Pimple, zit, blemish, whitehead, blackhead—no matter what you call ’em, they are annoying and can really affect your mood and looks (especially when you are wayyyy past your teenage years; pimples shouldn’t happen anymore, yet they do!).

What is the best way to rid your face of an unwanted pimple? In the case of a real emergency like your wedding day or some other special event, a dermatologist can inject the pimple with cortisone. This technique is quite effective, but pricey and time consuming—if you can even get a last-minute appointment.

The good news is that there are many things you can try at home to clear up a pimple…even a painful cystic one. These treatments are not as effective as a cortisone injection, but they will speed up the healing process, typically within two days. These techniques are most effective when you start at the first sign of a blemish

Begin with steam. Heat water to boiling, then transfer to a large bowl. Drape a towel over your head to create a tent and let the steam do its work opening up your pores to clear them out. This is a step that few people know about or, if they do, think they can skip. But the topicals suggested below won’t work nearly as well if your pores are constricted. And you really do need the intensity that the steam tent offers—a steamy shower won’t do.

Then apply spot treatment. There are many options available. Choose ONE from below and see how it works for you. Beware: Using all of these at the same time will result in a red, blotchy face, which may make the pimple look better since it will no longer be the focal point but I don’t think this is our goal. The options are listed in the order of most-effective to least in my opinion.

  • Using a cotton swab, apply a dab of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to the pimple. The cortisone cream will reduce the inflammation and cause the spot to deflate. OTC hydrocortisone typically contains up to 2% concentration. Stronger is better.
  • Glycolic and salicylic acids are the best choices for spot treatments. Some people crush an aspirin (which is made from salicylic acid) and make a paste that they apply to the blemish.
  • Tea tree oil. This is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, so it reduces the redness and addresses the bacterial overgrowth that caused the pimple. Try a dab of diluted tea tree oil—mix the tea tree oil with a small amount of water and apply to the spot.

The best thing you can do when you have a blemish is to treat it using the techniques above. The steam will help to clear out your pores and allow them to accept the healing topical you apply afterwards.  The worst thing you can do is to touch your face excessively, squeeze or pop a pimple. This will lead to more inflammation and a longer healing time.


We can’t avoid the occasional pimple, but we can take steps to ensure that we get fewer of them. Your diet and habits matter!

  • Many people find that limiting or eliminating dairy and/or refined sugars helps keep their skin clear.
  • Keeping bacteria away from the face is crucial too. Be sure to cleanse the face in the morning and especially in the evening before bed.
  • A nightly application of a retinol-based serum will increase cell turnover and prevent future breakouts.
  • Change pillowcases oftenas often as every other day—as they are germier places than you might imagine.
  • The number one germ catcher is the cell phone! Use earbuds or your speaker when talking on your phone to keep those germs from touching your cheeks when you speak.

Click here to read Ginger Hodulik Downey’s book The Esthetician’s Guide to Outstanding Esthetics.

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