Forget What You Know! How to Treat 5 Diverse Types of Pimples

woman applying pimple cream

Once you’ve observed a budding zit, nothing inspires hope and relief quite like a powerful spot treatment. Rather than allowing a pimple to linger for days — and potentially grow to Himalayan proportions — a topical solution can address the issue immediately (on the spot, if you will). However, just as not all blemishes are alike, neither are spot treatments: Different ingredients work best for certain skin types and zits. Here, with the help of board-certified NYC dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Howe, we break down what’s best for your breakout.

[Editor’s note: As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment.]

The type of pimple: Blackheads

The spot treatment: Salicylic acid

Why it works: Salicylic acid, which you can in a formula like Dermalogica® Clear StartTM Breakout Clearing Booster ($21), stands out for its ability to target pores (the source of zits). “It really gets in there, which makes it ideal for pimples in which follicular plugging is prominent,” says Dr. Howe. That congestion often results in blackheads: that dark spot is actually a follicular plug that has oxidized.

The type of pimple: Deep cysts

The spot treatment: Benzoyl peroxide (BP)

Why it works: This ingredient is a classic for a reason. “Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent and reduces inflammation,” Dr. Howe explains. What that means for your skin: BP not only kills acne-causing bacteria, but eases the redness and swelling it causes, too. It makes sense, then, that BP is an excellent solution for deep, painfully swollen cysts. Apply a formula like La Roche-Posay® Effaclar® Duo Acne Spot Treatment ($37) sparingly; its small applicator tip ensures precise application, which may minimize the amount of potential irritation.

The type of pimple: Breakouts on sensitive or eczema-prone skin

The spot treatment: Tea tree oil

Why it works: Many spot treatments can be too harsh for sensitive skin types, potentially leading to irritation or dryness. However, tea tree oil strikes just the right balance between gentle and potent. “Tea tree oil kills the bacteria involved with acne formation, while not being irritating [in small amounts],” says Dr. Howe. Try one like e.l.f.® Cosmetics Acne Fighting Spot Gel with Aloe ($2), which further soothes the area with aloe extract.

The type of pimple: Whiteheads

The spot treatment: Sulfur

Why it works: Whiteheads are the traditional zit: a pimple that’s visibly filled with pus. To clear the area without drying it too much, reach for sulfur. “Sulfur is an antibacterial and drying agent that is somewhat gentler than benzoyl peroxide,” says Dr. Howe. Try the Indie Lee® Blemish Lotion ($26), which pairs colloidal sulfur with salicylic acid to treat whiteheads overnight.

Mighty Patch Invisible+

The type of pimple: One you’ve already picked or popped

The spot treatment: Hydrocolloid patches

Why it works: Though many believe that hydrocolloid patches can suck gunk out from pimples, that’s not exactly the case. Instead, they’re most beneficial after you’ve wounded or popped a zit. “The hydrocolloid dressing will absorb any oozing serum from the opened pimple while maintaining a moist atmosphere,” Dr. Howe says. “This allows the free migration of skin cells into the area to heal the open wound.” Plus, applying a physical patch like Mighty Patch Invisible+® ($18) prevents scabs and crusts from forming. This serves a dual purpose: “It also [helps] keep you from touching — that is, squeezing, pinching, ‘cleaning,’ ‘fixing’ — the pimple,” says Dr. Howe.