The Ones That Work
First Place: Tea Tree Oil
All three dermatologists we spoke to for this story put tea tree oil at the top of their list for zit zapping, and research shows that it can be effective in treating mild-to-moderate acne.
Best for: Deep, inflamed pimples
How it works: It’s an anti-inflammatory and has antibacterial properties, so it’ll soothe that angry red breakout while fighting the bacteria that’s fueling it, says Ranella Hirsch, MD, board-certified dermatologist in Boston.
Use it like this: Get a 5 percent tea tree oil solution, then dilute with equal parts water, to minimize the chances of irritation (if you can’t find a 5 percent product online, create your own by diluting a stronger one with more water). Wet a cotton ball with the watered-down oil and apply to the pimple once or twice a day until it’s gone.
Second Place: Aspirin
Best for: Blackheads and whiteheads
How it works: Aspirin is really a natural form of salicylic acid, the pimple buster you find in tons of OTC acne products. In addition to helping soothe inflamed skin, its exfoliating powers break down the blackhead or whitehead that’s plugging up your pore, says Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
Use it like this: Crush two aspirin tablets, mix with 2 tablespoons of water and apply that mixture to the pimple for a minute or two, then rinse it off, says Rachel Nazarian, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Make sure you’re using aspirin that hasn’t expired—it’ll be less potent if its use-by date is long gone.
Third Place: Apple Cider Vinegar
Best for: Blackheads, whiteheads and deep, inflamed pimples.
How it works: Apple cider vinegar hasn’t been studied on acne, but our skin experts cite its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties as reasons why it can help clear up a zit. It’s also astringent, so it minimizes oil, says Hirsch, and has several acids that help exfoliate away dead skin cells.
Use it like this: Just like with tea tree oil, you need to dilute ACV before you put it on your skin. Take equal parts water and vinegar, soak a cotton pad in the mixture and put it on the pimple for a minute or two. Do this once or twice a day until you see improvement.
Fourth Place: Green Tea
Best for: Deep, inflamed pimples
How it works: Full of antioxidants, it helps calm angry breakouts and also fights acne-causing bacteria, says Nazarian.
Use it like this: Brew some green tea, then apply it to your skin in one of two ways. First option: let the teabag cool to room temperature, then put the teabag directly on the zit and hold it there for up to 20 minutes (green tea is soothing, not irritating like some of these other remedies, so you can leave it on longer). Or take the brewed tea, let it cool, soak a washcloth in it and apply the washcloth to your face for the same amount of time. Continue daily until the zit is gone.
The Ones That Don’t Work (and Might Lead to More Acne)
The Worst: Rubbing Alcohol
Why it’s bad: Rubbing alcohol is so drying that it strips oils and proteins from your skin, leaving it more inflamed than it already was and likely making your pimple worse, says Shah.
2nd Worst: Toothpaste
Why it’s bad: Natural or not, “toothpaste is a concentrated cleanser meant to clean teeth, one of the toughest surfaces in your body,” says Nazarian. “Your skin is way too sensitive for that.” Cue dryness, irritation and a bigger acne situation on your hands.
3rd Worst: Lemon Juice
Why it’s bad: It can reduce oil, but pure citrus can also be bothersome to skin because of the fruit acids it contains, says Shah. It could also react to sunlight, causing a rash or leaving your skin unintentionally lighter, she adds. (There’s a reason people seeking a blonder ‘do put it on their hair before they sit out in the summer sun).
4th Worst: Honey
Why it’s bad: The sweet stuff probably won’t hurt your skin (it’s said to have wound-healing properties, after all), but a recent study in BMJ Open found that it’s not effective in treating acne. Plus, if you’re breakout-prone, honey could lead to more breakouts because it’s so thick that it traps dirt and bacteria on your skin.