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So you've got a pimple, and you're officially in crisis mode. Its charming arrival likely coincides with a major life event; acne loves to rear its ugly head at precisely the worst moments, doesn't it? Pimples have a cruel way of popping up just before first dates, important job interviews, school dances, and weddings. You need a quick and effective fix, or you're seconds away from squeezing.
Hold it right there. It's true, you can't clear up a pimple in an hour—and even getting rid of one overnight can be a challenge—but there's no need to resort to popping. It's possible to rid acne of its worst traits if you employ a diligent regime. "Pimples are small micro-infections of hair follicles," explains Dr. Purvisha Patel, board certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "You may not be able to get 'rid' of a pimple overnight, but you can make it look a lot better, so it appears to be gone."
Added Dr. Angela J. Lamb, Director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York City, there are "no guarantees" when it comes to a bedtime miracle, but there are several steps you can follow to get your skin glowing just in time. Read on, and godspeed.
First, make sure you're using the right ingredients.
Do us a favor: Stop staring at your pimple for a second, and do a little research on it. Dr. Patel explains that pimples are commonly caused by four things: follicular occlusion, microbe growth, sebum production (or adding oil to your skin), and inflammation.
All these issues can be addressed and helped when a pimple is early in the game. "The most common way to address these issues is to use benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, tree oil or salicylic acid products before you go to bed," says Dr. Patel.
Benzoyl peroxide is a bleaching agent that kills microbes and dries up oil in the follicle. Tea tree oil and sulfur also do similar things to benzoyl peroxide by drying up the pimple. "Using these products can make the pimple look smaller in the morning, " explains Dr. Patel.
Dr. Lamb also recommends using prescription topical products, if you happen to have any in your medicine cabinet. Gels that contain clindamycin, an antibiotic, or topical minocycline can make fast work of an angry zit.
But if you'd prefer to use products that don't require a doctor's note, Dr. Patel and Dr. Lamb both recommend trying salicylic acid first. "Salicylic acid products not only dry up the pimple and kill any microbes, but also exfoliate the skin on top to let any accumulated puss out of the follicle," says Dr. Patel. (Gross, but effective.)
Next, wash with a quality cleanser.
Spot treatments and pimple patches get all the hype for acne emergencies, but don't ignore the power of a good cleanser. You can find one imbued with the ingredients mentioned above—such as the Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser, with 2% salicylic acid, from La Roche-Posay—or invest in another good exfoliating wash. Regular use of a cleanser will not only treat the pimples you do have, but prevent future emergencies.
"Exfoliating cleansers are perfect for acne, as they help unclog the pores to not only treat pimples, but also prevent them from occurring," says Dr. Patel. "Visha Skincare Advanced Purifying Cleanser has salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, tea tree oil, and B vitamins to exfoliate the pores, decrease microbe growth and calm inflammation."
If you're getting desperate, try hydrocortisone cream.
Yes, it's for more than just mosquito bites!
Says Dr. Patel, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can be a quick fix for redness, so long as you don't use it for more than three nights in a row. Don't layer it on too thick, either: It can clog your pores if you're not careful.
It's best to find a hydrocortisone cream that is hyaluronic acid-based because hyaluronic acid is a water-binding molecule that doesn't clog pores.
As you're treating, stay away from edible ingredients.
Products with coconut oil, olive oil or almond oil sound luxurious and healthy, but when it comes to acne treatment, they're only reinforcing the problem. Steer clear of edible ingredients if you're in the midst of a pimple crisis.
"If we can eat the product, bacteria and fungus can eat the product," Dr. Patel says, "and this could possibly make more pimples."
Miracles can happen, if you use a good spot treatment or pimple patch.
Dr. Lamb highly recommends putting a well-reviewed pimple patch on a problem area, as the treatment "usually cannot hurt." Avoid overusing them, however—especially ones that contain acids or benzoyl peroxide, as they can create additional irritation.
When you're in a bind, Dr. Patel prefers turning to spot treatments, which "work better for overnight fixes. Blister bandages or hydrocolloid patches work by pulling the contents of a pimple out versus topicals that dry up the pimple."
In case of an emergency, use cortisone injections.
If you have access to a dermatologist the day before your major event, it's true you can get a cortisone injection to immediately treat your zit. But make sure you're thinking seriously about the level of necessity.
"They are truly for a pimple emergency." says Dr. Patel. "Think a day before your wedding or prom-level of emergency." Steroid injections decrease inflammation of the pimple immediately but the side effects of steroid injections are skin thinning, lightning and possible indentation at the injection site. They are NOT recommended as regular pimple treatment.
If buying new products isn't an option, try a DIY treatment.
It's possible to stir up a great at-home acne treatment with a few ingredients in your kitchen. Try the following:
A small crushed up aspirin paste to a pimple helps with drying up the spot and inflammation.
Toothpaste—the opaque kind, not gel—can be used to dry up pimples.
Ice to a red pimple gives immediate blood vessel constriction and helps with redness.
Conversely, you can use a warm compress to bring a pimple to a head faster, explains Dr. Lamb.
Believe it or not, popping can be an option. Just proceed with extreme caution.
If you've exhausted all your options, nothing has worked, and you're hours away from walking down the aisle with a massive whitehead, it's finally time to consider popping.
Says Dr. Lamb, squeezing a zit is ordinarily a huge no-no. But if a pimple has a huge whitehead—and all its contents are visible at the top—you can use clean, gloved hands or cotton swabs to apply gentle pressure and pop.
The problem, she explains, comes when you pop pimples that aren't ready to be popped, or squeeze with dirty fingers.
"Squeezing them with non-sterile fingernails can lead to spread of the microinfection, more inflammation and scarring," explains Dr. Patel. So, in most instances, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Finally, trust your concealer.
Makeup was made for times such as these. It's possible to make a zit look nonexistent—even if it hasn't disappeared entirely—if you invest in a quality concealer. Dr. Lamb loves Make Up For Ever's concealer, or you can try a green concealer, which counteracts the redness of acne and inflammation. Either way, you'll end up looking stunning—pimple or no.
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