Remember that middle-school classmate who swore that a dab of toothpaste was the best way to zap a zit? She was wrong, says Dr. Doris Day, a New York City-based dermatologist. A lot of "home remedies" for acne don't help and can even make the problem worse. Here are some of most misguided self-treatments she's seen.
Picking at the Problem. Using your hands to pick at a pimple is one of the worst things you can do for acne. It increases risks of scarring and of the acne coming back in the exact same spot. Picking can also make the inflammation worse and raises the risk of introducing infection into the open sore, Day says. "It just makes [the acne] mad, basically," she says.
Neosporin. Day says some people assume that because Neosporin works as an antibiotic for cuts, it'll also kill the bacteria that causes acne. That's not the case. The ointment clogs pores, has no effect on acne-causing bacteria and can't even reach the base of the skin's follicle, where acne actually forms. Any noticeable improvement is actually due to Neosporin's emollient nature; often the area around the pimple is dried out and Neosporin softens and moisturizes it, making it look better.
Toothpaste. "It's meant to dry out the pimple a little faster," Day says, but don't go for this home remedy. Newer toothpastes are usually equipped with ingredients aimed at controlling tartar, and those chemicals provide "food for the bacteria"—exacerbating acne—or irritate the skin further, making it red and inflamed and sometimes resulting in peri-oral dermatitis, which can cause itchy red patches around the mouth and nose.
Avoiding grease. Staying away from oily foods won't keep your skin from being oily. "There are no studies that we've been able to identify that show fried foods make your skin break out," Day says. Similarly, chocolate and spicy foods have no known effect on acne. There's one caveat: in a very small percentage of the population dairy can make acne worse because of the hormones from the cows. But "that's not the typical person," she says.
So what does work? Day says that a dermatologist may prescribe a Retin A-based ointment, which helps skin cells slough off and regenerate, but these can be too strong for some skin types. There are milder over-the-counter retinoid ointments and creams such as Retin-A Micro. Acne face washes and creams can be useful, but be sure that they have benzoyl peroxide or 2 percent or less salicylic acid for the best results. And, says Day, there's Thermaclear—a device sold for home use that that zaps pimples with a burst of concentrated heat. Finally, she adds, managing stress and controlling hormonal imbalances (some doctors may recommend the birth control pill to women with severe acne) can also help.