The cardinal rule of acne is “Don’t pick,” but when you’re faced with a whitehead that seems to have its own zip code, sometimes all logic flies out the window. If you’ve broken the rules (and gone against dermatologists’ advice) by taking matters into your own hands, you may be left with the gory aftermath: an open wound leaking pus, oil and even blood.
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Enter pimple patches, sometimes known as zit stickers, which may be able to help soothe your skin in a pinch. Dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, explains what these over-the-counter spot treatments can — and can’t — do for your skin troubles.
How do pimple patches work?
Pimple patches are small stickers made with a slightly gummy wound healing gel called hydrocolloid. Larger versions are marketed as “blister bandages,” but they’re all designed to do the same thing — help your skin heal faster.
“Pimple patches work by absorbing any drainage from the pimple and covering the wound to prevent further trauma to the site, such as picking,” Dr. Kassouf explains. “They work best on open, draining, healing pustules, papules and cysts.”
How to use pimple patches
Most pimple patches need to be worn for a few hours in order to do their thing, so you may want to plan to apply yours before bed. Some versions are also designed to be inconspicuous enough to be worn during the day.
Before applying your pimple patch, make sure your skin is completely dry, as the patches won’t stick as well to wet skin. If your freshly picked pimple is leaking or oozing, be sure to cleanse the spot before application.
Simply apply the pimple patch over your zit — remember, they only work on open wounds — and leave it on for the recommended amount of time (which varies by product). When you peel it off, your blemish may be smaller and less inflamed.
Can pimple patches make acne worse?
For most people, pimple patches are, at worst, simply unhelpful — which is to say that they won’t make your acne worse, but they won’t make it better, either. If you have sensitive skin, though, you may want to steer clear of pimple patches.
“They do use a bit of adhesive to stick to your skin, so if you’re allergic or sensitive to adhesive, this may aggravate the skin surrounding the lesion,” Dr. Kassouf says.
And some brands use ingredients such as salicylic acid or tea tree oil to dry out pimples, which may also dry or irritate sensitive skin.
What pimple patches can’t do
Though pimple patches can be very effective on existing lesions, they have significant limitations.
“Pimple patches don’t work at all on closed lesions or deeper lesions or even blackheads and whiteheads, which are called comedones,” Dr. Kassouf explains. “They are spots treatments for active bumps and have no ability to prevent acne from coming,” nor can they clear clogged pores or other precursors to acne flares.”
In other words, if you’re struggling with cystic acne, large-scale breakouts or other skin concerns, pimple patches aren’t going to do the trick.
What to try instead of pimple patches
There’s no real harm in using zit stickers — but they may not work, either, leaving you pimply and frustrated. “They’re really just wound healing dressings for a very specific type of lesion,” Dr. Kassouf says. “They can be helpful, but for overall acne treatment, there is little use for them.
Don’t fret, though. You’ve got options.
“There are a lot of great over-the-counter medications these days that do more for the money,” Dr. Kassouf says.
- Adapalene: This vitamin A derivative, available in topical form, can help make skin cells less sticky so they don’t hang around and clog your pores, which can not only help prevent acne but can help heal it, too.
- Salicylic acid: This beta hydroxy acid is available in cleansers and topical applications to help exfoliate and clean your skin, as well as decrease acne inflammation.
- Foaming cleansers: These face washes are great for removing dirt and pollutants that can increase inflammation and breakouts.
- Emergency treatments: If you have a big event coming up and need to get rid of a major pimple in a hurry, talk to your dermatologist about quick-turnaround options, including cortisone and antibiotic injections.
If your breakouts are related to an underlying issue like a hormonal imbalance, these treatments may not be enough for you. “If hormones are the issue, your dermatologist may have much better options for you,” Dr. Kassouf says.
Bottom line? Pimple patches can be a worthwhile option for certain, minor skin troubles, but don’t expect them to be a cure-all for your skin ailments.