Last-minute acne breakouts can leave you scrambling for the internet’s best tips for how to get rid of acne fast, but we all know that plenty of internet sources aren’t reliable. Most of the popular acne spot treatments you know and love, from toothpaste to lemon juice, are actually really terrible for your skin. At Exposed Skin Care, we’re dedicated to long-term acne solutions—but that doesn’t mean we don’t know a thing or two about treatments on the fly. The best treatment for acne is a gentle, consistent skin care routine, but on those mornings when you wake up, ready for your big presentation or job interview only to find a breakout that appeared overnight, you need something that works a bit quicker. We’ve compiled a list of last-minute acne tips, tricks, and tools that are backed up by science and work under a variety of time frames, from five minutes to overnight.
The Ins and Outs of a Sudden Acne Breakout on the Face
The best way to treat something is to understand how it forms, so before we get to the good stuff, let’s do a quick review on how a sudden acne breakout on the face forms. In truth, acne is a pretty slow-moving process, so odds are your sudden breakout isn’t actually that sudden.
Breakouts appear when the three primary causes of acne come together: inflammation, oil production, and bacteria. Acne can be influenced by all kinds of factors, like stress or genetics, but on the skin-level, all acne comes back to these three things. Acne is an inflammatory condition, meaning all acne starts with inflammation, which causes the pores to constrict slightly, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside. If the bacteria trapped in the pore is limited, a blackhead or whitehead will form, but if there’s a significant amount of bacteria in the pore, then a pimple or cyst will likely form.
As we said before, all of this is happening on the skin-level, so it isn’t obvious and it can be hard to tell that an acne breakout is forming. But there are a few signs you can look out for to try and prevent a breakout or get a jump on it. First, if you notice a patch of your skin getting itchy, there’s a good chance it’s slightly inflamed. Do your best not to scratch it, and try some of the preventative measures outlined later in this post. Second, can you see a bump forming? Even if it isn’t a full-blown pimple yet, this is a sign that a breakout is coming and you should take preventative measures. Finally, look out for increased oil production. If your skin is especially oily, a breakout could be on the way.
The 3 Best Overnight Acne Treatments
If you’re lucky, you might catch an acne breakout the night before a big event instead of in the morning, just moments before you have to be out the door. In those cases, you have all night to help minimize your breakout, and we have just the treatments to do it.
Green Tea, Aloe Vera, and Tea Tree Oil Mask
1 teaspoon freshly brewed green tea
3 drops tea tree essential oil
1 tablespoon aloe vera
This mask is designed to decreased inflammation, kill acne-causing bacteria, and protect the skin from any irritation it might encounter throughout the night (restless sleepers, we’re looking at you). Several studies have been published on the anti-inflammatory properties of green tea when applied topically to the skin. Simply brew a cup of green tea and add one teaspoon to a mixing bowl. If you like tea, you may want to drink the rest of the cup; studies show green tea can also decrease inflammation when ingested. We’ve added tea tree oil to this mask as well because it has also been studied thoroughly and researchers have found it to be incredibly effective in killing bacteria, including the specific type of bacteria that causes acne. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce oil production. However, it should never be applied directly to the skin. Instead, add a few droplets to your green tea. Finally, add aloe vera as a base. Research on aloe vera’s acne-healing properties is limited, but it is a great neutral base for delivering the green tea and tea tree oil. Some studies even show that aloe vera can help the skin absorb other ingredients. Add one tablespoon to the mixing bowl and stir the ingredients until they’re thoroughly blended. Apply a very fine layer to your skin, let it dry, then head to bed! In the morning, any potential breakouts should be significantly less severe.
Lavender Oil Diffusion
Essential oil diffuser
If you consistently get acne breakouts right before important events, there may actually be a reason: stress. Studies show that chronic stress can lead to increased inflammation, and when we’re stressed about something for a few days, like a big test or your upcoming wedding, that inflammation can build up and result in a breakout. If you know stress tends to get to you, try putting lavender oil in an essential oil diffuser and let it run overnight. There’s significant research that lavender oil aromatherapy can relieve stress and its physical effects. If your stress only creeps up on you at the last minute, you can save the diffuser for the night before, but if you know you’re going to start getting stressed about your event several days in advance, use the diffuser each night leading up to the event.
Going the Extra Mile
Your normal skin care products
If you have acne products that work well for you, you can use them to your advantage when trying to prevent a major acne breakout. Simply apply your skin care routine as you normally would, then apply a little extra treatment ointment to the area that’s starting to breakout.
Not sure that your skin care routine is really getting the job done? You’re not crazy for wondering—most skin care products are far too harsh, meaning they cause major irritation which leads to major breakouts. At Exposed, we take a different approach to skin care. Our products contain the best acne-fighting ingredients from salicylic acid to tea tree oil, but we keep them nice and gentle. Our Basic Kit is a great example of how to use this overnight technique. Simply wash your face with the Facial Cleanser and apply the Clearing Tonic on your full face. Wait a moment for the tonic to dry completely, then apply an extra dab to the area where you’re concerned about a breakout. Let that dry as well, then apply the Clear Pore Serum to your full face, let it dry, and apply a little extra to the affected area again. This strategy can result in a little extra drying in the affected area, so you may want to apply a good moisturizer as well, like the Exposed Moisture Complex.
3 Tips to Banish Acne Breakouts in an Hour
There’s no miracle product or trick that can completely banish acne in just one hour, but there are some helpful tools for making it less noticeable on a time crunch. If you notice a breakout and you still have a little time before you have to be out the door, try these three tricks.
Honey and Green Tea Spot Treatment
1 tablespoon of pure honey
1 teaspoon freshly brewed green tea
We already discussed why green tea is so great for last-minute breakouts, but this recipe includes another great ingredient that we can’t recommend enough: honey. There’s substantial research showing that honey can kill all kinds of bacteria, including p. acnes, the type that typically causes acne, reduce inflammation, and speed up the wound-healing process. Honey is strong enough that hospitals often use honey-soaked dressings to heal all kinds of wounds. It might sound extreme, but acne does qualify as a type of minor wound, and even though honey can’t completely heal your acne in just an hour, it can make a significant improvement. Apply this mixture to your acne breakout and leave it on as long as possible. To get the most out of it, there are two tricks when it comes to honey: first, make sure it’s pure honey, and second, make sure to remove it gently. Honey comes in all forms, but for acne, you need pure honey because any additives can decrease its effectiveness. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to tell if honey is pure. Simply look at the ingredients label. The only ingredient listed should be honey. If there are any other ingredients, even just water, it won’t be as effective. Second, because it’s so sticky, it can be tempting to scrub honey away, but scrubbing will only cause inflammation, making your breakout redder and more visible.
Olive Oil and Lemon Juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
It might seem counterintuitive to use oil on acne, but there’s a substantial movement behind the “oil cleansing method” and there’s actually some science to support it. Oil like olive oil or hemp seed oil can help dissolve the oil our skin naturally produces, and it can improve our epidermal barrier, the protective layer of our skin that keeps irritants out. Lemon juice works in the opposite way; rich in citric acid and vitamin C, fresh lemon juice exfoliates the skin and removes excess oil by absorbing the moisture out of the surrounding skin cells. That’s why we never recommend using it on its own. It is far too drying. When you first apply it, it might appear to reduce your acne, but in a few hours, the skin will become red and inflamed, and your breakout will likely get worse. When combined with the soothing power of olive oil, however, lemon juice can help calm a breakout without negative effects in the not-so-distant future. As a note, we recommend always using freshly squeezed lemon juice because the vitamins and acids are most effective that way. When lemon juice is pre-squeezed, either by you or by a company which then bottles it, the acids and vitamins steadily lose their potency and will likely have less of an effect on your skin.
Yes, we know, the cardinal acne care sin: popping. The truth is, popping is almost never an effective way to treat breakouts and almost always makes things worse, but there are very specific circumstances where it may come in handy. For instance, fully formed pimples with large, white heads. Pimples get a head like this when the infection has been successfully defeated by your immune system, which is now trying to push the dead bacteria cells out of your body, forming the head of the pimple. These dead bacteria are ready to disappear from the body, and your body will be able to begin the healing process more quickly with them gone. In this case, popping may be the quickest way to deal with the breakout safely. However, if you have pimples that don’t quite have a full head formed, these are not to be popped. We know they are often just as easy to spot and just as frustrating, but trying to pop these pimples that aren’t ready will only result in increased redness and inflammation. Even when a pimple is ready to pop, it’s still important to do so carefully to avoid scarring. Using the pads of your fingertips (not your nails!) push gently down and in toward the pimple. If any clear liquid or blood emerges, it’s time to stop, even if it doesn’t seem like you’ve gotten it all yet. Once the pimple has been popped, apply a little honey to help it heal and gently remove it before leaving the house.
How to Clear Acne Fast—Like, 5 Minutes Fast
You’re headed out the door, running late, but when you see yourself in the hall mirror you see a breakout and immediately start rifling through your brain to find any solutions for how to clear acne fast—like, right now fast. You have no time for honey or face masks or even popping. Is there really anything you can do? Nothing can get rid of your acne entirely in just five minutes, but we do have one tried and true method for making things at least a bit better.
Green Tea Ice Cubes
Brewed green tea
Ice cube tray
This recipe is fairly simple: just brew some green tea, allow it to cool slightly, then pour it into an ice cube tray. Let it freeze for several hours, then empty the ice cubes into a plastic bag in your freezer. That way you can pull them out at the last minute any time you need one. The best part about this solution is that you can use it in the car on the way to work, school, a date, etc. Simply hold the ice cube using a paper towel to catch any melting drips and press the ice cube gently to the breakout. Three minutes on, three minutes off should help reduce inflammation without completely numbing your skin.
3 Last-Minute “Cures” That Actually Cause More Acne Breakouts
Now that you know some of our best tips for acne breakouts, let’s review the popular ones that don’t actually work. A lot of information about acne solutions is spread through rather unreliable networks: our parents, who were raised in a time where we knew much less about acne, the internet, which gets so hyped about some things that the truth gets lost somewhere, and our friends, who often learn their tips from their parents or the internet. That’s not to say we can never trust our friends or our parents or the internet—I mean, you’re reading this on the internet right now—we’re just saying that it’s important to question why certain treatments are supposed to work and do your research to see if it really checks out.
This is such a terrible acne treatment, we can’t quite understand where it even came from. We’ve all heard of it, and many of us have tried it or know someone who has, so you would think it at least has a kernel of truth to it, right? It might, but it’s a very small one.
Toothpaste contains many great ingredients for cleaning your teeth, but very few that are good for your skin. One of these main ingredients in sodium lauryl sulfate. It’s a type of chemical called a surfactant, and it works by clinging to the plaque on our teeth, then foaming up and taking the plaque with it. When sodium lauryl sulfate gets onto our skin, it conducts this same process with the oils and dead skin cells in our pores. This is probably where the rumor that toothpaste can help with acne got started, but that’s a very small portion of the picture. Sure, sodium lauryl sulfate might help reduce clogged pores, but unlike gentle exfoliating agents like salicylic acid or sulfur, sodium lauryl sulfate was never meant to be used on the skin and is thus far too harsh. Harsh products are terrible for acne because they only serve to irritate the skin, which leads to more inflammation. This can lead to more acne in general, but it’s especially bad for last-minute acne issues because increased inflammation makes breakouts more noticeable.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is enough to disqualify toothpaste from our docket of acne quick fixes, but it also contains a variety of chemicals that clog pores and generally does not offer as much acne relief as many other options.
This is another popular one that has so many false claims surrounding it that we aren’t even sure where to start. First, baking soda does not balance the pH of the skin in a helpful way; second, it should never be combined with apple cider vinegar and applied to your skin; and third, baking soda does not make a good exfoliating scrub.
One thing we often hear about baking soda and other skin care products is that they “balance the skin’s pH,” but that is almost never a good thing. The truth is, our skin is naturally acidic, and it needs to stay that way. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic, like battery acid, and 14 being the most basic (sometimes called alkaline), like lye. Water is considered neutral at 7, and our skin typically comes in somewhere between 4.5 and 5.5. It is naturally acidic, which is why so many mild acids can help acne. Products with a basic pH, like baking soda, claim to even out the skin’s pH, but they all they’re really doing is taking the skin out of its comfort zone, making acne more likely, not less.
Next, never ever combine baking soda with apple cider vinegar and apply it to your skin. This mixture is strong enough to clear out clogged drains in your bathtub, which means it is far too strong for human skin. This is a clear and simple no.
Finally, baking soda shouldn’t be used as an exfoliating scrub because our skin generally doesn’t like exfoliating scrubs. Gentle exfoliating substances like lactic acid or glycolic acid work through chemical interactions, while exfoliating scrubs typically involve scrubbing particles like beads or baking soda particles. These are too harsh and only end up irritating the skin, and they could even clog pores.
The reason most people think hydrogen peroxide works for treating acne is because it burns when you apply it. If something burns or stings, that must mean it’s working, right? Nope.
When your skin stings or burns, that means it is being damaged and it’s sending your brain pain signals to get you to stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing. Hydrogen peroxide does kill bacteria, but it also damages your cells. This means it could help kill the acne-causing bacteria, which would help you get rid of acne more quickly, but it also damages the skin cells around that bacteria, and to repair the cells, our body triggers the inflammation response. The result is red, inflamed skin for quite a while after application, and it could leave the skin slightly discolored for a few days. If the goal is to make acne less noticeable, hydrogen peroxide is definitely not the answer.
How to Stop Acne Before It Forms: Our 3 Favorite Preventative Measures
When acne breakouts surprise us at the last minute, there are some solutions for how to get rid of acne fast, but none of them can get rid of acne entirely. The best way to get truly clear skin is to use preventative measures to keep acne from forming in the first place. There are three basic preventative measures that can help improve nearly any acne, no matter how severe. You just need the right face wash, a good treatment serum, and a moisturizer.
A good face wash is integral to preventing as much acne as possible because it clears away the oil and dead skin cells that have the potential to clog pores. This cleansing effect also helps make your other acne products more effective; without all that oil in the way, your treatment serum and moisturizer have easy access to your skin. The right face wash will be strong enough to clear out your pores, but not so strong that it strips your face of the protective layer of oil it needs. We don’t want too much oil, but without that epidermal barrier, our skin becomes open to all kinds of irritation. We recommend face washes with low concentrations of mild acids like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, or citric acid. Sulfur and tea tree oil can make great active ingredients too. If your skin is dry or sensitive, make sure your face wash uses the lowest possible concentration and test it out on your arm before applying it to your face.
Now that the excess oil and dead skin cells are cleared away, you have better access to your skin and you can defend it against acne’s most common triggers. Treatment serums typically focus on killing p. acnes bacteria and reducing inflammation, since those are factors that constantly influence the skin.
P. acnes are constantly present on our skin because they’re part of our natural flora of bacteria, and inflammation is simply a fact of life, so the best acne treatment serums consistently try to reduce them as much as possible. Some of the ingredients we recommend looking for when it comes to p. acnes are benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, and retinoids. Benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil actively kill p. acnes bacteria and are readily available over-the-counter, but most retinoid products are only available with a prescription, and they fight p. acnes another way.
Retinoids are essentially concentrated derivatives of vitamin A, and they work by regulating the life cycle of our skin cells. They prevent skin cells from being produced or dying in a way that might clog pores, creating a constant, smooth regeneration of skin cells. This constant regeneration keeps the skin cells moving and the oil with it. P. acnes bacteria feed primarily on the oil our skin produces, so when you remove the excess oil with retinoids, p. acnes decrease as well.
Other treatment serums focus primarily on reducing inflammation. The best ingredients to look for if you’re looking to decrease inflammation specifically are green tea extract, aloe vera, and passion flower extract (sometimes called maracuja oil). These ingredients help protect the skin, and green tea extract and passion flower extract are both packed with antioxidants, molecules which help reduce skin cell damage, which in turn reduces inflammation.
Most people with acne skip moisturizing, but it’s one of the most important steps, especially when it comes to acne prevention. We can get so caught up in getting rid of the acne we have, that we forget that we should be trying to prevent more acne from forming.
Contrary to common belief, people with oily skin still need moisturizer, and moisturizer doesn’t clog pores if you know what you’re doing. If you have oily skin, you probably need stronger products to get rid of the excess oil that contributes to your acne. Those strong products can strip away some of the protective layer we need, which can cause inflammation. However, if you apply a moisturizer along with your other acne treatment products, it can soothe that irritation before it can trigger any inflammation, and it can help make the epidermal barrier stronger without causing any increased oil production. The best moisturizers are water-based rather than alcohol- or oil-based, and all of their ingredients rank as a 2 or lower on the comedogenicity scale.
Most people worry about moisturizers clogging their pores and contributing to their acne, but the comedogenicity scale can help you avoid that. It categorizes various substances by ranking them on a scale of 0 to 5. Substances with a comedogenicity of 0 almost never clog pores, while substances rated as a 5 are almost certain to clog pores. As long as your moisturizer contains only ingredients rated as a 2 or lower, it’s very unlikely to cause issues. The best ingredients to look for in a moisturizer are glycerin, evening primrose oil, and vitamin E. All of these either draw moisture into the skin or help the skin retain moisture, both of which are great for strengthening that protective layer and reducing future acne formation.