpaste for Acne
Primarily, using toothpaste as a breakout remedy plays into the whole "dry up a pimple to get rid of it" trope. "Since acne lesions tend to contain oil, the myth likely started because a lot of people believe that drying out an acne lesion will help make it go away faster," says Doyle. And yes, there is some validity here because toothpaste does contain ingredients that are, in fact, drying. We're talking about things such as baking soda, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium laureth sulfate, to name a few. And if you're thinking that you've seen some of those ingredients listed on the labels of skincare products, you're right—many of them are. But the issue comes when you start to combine them in a formula that's definitely not intended for your skin. "Keep in mind that your teeth are ranked amongst the toughest substances in your body, and we're using toothpaste to clean them. Your skin, in contrast, is incredibly delicate. Using a cleanser that's meant for teeth can disrupt the pH balance of your skin and irritate it greatly," points out Dr. Nazarian. And when the pH balance of your skin is disrupted, conditions such as rosacea and eczema can start to flare-up, leaving you with more issues than just that one annoying zit.
The antibacterial nature of toothpaste also plays into the myth that it could be beneficial in fighting blemishes, but this is simply not the case. "Toothpaste used to contain triclosan, an antibacterial agent that was thought to kill acne-causing bacteria," explains Dr. Nussbaum. Sounds good in theory, right? Well, this is now a totally null and void point since beauty products are prohibited from using triclosan due to questions about its safety, she adds. (More on what are effective antibacterial ingredients that you could use instead in a moment.)
To the point of skin conditions, slathering toothpaste onto your face can also potentially lead to perioral dermatitis (POD), which is characterized by inflamed, red, rash-like bumps around your nose and mouth. The exact cause is unknown—though hormones may play a role because it's much more common in women—but certain topical ingredients are thought to be triggers. Among them? Flouride, an essential ingredient for dental hygiene, that's, you guessed it, a primary component in most toothpaste formulas, says Dhingra. Plus, in an ironic twist, POD often looks like bad acne.
Even if you're lucky enough to not be susceptible or prone to any of the aforementioned skin conditions, many of the ingredients in toothpaste can trigger actual allergic reactions when applied directly to and left on the skin. These include sodium lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol, cinnamic aldehyde (a flavoring agent), and the preservative sodium benzoate, says Nussbaum. Signs of an allergic skin reaction include redness, itching, and swelling of the area where the product was applied.
What to Use Instead
There are more than enough effective and safe spot treatments and skincare solutions out there that will help banish a blemish, stat—without the irritating side effects that are pretty much guaranteed to occur if you use toothpaste. A few dermatologist-favorites: Over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide options (which are antibacterial), or (sulfur-based treatments), which are anti-inflammatory, says Dhingra. You can also look for OTC options that rely on salicylic acid, an oil-dissolving ingredient that works effectively to help gently exfoliate and unclog the pores, suggests Nussbaum.
If you're in a pinch and/or really want to go the DIY route, there are plenty of options that are much more effective and gentler on skin than toothpaste. "I like applying a cotton ball soaked in cooled green tea, a little bit of topical antibiotic ointment, or an ice cube to a blemish in order to constrict the blood vessels and decrease redness," advises Nazarian. All will have soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits and are definitely a better choice than toothpaste.
At the end of the day, if these spot treatments aren't cutting it and you're still battling blemishes on the regular, it's time to call in the pros. See your board-certified dermatologist for prescription-grade spot treatments, which often incorporate antibiotics into the topical mix, advises Dhingra.