Dermatologists recommend these zit-zappers for a reason. Here's what made the list—plus, a few popular remedies to skip.

By Linley Sanders
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No acne skincare routine is one-size-fits-all, and Dr. Valerie Goldburt, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, acknowledges that treating acne is often "trial and error," especially for individuals trying to treat breakouts at home before deferring to a dermatologist. But before you buy out the entire skincare section of the drug store or raid the kitchen pantry for Internet-approved spot treatments, check out these simple guidelines for treating acne that dermatologists want people to understand.

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As a starting point for spot-treating acne with drugstore products, Goldburt recommends buying over-the-counter treatments with the active ingredients of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Ultimately,  those two ingredients will be much stronger and more effective than popular home remedies for acne, some of which can cause skin damage.

Ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are most effective for treating whiteheads and superficial zits, but they probably won't work wonders on bumps or cysts. For cysts or deeper acne, it's best to skip over-the-counter treatments. Goldburt recommends seeing a dermatologist if the acne bump is hard or painful. Some women also experience hormonal acne breakouts along their jawlines, which is difficult to treat with over-the-counter products or home remedies.

Over-the-Counter Acne Spot Treatments

When a superficial zit appears suddenly, it can often be treated quickly with isolated product application—commonly known as a spot treatment. Goldburt recommends shopping for a spot treatment gel with salicylic acid as an active ingredient. Salicylic acid penetrates clogged pores and dissolves the cell debris that causes the acne plug in the first place. Salicylic acid can trigger skin dryness though, so it is often most effective as a spot treatment applied directly to a pimple.

Goldburt recommends using Clinique's Clinical Clearing Gel ($26), which contains salicylic acid and reduces pimple inflammation overnight. Just dab a tiny amount onto the problem spot before bed.

Natural Acne Spot Treatments

There are a few natural and DIY acne remedies that can help in a pinch. In the absence of a salicylic acid spot treatment gel, you can make a paste from baking soda and water and apply it to the blemish. You can also create a paste from aspirin and water, since aspirin contains salicylic acid. Combine one part baking soda or aspirin with one part water, apply the paste to skin, and let it dry for 15-20 minutes before rinsing off. Don't use the paste for more than a spot treatment or for extended periods of time; it can over-dry the skin.

Heat can help bring the blemish to the skin's surface and accelerate the healing process. Apply a warm compress to the zit, or take a steam shower or long bath. Alternatively, applying ice will help reduce swelling, redness, and pain that accompanies the acne.

Popular Acne Spot Treatments to Avoid

Goldburt and Dr. Lindsey Bordone—a board-certified dermatologist in the Department of Dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center—urge people to avoid any at-home acne spot treatments calling for lemons, limes, or apple cider vinegar. The two pantry cabinet products can be highly acidic and can cause severe irritation, burns, and pigment stains.

Raw or organic honey is another popular natural skincare favorite. Goldburt says its moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties can benefit the skin, but there is little evidence to suggest it does anything to treat acne or minimize scarring. Still, it's a safe treatment that won't hurt your skin.

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