10 best spot treatments that tackle acne, pimples and whiteheads

Pippa Bailey
·7-min read
Keep an eye out for salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids in the ingredient lists (The Independent)
Keep an eye out for salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids in the ingredient lists (The Independent)

Sometimes, despite doing all you can – a solid skincare routine, good diet and plenty of water – prevention fails, and a monumental spot appears, often just in time for a wedding or a job interview.

On those occasions, you need a little extra help. There are many products that claim to be a miracle cure, but in the process of testing we’ve found many to be ineffectual; the ones we have included made a noticeable difference to size, redness and swelling within a day, and helped the skin heal faster. Some even have long term breakout preventing properties with repeated use.

They are formulated to dissolve grime, reduce redness and irritation, and speed up the healing process.

Keep an eye out for salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids in ingredient lists, all of which exfoliate, and dissolve built up dead skin cells, gunk and grime, as well as other spot beating ingredients such as zinc and niacinamide, and soothers like aloe vera.

Our favourites include a variety of formulas: some classic on-the-spot treatments that you dab on, pimple-covering patches, exfoliating toners and even an oil.

Many treatments appear clear on the skin, but others can leave a visible residue, so we’ve noted which are best for overnight use and which are invisible enough to wear during the day or under make-up.

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REN Skincare clearcalm non-drying spot treatment

This brand understands that spot prone skin doesn’t need completely stripping of oil, it needs nourishment. This super gentle treatment contains willow bark and salicylic acid to dissolve grime, prebiotics to rebalance the good bacteria on your skin and prevent future breakouts, and xylitol to maintain hydration. It doesn’t cause flakiness, can be worn beneath make-up, and had a noticeable impact on swelling, size and redness in just 10 hours.

Buy now £17.50, Ren Skincare

Aesop control serum

This little tube is packed with highly effective stuff: niacinamide, sodium ascorbyl phosphate and salicylic acid. In simpler terms: vitamin B3, which reduces the appearance of spots and congestion, a stable derivative of vitamin C, which is great for fighting acne, and a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which clarifies pores. Unlike other coloured, chalky formulas, this is a clear gel so can be applied under make-up and at any time of day or night.

Buy now £15.00, Look Fantastic

ZitSticka killa

ZitSticka’s take on the acne patch is the best treatment we’ve tested for deep, cystic spots. The box contains eight cleaning swabs, which prep the area and help the sticker adhere, and eight patches with “microdarts” (sounds painful but we promise it’s not), which deliver hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid and niacinamide beneath the skin’s outer layer. At around £3.50 a use these aren’t cheap, so we recommend you save for serious emergencies.

Buy now £26.99, Boots

Murad rapid relief spot treatment

We’re yet to find a Murad product that we don’t like, and this is no exception. Formulated with a hefty two per cent salicylic acid, plus oat extract to soothe, nourish and reduce redness, it significantly hastens the healing process. Plus, it dries to a clear, matte gel, so you can wear it under make-up.

Buy now £20.00, Cult Beauty

Kate Somerville clarifying treatment toner

This isn’t technically an on-the-spot treatment, it’s an acid-based toner that can be used over the whole face, but it’s also very effective when applied directly to spots with a cotton pad. It is alcohol-free and contains phytic and lactic acids, which exfoliate and slough away dead skin and other debris, as well as witch hazel, a natural astringent, and aloe to calm. Use it over your whole face to improve skin condition and reduce the incidence of breakouts and use it directly on a spot to help dissolve the bad stuff.

Buy now £22.00, Kate Somerville

COSRX clear fit master patch

The ZitSticka patches above are brilliant but they’re quite expensive for regular use, so if you’re dealing with breakouts on a weekly basis, we’d recommend COSRX’s, which cost just 30p per use. They reduce redness and swelling significantly and protect the spot from external grime and fiddling fingers. They’re also the most invisible we’ve seen; we happily leave the house wearing one.

Buy now £6.97, Amazon

Dermalogica overnight clearing gel

This is considerably more expensive than the other treatments we recommend, but if you have frequent breakouts or struggle with hormonal spots, it’s hard to beat. It contains salicylic acid to exfoliate, soothing tea tree oil, spot fading niacinamide, and anti-inflammatory and healing zinc. It’s designed to be used at night; apply as you would a serum, all over your face, or directly on to troublesome spots.

Buy now £46.00, Feel Unique

Mario Badescu drying lotion

This lotion is probably the best-known spot treatment in the skincare world. It contains cooling camphor, exfoliating salicylic acid, acne easing sulphur and zinc oxide, as well as calamine, which you might remember from your chickenpox days. Dip a cotton bud into the silt at the bottom of the bottle (don’t shake) and apply to spots. We’d recommend using this before bed, unless you plan on spending the day inside, as it leaves a white-pink residue as it dries – for significant reduction in redness and oiliness by morning.

Buy now £15.50, Beauty Bay

Neal’s Yard Remedies jojoba oil

A common misconception is that oily skin – and spots – need drying out, but the topical application of oil helps to stop the skin overproducing oil itself. Jojoba oil is completely natural and the closest, structurally and chemically, to sebum (the oil that your skin produces). This isn’t marketed as a spot treatment, but it really helps: dab it on to your spot(s) after applying an acid-based treatment.

Buy now £19.00, Neal’s Yard Remedies

Origins super spot remover

Don’t be alarmed by the tiny size of this 10ml bottle – a little goes a long way. It contains salicylic acid and witch hazel for their pore-clearing and antibacterial properties, plus anti-inflammatory cucumber extract and soothing red algae to (confusingly) reduce redness. Its gel formula dries clear, making it more public-friendly than the traditional pink options, and we found hormonal spots around the jawline were almost entirely gone in two to three days rather than the usual week.

Buy now £16.00, John Lewis & Partners

What are the different kinds of spots?

When approaching a spot, you need to consider what type it is. Blackheads, not classically spots, are best removed by extractions during a facial; attempting at-home removal can often lead to scarring. Pustules and cysts are large, red, angry, painful and often with no visible head. Whiteheads usually emerge, fully formed, overnight.

How can I get rid of spots quickly?

Sadly, there is no immediate fix for spots, but there are things you can do once one develops to help. If you have any kind of spot, make sure that the area is well cleansed and moisturised. Pustules and cysts should not be squeezed. For whiteheads, sometimes the heat and pressure of cleansing with a hot flannel is enough to take care of it. If not, and you can’t resist squeezing (and who can?), wrap a piece of loo roll around each finger and squeeze gently. Follow up with treatments as listed above. Look for a treatment with anti-redness or anti-inflammatory properties to help with the redness and swelling.

Should I use a spot treatment if I have dry or sensitive skin?

Spot treatments can be irritating thanks to exfoliating acids and harsh formulations designed to dry the spot out. Avoid such products and look for those, such as Aesop’s control gel or Kate Somerville’s clarifying toner, that have a calming base – in these cases aloe – to hydrate and reduce redness.

Can I use a spot treatment to treat acne?

Spot treatments can provide relief in the short-term for those who suffer with acne, but we’d recommend seeing a dermatologist for prescription strength products if spots are persistent and debilitating.

The verdict: Spot treatments

REN Skincare’s clearcalm non-drying spot treatment balances spot zapping salicylic acid with nourishing and rebuilding ingredients for effective treatment that doesn’t cause dryness, irritation or peeling. If you don’t often get spots and would like multitasking products that help prevent as well as treat them, Kate Somerville’s clarifying toner and Neal's Yard Remedies' jojoba oil are a powerful duo