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Pesky pimples are no match for these 21 effective acne spot treatments

In a bind? Banish those pesky pimples with these picks for all budgets.
Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Breakouts and blemishes aren't just a problem for teenagers — many adults have their fair share of acne woes, too.

While there are dozens of acne spot treatments on the market, finding one that actually works can be quite a challenge. To help, Shop TODAY asked a handful of dermatologists and an esthetician about the different types of best acne spot treatments they recommend depending on your specific needs.

Here's what they had to say, starting with what active ingredients to keep an eye out for, as well as their favorite acne spot-treating products.

What should I look for in an acne spot treatment?

  • Benzoyl peroxide. "Benzoyl peroxide is helpful for treating acne because it not only kills bacteria that contribute to acne but also helps to prevent and clear out clogged pores," dermatologist Dr. Hadley King said. "It also has anti-inflammatory properties and comedolytic properties, meaning that it works for all different kinds of acne: blackheads, whiteheads and larger red pimples. I recommend applying a small amount in a thin layer in order to avoid unnecessary irritation, and I would recommend using it one to three times per day."
  • Salicylic acid. This ingredient is a powerful acne-fighting acid that exfoliates and unclogs pores. Dr. Neda Mehr, a board-certified dermatologist in Newport Beach, California, told Shop TODAY in an earlier piece: “By dissolving the protein that holds the sticky skin cells together, salicylic acid helps unclog pores [that are a result of] whiteheads or blackheads." Breaking down this layer (a "glue," if you will), salicylic acid facilitates exfoliation and helps other acne-fighting products penetrate more deeply into your skin "instead of sitting on top of a cellophane-like layer of clogged skin cells,” Mehr added.
  • Retinoids. Retinoids (and retinol, a weaker form), are a chemical compound derived from vitamin A that can also be found in many anti-aging treatments. They have a host of benefits, including minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing hyperpigmentation and stimulating collagen production, according to Dr. Rebecca Baxt, a board-certified dermatologist in New Jersey. This ingredient also "treats and prevents breakouts, promotes cell turnover .... and restores your skin’s natural texture and tone," Sperling said. Just keep in mind that mild irritation, dryness and redness are normal when first starting retinoids or retinol, so allow your skin time to adjust.

From pimple patches to drying lotions, here are 21 of the best acne spot treatments to help clear up your skin in no time.

The best acne spot treatments, according to experts

Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Treatment

In addition to this drugstore product's benzoyl peroxide pimple-banishing powers, the oil-free cream is also lightweight, absorbs quickly and won't dry out your face, said New Jersey-based dermatologist Dr. Shari Sperling. "It’s also oil-free and non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores and cause more breakouts," she added.

Sperling also recommends using it up to two times daily with your morning and nighttime skin care regimen.

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion

This cult-favorite breakout buster is another great way to get rid of all of your unforgiving blemishes. Celebrity esthetician Candace Marino swears by this drying lotion formulated with salicylic acid, calamine and sulfur.

"The calamine lotion is going to help soothe and cool the skin," she noted. "Sulfur helps to purify the pores and the salicylic acid will help exfoliate the pores and help remove oil buildup."

While it may be tempting, Marino says you should not shake this product before applying. "It’s clear on the top and pink on the bottom. So what you want to do is take a Q-tip, dip it all the way through to the bottom and remove without stirring it," she explained. "Then, dab it on and then sleep with it overnight."

Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment

Made with salicylic acid, this lightweight spot treatment also reduces blemish size in just hours, said Sperling.

She also mentioned that many users claim they see fast results with this blemish fighter. According to a study from the brand, 97 percent of test subjects agreed that the appearance of their blemish improved after just one day of using the gel.

"This stuff works wonders. I noticed a huge difference shortly after I applied this to my pimples. I have pretty decent skin, just get a pimple every now and then, but this does the trick!" wrote one Sephora reviewer.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment

While this La Roche-Posay acne treatment is definitely on the pricier side, Sperling thinks it's worth spending the extra cash. Like many of the other options on this list, this product's hero ingredient is benzoyl peroxide. It's also made with a unique lipo-hydroxy acid.

"This exfoliates the skin to remove dead skin cells and excess oil," Sperling said. "[It] is best for people with mild to moderate acne. It can be applied in one to three thin layers to the affected areas per day. You can see a difference in your skin within a week or so," she explained.

Differin Gel

"Hands down my favorite over-the-counter treatment is Differin Gel, which is a prescription-strength retinoid [called adapalene] that is the gold standard for the treatment of different types of acne, from whiteheads to blackheads to mild to moderate acne or even occasional breakouts," said Dr. Melissa Levin, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology.

Sperling is also a fan. "Differin is my go-to product recommendation for my patients suffering from acne," she said. "It’s affordable and easy to get now that it doesn’t require a prescription."

Differin also has anti-inflammatory properties and is "photo-stable," meaning you can use it during the day when the sun is out, added Levin. Plus, it doubles as a great anti-aging skin care product.

As for application, a pea-sized amount goes a long way. "I recommend using only once daily and integrating it into your nighttime skin care routine," she said. "Those with mild to moderate acne-prone skin will see the best results, but it can be used on all skin types."

The best pimple patches, according to experts

An alternative to using creams, gels or serum spot treatments, these convenient patches not only have awesome blemish-fighting ingredients, but they'll also prevent you from picking or popping your pimples, which affects inflammation and healing time. "If someone has an inflammatory acne spot — something that’s above the surface and angry — I love these because you just slap them on and then you forget about it," said Marino. "These really help to penetrate the pores and to get to the root of the problem."

Peace Out Acne Healing Dots

"I like these because they include salicylic acid, which helps to remove oil and keratin debris from pores. They also include aloe vera, which is soothing and has anti-inflammatory properties," King noted about Peace Out's Acne Healing Dots.

Marino pointed out that you shouldn't leave one on for longer than eight hours at a time, but they're gentle enough to use continuously until the blemish clears up. If you don't want to wait until nighttime to throw on a pimple patch, the brand also offers "virtually invisible" Day Dots.

ZitSticka Killa Pimple Patches

While Levin typically prefers full-face treatments to spot treatments, she does like these specialized hydrocolloid pimple patches from ZitSticka if you're in a bind and can't see a derm.

"It's a 24 freeze-dried micro darts bandage that self-dissolves over two hours in order to deliver acne-fighting ingredients with oligopeptide-76, a new novel peptide shown to be as effective as a traditional anti-inflammatory ingredient," she explained.

These patches also contain acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and anti-inflammatory vitamin B3. King also likes this as a spot treatment option because it's formulated with moisturizing hyaluronic acid.

Top-rated acne spot treatments shoppers love

Tula Skincare Go Away Acne Spot Treatment

Powerhouse ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, azelaic acid, licorice and tea tree oil combine in this spot treatment designed to fight blemishes and leave behind clear, smooth skin. One Ulta shopper loved it so much, they felt compelled to leave a five-star review — after stating they don't normally do so — and written praise after it worked so well for them, clearing up their acne within a week.

Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch

These aren't just your average hydrocolloid pimple patches. According to the brand, they're waterproof and protect acne spots from outside bacteria and other contaminants. Reviews are fills with satisfied shoppers who said these patches succeed in reducing inflammation and, of course, making blemishes disappear.

e.l.f. Cosmetics Blemish Breakthrough Acne Fighting Spot Gel

For an affordable option, you can't go wrong with this e.l.f. Cosmetics roll-on treatment. Key ingredients include salicylic acid, witch hazel and aloe to soothe the skin while working hard to get rid of blemishes. Reviewers on the brand's site rave about how quickly they saw a difference after their first use (one reviewer said their spot cleared in a day or two).

Kiehl's Since 1851 Breakout Control Targeted Acne Spot Treatment

Mineral sulfur and niacinamide are the star ingredients in this spot treatment from cult classic skin care brand Kiehl's. "I am so grateful for this product," wrote one Saks Fifth Avenue reviewer. "I get hormonal cystic acne monthly and dabbing this on my spots clears them up quicker than any other product I've tried."

DRMTLGY 24-Hour Acne Serum

Five percent concentrations of benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid work side by side in this spot treatment to diminish breakouts and post-acne scarring. It even boasts the ability to prevent new breakouts from occurring. One verified five-star reviewer on Amazon said that, after struggling with acne for over four years and trying almost two dozen different products, this spot treatment cleared their skin up after just four days of daily use.

Acne-Free Terminator 10 Severe Acne Spot Treatment

The 10 in this product's name represents the 10 percent benzoyl peroxide concentrate that's included in the formula to deeply and rapidly penetrate acne. Not only does it help manage current acne but it can also help prevent new breakouts.

Peach Slices Acne Spot Dots

"I don’t know what magic is in these, but they work like a charm," one verified Amazon shopper exclaimed about Peach Slice's Acne Spot Dots. The magic they're referring to lies in the clean hydrocolloid formulation that aids in reducing the size and inflammation around your zit in less than 24 hours, according to the brand.

Pacifica Dry It Out Acne Gel Spot Treatment

Who knew an acne treatment could be equally strong and soothing? While you may immediately feel relief coming from the mint and sage blend, other ingredients like niacinamide and salicylic acid are working behind the scenes to dry out your pimples.

Mighty Patch Original

"These little suckers truly work," one Shop TODAY editor said about Hero Cosmetics's award-winning pimple patches back in 2020. The sentiment still holds true today, with over 83,000 verified Amazon shoppers rating these hydrocolloid patches a glowing five stars since its release.

Bliss Clear Genius Acne Spot Treatment

Salicylic acid, witch hazel and niacinamide work harmoniously in Bliss's exclusive Clarity 5 Complex to calm irritated skin while cleaning and diminishing pores. The results, according to the brand and many thrilled customers, is a clearer, calmer complexion in little to no time.

CeraVe Acne Control Gel

Shop TODAY readers are already familiar with CeraVe's fast-acting moisturizers, cleansers and serums, but they also make an effective spot treatment. Developed with dermatologists, it's formulated with ingredients like ceramides, salicylic and lactic acids, and niacinamide to even skin texture, prevent new breakouts and restore your skin barrier.

Urban Skin Rx Clear Complexion Acne Serum + Spot Treatment

When it comes to abrupt breakouts, this spot treatment from Urban Skin Rx will be right up your alley. Soothing ingredients like arnica and echinacea aid in fighting inflammation and scarring (especially in those dealing with cystic acne). Plus, other actives like benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid help reduce blemishes overnight.

Origins Super Spot Remover Acne Treatment Gel

Its bottle may be little, but Origins's treatment gel packs a huge punch, according to reviewers. All you'll need of this blemish-fighting formula is a dab, thanks to key ingredients like salicylic acid and toning witch hazel. Several shoppers noted how quickly and effectively it works, with one Ulta consumer chiming in, "I use it primarily to dry out any pimples that pop up. It quickly dries — and I mean like a DESERT — any blemish within 12 hours, and they're usually gone completely within 24 to 48 hours."

First Aid Beauty Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads

Not only are these daily treatment pads sensitive skin-friendly thanks to its alcohol- and fragrance-free formulation, but key ingredients like salicylic acid and kaolin clay also work overtime to absorb impurities without drying out your dermis.

"I noticed clearer skin immediately with this treatment and had absolutely no issue with stinging or burning. It also applies quite thinly, so a little bit can go a long way," raved one Ulta shopper who enthusiastically gave this option a perfect five stars.

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