How to Treat and Cover a Zit at Every Miserable Stage

I reached out to dermatologists and makeup artists about what I should do over the course of a breakout.
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I reached out to dermatologists and makeup artists about what I should do over the course of a breakout.

A few months ago, my skin started a major rebellion against me, worse than any I had experienced in a while. I was unprepared, since my pimple timing and location are typically very predictable. When I suddenly started breaking out in areas beyond my regular zit boundaries with one group of zits after another, I was completely unprepared.

A month into my breakout stage, my face looked like a museum of every type of pimple, including but not limited to: the about-to-emerge zit, the visible zit, the healing zit, and the dark acne mark. I tried to expand my skincare routine to stop the madness, but it made things worse. Every day was a struggle to treat my acne and cover it up.

Even though my skin has cleared up considerably since then (a lot of it has to do with leaving my skin alone and focusing on other things that don't involve me looking closely into a mirror), I want to be prepared the next time I have a long breakout. So, I decided to reach out to the experts about what I should be doing next time I'm breaking out. I split it up into different stages and included makeup tips, too, because covering pimples is also a battle!

The Pre-Pimple Stage

Nothing puts a damper on my day like doing my skincare routine and feeling the beginnings of a pimple — especially if I have a big event the next day. 

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Is there anything I can even do about this, aside from complain? According to Dr. Eric Schweiger, a dermatologist and RealSelf contributor, there is.

"I recommend going and seeing a dermatologist right away. It can be injected with cortisone at that time, which can potentially eliminate it before it emerges," Dr. Schweiger said. This is also where pimple patches come in handy. According to Dr. Schweiger, they're most effective before the zit becomes a whitehead (assuming it's not a cyst).

If you don't have time to see your derm, opt for topical treatments with acne-fighting ingredients. 

"At the first sign of a pimple, try a spot-treatment with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid," says Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, Founder and Director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and Assistant Clinical Professor of the Department of Dermatology at George Washington University Medical Center. 

Whatever you do, don't pick at it! (I will be repeating this often)

The Pimple Stage

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Now that your pimple has arrived, you may be tempted to overload on your skincare, but Dr. Schweiger says the basic zit-zapping strategy is quite simple: cleanse the skin in the morning and evening, and then apply a spot treatment. As for active ingredients to look for, he recommends the same as Dr. Tanzi: good ol' salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, as well as sulfur.

If your pimple is really inflamed, celebrity facialist Ildi Pekar recommends the hot-compress method. 

"I would recommend using baking soda and mixing it with water to apply directly onto the blemish, which should reduce the appearance of it. Leave on for 10 minutes, and then take a hot towel and apply pressure onto the breakout like a hot compress to release the inflammation. Do this morning and night until it reduces," she said.

At this stage, you may also want to start covering it up, so I reached out to makeup artist Sonia Kashuk, (yes, the Sonia Kashuk), for advice. Here's what she had to say: "My biggest tip is not to put too much product on the blemish. Sometimes overloading on concealer actually calls more attention to the spot. Keep it simple. Look for a concealer shade that exactly matches your own skin tone with a slight yellow base. Using a concealer brush, spot-treat the blemish, then set with a tiny bit of loose powder to hold it in place."

The Popped Pimple Stage

I feel like a lot of people don't talk about this because it goes against the advice that you should never pop your pimples. If you need a refresher about why it's so bad, here's one from Pekar: "Most clients cause bad acne scarring by picking at their skin and not extracting blemishes properly. With the wrong angle and improper pressure, you can break capillaries, which can cause redness to stay on the skin and form scars that take a lot of time to heal."

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Now, if you weren't able to resist temptation, your DIY damage control, according to Dr. Schweiger (who, of course, advises against bathroom surgery on zits), would be to cleanse the area and then put on a spot treatment. 

Dr. Tanzi, on the other hand, recommends dabbing a toner with glycolic or salicylic acid, both chemical exfoliants that promote clearer skin. Again, do not continue to pick at it.

I avoid popping zits because it's hard to cover a popped pimple with makeup, but apparently, you're not supposed to be putting makeup on top anyway. 

"This can introduce more bacteria and potentially irritating ingredients to this now vulnerable area. The best thing you can do is let the area breathe and leave it alone," Dr. Schweiger said.

The Healing Stage

If your zit has reached this point, congratulations! It's almost over. Chances are, your pimple is easier to cover up and is going away quickly.

If your pimple, however, is dry around the edges, here's how you would cover it up, according to Vanessa Ungaro of luxury hair and makeup service Lauren+Vanessa: "Even though you may not want to, you have to moisturize the area. Next, prime your skin. Then use a full-coverage foundation like YSL Fusion Ink. This foundation covers so well and dries to a matte finish, so you don't have to powder too much to set it. Make sure not to over-powder it because that will dry it out more." 

The Dark Mark Stage

If for some reason your healing pimple decides to linger even longer as a dark post-acne spot, here's what's happening and what you can do about it. 

According to Dr. Schweiger, these spots appear because of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which can form after a zit has been picked at or if the lesion was very inflamed. Both derms said the best way to prevent it is to be cautious about sun exposure: limit being out in the sun and wear sunscreen so the sun's rays don't darken the marks. They also both recommended looking for skin-lightening ingredients such as hydroquinone, which Dr. Schweiger calls the "gold standard in skin lightening," and kojic acid.

To cover dark acne marks, you would use a strategy similar to the one you would use to cover up pimples, said Vanessa Eckels, Lead Makeup Artist at Hourglass Abbot Kinney. However, the color correcting would be different since pimples are usually red-toned, while dark acne marks are usually purple or dark brown. 

"Apply your foundation first, then use a concealer to target the areas where more coverage is needed. Also, choose your concealer based on the shade of the area you're covering. If it's purple or dark brown, use a concealer with more peach or orange," Eckels said.

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Now that your skin is back to normal, preventing the cycle from restarting is key. I know this varies from person to person, so I asked Dr. Schweiger for some general tips. 

"Be vigilant with your skincare routine. Wash your face in the morning and evening. Do not fall asleep with makeup on. When my acne patients are compliant with their skincare routine, they see results. Also, partner with a dermatologist. Combination therapies, a combo of at-home skincare and in-office treatments, are really the best defense against acne," he said.

Even though I'm sure my next breakout is probably not far away, I'm glad I have a better sense of what to do next time my skin starts freaking out.

  • What's your favorite zit-covering concealer? 
  • Do you see a dermatologist when you get a zit?
  • What works best for you: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or sulfur?