For red, pus-filled pimples: Benzoyl peroxide
Yes, the stuff is harsh, drying and not the best smelling, but doctors agree this is one of the most effective, over-the-counter pimple killers. “Benzoyl peroxide increases the oxygen concentration around the spot and creates an environment that is bad for the bacteria that causes acne,” says Dr Georgia Lee of TLC Lifestyle Practice. “It also increases cell turnover and helps to exfoliate the plugs of dead skin and sebum that clog pores and inflame follicles.” Start with a low concentration (2.5 per cent) to reduce the risk of skin irritation and dryness. Caution: The stuff might bleach dark clothes – so watch that LBD.
For blackheads, whiteheads and small surface pimples: Salicylic acid (aka BHA)
Why? It’s the gentler of the two acids (the other is AHA), making it ideal for most skin types and the most popular treatment in the market. “It works as a peeling agent that thins the skin around the pimple and decreases the shedding of dead cells into the follicles,” says Dr Low Chai Ling of The Sloane Clinic. Most zit fighters favour 1.5 per cent salicylic acid as prolonged high concentrations will cause UV sensitivity, along with the same side effects you’d get with benzoyl peroxide, says Dr Low.
For severe inflammatory and deep cystic acne: Clindamycin
A doctor’s prescription is needed for this topical and powerful antibiotic that kills the acne-causing bacteria and lessens the amount of free fatty acids (the irritant that gives us pimples) on skin. Dr Low warns against excessive usage: “It won’t clear the spot any faster and overdosing – while rare –may lead to dizziness, diarrhoea and nausea, because the body can absorb the drug through the skin.”
“Plant extracts with acne-fighting properties are useful and can be used in tandem with medical ingredients, as the synergistic effect balances out the more sensitising side effects of the chemicals,” says Dr Lee. Dr Low agrees, but adds: “On their own, they may provide limited relief for mild pimples, but are ineffective against more severe or resistant cases.”
As a natural anti-inflammatory agent, it reduces redness and irritation. As an antioxidant, it promotes skin healing and prevents dryness. It’s best used in conjunction with bacteria-killing ingredients as it neutralises the negative side effects of the latter.
Tea tree oil
Dr Low says this natural antiseptic has a solvent-like texture, which “cuts through grease and dirt to unblock pores” and kills bacteria. Dilute it with water, she advises, if you’re using it in its pure state as it may cause allergic reactions and worsen the acne.
It exfoliates, cuts down on surface oil and clears sebum plugs, so it’s often included in acne formulas. However, it doesn’t work well on its own, especially for pus-filled or cystic acne, and can also cause redness and irritation if used in excess. Dr Low advises: “Always seek a doctor’s advice on the right dosage, chemical or not.”
An adapted version first appeared in Female’s July 2013 issue.