This story starts with a zit: a painful cyst that appeared between my nose and my mouth. Where a beauty mark might have been, I had a throbbing pimple.
I normally break out on my hairline or forehead from hair products, and rarely ever get zits below the tropic of my eyes. So this one shook me, especially after it wouldn’t budge. This is, unfortunately, how cystic blemishes work: They’re not connected to the skin’s surface, so won’t drain the same way that other pimples do. Plus, cysts have a tendency to recur in the same location because they can cause a structural change in the skin and will periodically fill up (again) with oil. Dermatologists can quickly treat cysts with a cortisone shot, but who has that kind of time?
Instead, I toiled. My trusty tea-tree oil failed, as did my Mario Badescu drying lotion. Makeup only covers it. I tried wart remover, thinking the higher content of salicylic acid meant that it qualified as an ultrastrong zit cream. (I was wrong). Even after lancing it, putting a hydrocolloid blister Band-Aid on it (the Cosrx Pimple Patches or 3M ones never stay on my oily face), and waiting for it to heal, it returned. This vicious cycle repeated, until I finally convinced myself that it wasn’t a zit at all, but a staph infection (thanks, Google!), and started coating my nostrils with Neosporin every night.
Six months in (six), I asked a beauty-editor friend for her recommendation. She turned me onto Medik8 Beta Gel, which looked like a knockoff version of the Neutrogena stuff I’d been trafficking into the work bathroom every two hours anyway. I was skeptical, especially considering that the key ingredient listed on the Beta Gel was salicylic acid, the same zit-fighting chemical listed in any other acne treatment. But by the end of the day, the zit had fallen off on its own, and get this: It has never returned.
I turned to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a director at Mount Sinai’s dermatology department, for some answers. What made Medik8 so effective? Zeichner explained that just because two acne treatments have the same active ingredients, the formulations could vary widely between products. Another reason the Beta Gel seemed to work miracles could’ve been the combination of dioic acid (a rarer ingredient that otherwise only appears in the pricey but raved-about SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense serum), azelaic acid, and niacinamide. These ingredients not only treat acne, Zeichner says, but also improve skin tone and texture. Inflammation causes skin to increase pigment production, so pimples often leave a dark spot. But after using the Medik8, there’s no scarring, and no dry patch where my zit used to be — perhaps because of those additional ingredients.
I use the Beta Gel sparingly — my friend warned me that your skin can get used to it and ruin its efficacy — but even in small doses, it works wonders. It’s pricey, yes, but it’s continued to stop other painful cysts from fully forming, all in less than eight hours. I’ve put it on underground zits when I get home from work, and then by the time I go to bed a few hours later, the throbbing bump is gone.
Other Strat-approved blemish fighters
A bona fide inductee into the Strat Hall of Fame, these supercheap pimple patches from Cosrx are, in Rio Viera-Newton’s words, a Holy Grail product.
After reading that spearmint tea has anti-androgen (a male hormone) that downregulates the testosterone in the blood thought to cause hormonal acne, writer Crystal Martin started drinking this brand of tea. Three months later, her cystic acne had cleared up.
Writer Kelsey Mulvey relies on this blemish stick — one she’s used faithfully for six years — to stop pimples as they form. It uses a combination of glycolic acid and salicylic acid. “Your mileage may vary,” Mulvey says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the Blemish Stick before leaving my apartment in the morning and noticed that the pimple was significantly smaller (or completely gone) by lunchtime.”
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