Most people think spot treatments are supposed to work by “drying out” the pimple, and in fact, most spot treatments DO take this approach. They are packed with clays, or talc or alcohol or high percentages of benzoyl peroxide. In fact, one of the most iconic spot treatments literally calls itself a “drying lotion” and lists alcohol as the first ingredient.
Now, this may work for teens, those with resilient skin and those with more minor blemishes, like whiteheads or pustules – acne with minimal swelling and inflammation and with a visible head filled with pus.
But what about for the other types of acne? Red and painful papules, or deep and slow-to-resolve cysts and nodes? Even congestion, blackheads and acne rosacea are not at all well served by a spot treatment whose tactic is “dry it out.”
Here is what happens when you apply a drying spot treatment to papules and cysts:
- The skin gets even more irritated, not less. That means not only have you not helped to reduce inflammation, you have increased it, which will make the blemish persist even longer. Alcohol and benzoyl peroxide are irritating in high percentages, as is the practice of leaving clay on the skin too long.
- The skin dries out and gets less elastic and more stiff. This means that you have made it harder for the pimple to come to a head since instead of being soft and movable, the skin is now hard and inflexible, so the pus stays pushed down. If the pimple DOES come to a head, you have many-fold increased the chances of rupturing the follicle and surrounding skin cells, and therefore scarring.
With congestion and blackheads, the drying nature also works against you, making both the sebaceous plug and the surrounding skin less soft and elastic, and therefore the congestion, now hardened into concrete, is less likely to resolve on its own, but more likely to tear the skin if it is extracted. (Why it is so important to always moisten the skin well before extracting, using steam or some other method.)
And with acne rosacea, the dryness will increase irritation, inflaming the acne.
We must remember that acneic skin is skin that needs support and is in a weakened state of less than optimal health. The last thing we want a spot treatment to do is to further damage an existing lesion (yes, blemishes are wounds!) on the skin.
So what should we look for in a spot treatment?
A common “natural” spot treatment is applying pure Tea Tree Oil to the blemish. The thinking behind this is that the tea tree oil kills the acne bacteria, making the blemish go away. So is looking for anti-bacterial properties the answer? No.
With MOST “anti-bacterial” acne remedies you will NOT actually kill the acne bacteria – instead you will subject weak skin to harsh ingredients that will negatively affect the healing process.
Recent research has revealed that there are multiple types of acne bacteria – types I, II and III and over 20 sub-types. Tea tree oil – and most other “anti-bacterial” acne preparations only work on one type, maybe two. Now, if your skin contains mostly that p.acnes variant, then you might see some success with tea tree oil – many do. (However, many also report their acne becoming “resistant” to tea tree oil after some time.)
But acne bacteria are clever and they create what is known as a biofilm – this is a layer of protective film the bacteria secrete around themselves. Many anti-bacterial ingredients are effectively blocked by these biofilms.
Now say that you have an anti-bacterial ingredient that kills multiple types of p.acnes AND penetrates biofilms. In addition to probably being quite harsh to the skin, impeding its health and healing, there is another problem. Yes, you are killing the bacteria, but did you know that even dead acne bacteria create inflammation in the skin? Yes! So, you will STILL see lesions and inflammation!
This is not to say that we should avoid anti-bacterial spot treatments, since they may help, but this is not the quality we want to prioritize in a spot treatment. And we should seek effective yet gentle anti-bacterial agents (good news – many botanicals fit this description!).
First and foremost, a good spot treatment must help the skin with resolving inflammation, or to put it another way, must have anti-inflammatory ingredients and properties. Inflammation and acne go hand in hand. If we can calm stressed and damaged skin, we make way for healing. And there is always some degree of inflammation with acne, so anti-inflammatories are a no-brainer.
If you have found a spot treatment that is anti-inflammatory AND specifically targets the inflammatory pathways in the skin that acne activates, you are doing better than most! These spot treatments will not always resolve blemishes overnight, but please remember: an acne lesion actually takes a long time to form, even though it seems like it just pops up overnight. And just like with losing weight, putting on pounds is a lot easier than taking them off. Acne comes easily, but leaves reluctantly, so we should give this reality space. It is what it is, and our skin simply needs time to heal. As it is healing, we can support it with anti-inflammatories.
To make a good acne spot treatment great, in addition to having a spectacular anti-inflammatory component, it should have a significant regenerative component as well.
Have you ever noticed when you get a painful red blemish and treat it, the redness and pain go away, and the blemish shrinks up a bit, but then all of a sudden it seems like progress stalls? There’s still a bump on the skin that’s taking forever to go away, and it might even have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) associated with it?
That’s when it’s time to call in ingredients that speed healing and skin cell regeneration. And throw in some ingredients that can help to prevent/reduce scarring as well. Now the spot treatment is getting really, really good.
Specific to you
You might find that different spot treatments help with different types of acne – this is very normal and common.
Some find our Zen Physic to be especially effective against a particularly difficult category of blemish – cysts and nodes. Once this acne rears its head it can take what seems like forever to resolve. I remember having cysts that would literally be around for months! Zen has a proprietary blend of herbs designed to help with swelling and deep stagnation.
So to make a great spot treatment a holy grail, here is the checklist:
- NON drying
- gently yet effectively antibacterial
- MOST IMPORTANT: anti-inflammatory
- Regenerative, wound/scar healing
- Works for the type of acne you are experiencing
Again, patience and consistency are key – the spot treatment should not be thought of as a zit eraser. The fact of the matter is, it’s better to address acne proactively so it never appears on the skin at all. However, some blemishes will always sneak through, and for these, we are trying to HEAL them well, that is all. Better to have a blemish that takes a week to heal with supporting herbs, than one that “dries up” overnight with harsh chemicals. That is a debt the skin will collect later, you can be sure, in the form of a weakened skin barrier, increased congestion and decreased collagen production.
We have had so many requests to re-launch Zen Physic we are doing it! This cult favorite checks all five items on the Holy Grail Spot Treatment checklist for many, and can always be used as a booster for facial oils and moisturizers to add powerful anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties, no matter what your acne or skin type.