Look, as much as I'd like to present you with The Best Acne Treatment of All Time™, there really is no one-size-fits-all-zits remedy when every human's skin sensitivity and acne type can be completely different. The ingredients that zap whiteheads on me won't do anything for your cystic zit, and the formulas that soothe ultra-inflamed bumps won't do much for that pus-filled pimple. Yep, just another reason why acne is the f*cking worst. That's why it's so important to make sure you're tailoring your acne treatments to your exact skin type. DW, though, that's where I come in—ahead, the most common types of breakouts, how to identify them, and, most importantly, how to treat 'em fast.
How to Treat Cystic Acne
Alright, here's the shitty thing about treating cystic acne: Since cystic zits are rooted deep within the skin tissue, there's no magic cleanser, spot treatment, or serum that'll completely clear up your acne at home. They typically require time, patience, and a prescription-strength remedy from a dermatologist—so now might be the time to book that appointment you've been putting off for years (you can even see a derm virtually, if you can't get there in person).
But what you can do in the meantime is calm your cystic acne with a cocktail of benzoyl peroxide and one-percent hydrocortisone cream, an anti-inflammatory combo that'll help flatten your zits faster. "The less inflammation you have now, the less hyperpigmentation and scarring you’ll have when the zit heals,” Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, tells Cosmo.
Best Treatment for Cystic Acne: Benzac Benzoyl Peroxide
You're going to do this every single day for one week, so listen up: After applying your nighttime skincare routine (your usual combination of face wash, moisturizer, etc.), gently wipe off the products from your cystic zit with a dry cotton swab. You want the area to be clean and dry, since any lingering creams or oils will get in the way of your treatment. Then, dab a thin layer (less is more, here) of benzoyl peroxide on your cyst.
Benzac Benzoyl Peroxide, P400.75, Watsons
Best Treatment for Cystic Acne: Hydrocortisone Cream
Once your benzoyl peroxide is dry, tap a little hydrocortisone cream on top to help minimize redness or swelling. Remember: Don't expect your cystic zit to disappear overnight. Be patient and take it slow (that means no picking, y'all—cystic zits will never, ever fully come to a head, so all the squeezing in the world won't pop it. It will, however, leave you with insane scars).
How to Treat Whiteheads
Fun fact: Whiteheads—those classic zits with visible white caps—are formed when oil and dead skin cells get trapped in your pores. And as cute as that all sounds, the great thing about whiteheads are that they're relatively easy to treat. “The most common ingredient used to treat whiteheads is salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid—BHA—that works to open up your pores,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, has told Cosmo.
The not-so-great thing about salicylic acid? It takes a bit to work. “You’ll likely see results in 4-6 weeks,” Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC, tells Cosmo, "after which you should continue to use it for long-term effects."
Best Acne Treatment for Whiteheads: Salicylic Acid Serum
Plan on easing a salicylic acid serum into your routine—for three weeks, use it every three nights on clean, dry skin as the first step of your skincare regimen, then switch to every other night indefinitely—to avoid any drying or irritating side effects.
Best Acne Treatment for Whiteheads: Sulfate-Free Facial Wash
Even though it might be tempting to add as much salicylic acid to your skincare routine as possible, it will dry out your skin will only result in more breakouts (really). You'll want to keep the rest of your treatment plan super gentle and hydrating—and that includes your cleanser. Most acne-control face washes are filled with stripping sulfates that can make your acne worse. Choose one with amino acids and vitamin-rich extracts to clean and hydrate your face without aggravating your zits.
How to Treat Blackheads
Blackheads are caused by oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria getting lodged in your pores and creating a waxy plug. But, according to Zoe Draelos, MD, a dermatologist in Durham, North Carolina, unlike with whiteheads, where the plug gets stuck, blackheads are the result of that plug getting pushed toward the skin’s surface, coming into contact with air, and then oxidizing and turning black.
Chemical exfoliation is key to treating blackheads at home—so put down the gritty face scrub (they're way too abrasive and can actually create micro-tears in your skin, leading to more breakouts) and use one of these formulas with salicylic acid, instead:
Best Exfoliator for Blackheads: The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Blemish + Blackhead Serum
This blackhead serum from The Inkey List combines exfoliating salicylic acid with zinc and hyaluronic acid to gently unclog pores, zap excess oil, and hydrate skin. As with all actives, you'll need to slowly introduce it into your routine (once every three nights is a safe place to start) after cleansing and before moisturizing.
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Blemish + Blackhead Serum, P850, Beauty Bar
Best Treatment for Blackheads: Clay Mask
Looking for a blackhead mask you can apply all over? Choose one with oil-absorbing clay that works as a blackhead magnet. Just smooth a thin layer over clean skin, let it dry for 10 minutes, and rinse it off with warm water. Don't forget to follow with a hydrating serum and/or moisturizer to keep your skin nice and soft. (Fact: The drier your skin, the more it overproduces oil to compensate, which means more blackheads for you.)
How to Treat Inflamed Pimples (aka Papules)
You know those small and mighty red zits that never come to a head? The kinda painful, super-inflamed ones? Yeah, they're a type of inflammatory acne called papules, and they're formed when bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells push deep into your skin, resulting in that pain and inflammation.
Best Treatment for Inflamed Pimples: Benzoyl Peroxide
The easiest—and fastest—way to treat them is with benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial ingredient that soothes inflammation and fights acne-causing bacteria. Smooth a thin layer over of benzoyl peroxide your breakouts every other night, slowly building up to nightly use after a month.
Best Treatment for Inflamed Pimples: Retinoids or Differin Adapalene Anti-Acne Gel
PSA: Retinoids are one of the best ingredients you can be used on acne-prone skin. According to Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, retinoids speed up and regulate your skin cell turnover, helping to prevent clogged pores and smooth out your skin texture over time.
Adapalene—like Differin—is one of Dr. Levin's go-tos, since "it's generally more tolerable and gentle compared to other retinoids." And to make things even easier, you can snag it OTC, no prescription necessary. Just make sure to start slowly (sensing a theme, here?). Smooth a pea-sized dab over clean, dry skin two nights a week for two weeks, then three nights a week for three weeks, then every other night, always following with moisturizer.
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, Watsons
How to Treat Pus-Filled Zits (aka Pustules)
They might look like whiteheads, but pustules (red, pus-filled zits) are another form of inflammatory acne. Like their cousin papules, you'll want to treat them with bacteria-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide (we meet again), salicylic acid, sulfur, or zinc.
BTW: Picking or popping a pustule is basically the worst thing you can do—you actually end up introducing more bacteria into the wound, which means your zit will hang around thaaaat much longer, and potentially get much worse. Instead, slap on pimple patches or spot treatments as soon as you notice your zit forming.
Best Acne Treatment Patches: COSRx Acne Master Pimple Patch
Choose pimple stickers that are filled with hydrating hyaluronic acid, redness-reducing niacinamide, and exfoliating salicylic acid. Press one on before you go to bed and let the ingredients get to work while you sleep.
COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch, P200, Skincare Curator
Best Spot Treatment for Acne: Sulfur and Zinc Spot Treatment
Dab a spot treatment with anti-bacterial and oil-absorbing sulfur and zinc to gently and effectively heal the breakout. After washing your face and applying your moisturizer, use a cotton bud to dot a thin layer over your zit. Just make sure it's totally dry before you get in bed (you don't want your pillowcase to wipe off the formula).
How to Treat Acne on Sensitive Skin
Here's the thing: The majority of acne treatments aren't gentle enough to use on sensitive skin types. Even though that benzoyl peroxide serum or maximum-strength salicylic acid could destroy your zits in theory, the irritation and redness they'll leave behind can actually cause even more zits in the end. The solution? Gentle alternatives (like lactic acid or tea tree oil) in low (I'm talking, super low) doses. Right this way for your best options:
Best Acne Serum for Sensitive Skin: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Meet lactic acid: an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that increases cell turnover, unclogs pores, and brightens dull, uneven skin. Because lactic acid is a mild exfoliator, it's a great treatment for sensitive, acne-prone skin types. Pat a thin layer on clean skin every three days (anything more can cause irritation) and follow with moisturizer.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA, P660, BeautyMNL
Best Acne Treatment for Sensitive and Oily Skin: Low-Dose Salicylic Acid Toner
Reminder: Acne treatments take time, so don't give up on a product or test a new one until you've used it for at least four weeks. If, after a month, lactic acid isn't giving you the results you want, I give you permission to swap it out for a low-dose salicylic acid. Choose one with a .5 percent salicylic acid is a great starting point for easily irritated skin types.
How to Treat Body Acne
If those red bumps on your chest, back, shoulders, and/or butt aren't responding to your usual acne treatments, there's a good chance you're dealing with something called fungal acne (which, BTW, is especially common in people who wear moisture-trapping athletic clothes like leggings and sports bras).
"Everyone has some level of yeast in their skin’s microbiome, but when you give that yeast a sweaty, damp, or oily environment, you create the ideal place for fungal acne to grow," says Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, dermatologist at Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery.
Fungal acne tends to look pretty uniform: a bunch of tiny, red, inflamed bumps, and doesn't usually respond to classic acne wipes or body washes. Instead, try one of these:
Best Treatment for Fungal Acne: Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
This is going to sound a little unhinged, but dandruff shampoo is actually one of the best treatments for fungal acne, according to Dr. Bhanusali. This one, Nizoral, is formulated with the antifungal ingredient ketoconazole that works to kill yeast (the cause of both dandruff and fungal acne). "Every shower, massage the shampoo over your back and shoulders, wait two minutes, then rinse," he says. "You should start to see a pretty significant reduction after a few uses."
Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, P56.25, Watsons
Best Treatment for Chest and Body Acne: Toner Spray with Salicylic Acid
Regular exfoliation is a great way to prevent body acne from forming in the first place. And since coating those hard-to-reach spots with salicylic acid isn't the easiest of tasks, use ultra-convenient toner spray is an excellent alternative. Mist it on clean, dry skin every three days for maximum results.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.