There’s nothing more annoying than an ill-timed zit, especially before a big first date or important meeting. And when it pops up, you’ll do anything to make it gone. 

What is a breakout?

A breakout refers to non-inflammatory spots like blackheads and whiteheads (open and closed comedones) and inflammatory ones, like papules, pustules and deeper cysts. They have a similar life cycle, but might stop at different stages or stay in phases for longer or shorter periods. It really starts a few days before it actually shows up on the skin. Usually, a blackhead or whitehead gets infected due to hardened sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria that all percolate into the pore. 

When your skin feels red or you feel a slight bump under the skin…

This is the first step. The sebaceous glands have ramped up oil production, and they’re clumping up and mixing with dead skin cells and bacteria. If you want to try to stop it from coming to the surface at all (which is what we all want to do!) wash your face with a salicylic acid spiked cleanser to ensure that any external bacteria or makeup doesn’t make it worse. Then, reach for a cube of ice or an ice roller and apply it to the area for 5-10 minutes as often as you can throughout the day. Cold temps reduce inflammation, by constricting the blood vessels and soothing down any swelling. Then, target bacteria by applying a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment—it degrades and releases oxygen, which kills p.acnes in the area.

When it gets to a bump on the surface of the skin with a white tip…

If the inflammation is too much, you may not have been able to stop it in its tracks. White blood cells rush to the area to break down the bacteria, which transforms the papule into the pustule, which is filled with pus. It might feel red and hot, and may hurt too. This kind of breakout is difficult to cover with makeup too, so you’ll want to get rid of it ASAP, but don’t pop! Popping makes it worse, pushing bacteria deep into the pores and making acne worse in the long run. Instead, use a spot treatment and layer all the acne-fighting heavyweights for the best results.

Apply a salicylic acid based serum or cream, which is able to remove excess oil from the skin surface and improve dead cell breakdown. Then, apply a thin layer of benzoyl peroxide to nix bacteria, and smooth hydrocortisone to the area to reduce redness and inflammation. 

When it’s painful, hard and under the surface…

A blind pimple can be really painful, and in this case, a warm compress is a good pick. The heat can open up pores, which draws the pimple closer to the skin’s surface and creates a head. The formation of this head enables the sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria to exit. A hydrocolloid patch will also help protect it at this step—it’ll soak up all the excess pus on the surface while creating a moist, clean environment for healing. Plus, it’ll stop you from popping too.

When it scabs up…

As the infection heals, the inflammation may start to go down. The area may feel itchy and uncomfortable, but this is good. It means that the red, pustular skin is being replaced by new, healthy skin, and exfoliation is in process. At this point, it is best to moisturise and protect the skin—ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, fatty acids and niacinamide are a good idea.