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Spot treatments are a necessity to have around if you have acne or acne-prone skin. Everyone has probably used a spot treatment for pimples at least once in their life. It’s the perfect go-to product for if you have a few pimples a year or if you have daily breakouts.

What exactly is a spot treatment, though? Similar to daily acne treatments, spot treatments work by killing bacteria, unclogging pores, and reducing pain and inflammation. Spot treatments are applied to single blemishes instead of the entire face, and they come in different forms like liquids, gels, creams, and patches. The majority of spot treatments contain the same active ingredients as daily topical acne treatments (salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur), but in higher concentrations.

How to choose a spot treatment?
Benzoyl peroxide
is probably the most commonly used OTC acne treatment. It works by killing acne-causing bacteria and reducing inflammation, and it is very effective for many people. Benzoyl peroxide has low solubility, and in spot treatments, it can is used in concentrations up to 10%. These high concentrations can be very irritating for some people and cause hyperpigmentation, so if you have sensitive skin or a darker skin tone, benzoyl peroxide might not be ideal for you. Also, avoid using benzoyl peroxide with retinol and vitamin C.  


Salicylic acid
is another commonly used OTC acne treatment. It’s able to penetrate sebum and go deep into your pores. It works by breaking apart skin cells to unclog pores, reduce inflammation, and kill acne-causing bacteria. It’s used up to 2% in spot treatments. Avoid using salicylic acid with AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid and other acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide and retinol as this might cause excessive drying and redness. 


is used in concentrations up to 10% and similar to benzoyl peroxide, it works by reducing inflammation and drying out the skin. Sulfur is thought to be gentler than benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid and could be a good option if you have very sensitive skin. Due to its low solubility, it’s best to use sulfur-containing spot treatments overnight as they do not absorb well into the skin. Also, avoid using retinol when using a sulfur spot treatment.


Differin (adapalene 0.1%)
is the most recent of the FDA-approved OTC acne treatments. Differin is a retinoid that works by increasing cellular turnover to unclog pores and reduce sebum production, which also makes this treatment useful for reducing dark spots and acne scars. If you have sensitive skin, Differin might be very irritating and cause redness, so be sure to do a spot test before applying the product to your face. Also, avoid using Differin with any other acne treatments.


Pimple Patches
are a newer trend in acne spot treatments. Most pimple patches are drug-free, but there are a few medicated options out there. Pimple patches are made of hydrocolloid, which is an absorbent polymer that absorbs oil and pus from blemishes. Once the hydrocolloid is on your skin, it also forms a soft gel to hydrate the area under the patch. This has been shown to reduce hyperpigmentation, scarring, and inflammation, and is excellent for people with sensitive skin.
When to apply a spot treatment

Spot treatments are the perfect extra oomph you need to fight off those stubborn pimples that just won’t quit. To get the best results from your spot treatments, though, it’s essential to use them correctly.

If you are using a gel, cream, or lotion containing an OTC active ingredient, apply the spot treatment following cleansing and toning your skin. After you apply the spot treatment, apply a moisturizer, but avoid the areas where you just applied the spot treatment.

If you are using a pimple patch, the patches adhere best to dry skin. Again, start by cleansing and toning your skin, then wait a few minutes for your skin to dry. Apply the patches to your blemishes, follow the application with a moisturizer, and avoid the areas surrounding the patches.

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