Using Pimple Patches? Don’t Make The Same Mistake That I Did

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Back in August, I went through some hormonal changes, and with that came hormonal acne. A large pimple formed smack dab in the middle of my forehead and showed no signs of letting up. I popped a pimple patch on after my skincare routine as usual, left it on long enough to forget it was there, and continued on my merry way. I repeated that exact cycle for about two weeks as the pimple persisted, but the pimple transformed into a crater. I had no clue what had happened until I stumbled upon a Reddit thread from /r/skincareaddiction suggesting most active ingredients, for example, retinol and exfoliating acids, should not be used under hydrocolloid patches, with users even reporting chemical burns. 
If this was accurate, then what I thought was the right way to eradicate my spot was actually doing more harm in the long run. I suffocated the spot with glycolic acid and my other preferred actives. Given that Reddit thread and my semi-expert mind getting it wrong, I realized it was now my duty to ensure that nobody else makes the same mistake. I talked to dermatologists, estheticians, and cosmetic chemists about what you should (and shouldn’t do) when it comes to pimple patches.

How do pimple patches work?

A “pimple patch” is kind of a catch-all term: It typically refers to a type of spot treatment using a thin, hydrocolloid bandage or sticker in various sizes that absorbs fluid from a blemish. Some can also contain ingredients to treat acne and promote skin healing. Hydrocolloid creates a moist environment that promotes faster healing by drawing out excess fluid from the pimple. It’s a cool concept: The hydrocolloid material swells upon contact with fluids, forming a gel-like substance that helps absorb impurities from the pimple and prevents further infection. You’ll often see a hydrocolloid pimple patch paired with salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid known for its exfoliating, anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce the occurrence of new pimples. Other ingredients in pimple patches include natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory tea tree oil, hydrating hyaluronic acid, soothing centella asiatica (cica), and even retinol to promote cell turnover. 

How should you apply a pimple patch?

Using pimple patches in conjunction with other skincare products or active ingredients is generally safe. Esthetician and founder of eponymous skincare brand Renée Rouleau says to be aware of the type and formulation of your other active skincare products. “It’s important to be mindful that if you are using any topical products with a known side effect of irritation, such as tretinoin, the skin’s barrier is more fragile, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for any potential irritation that a patch might bring.” She adds that if it leaves a red mark after removal, discontinue use. 
Rouleau says to keep in mind that pimple patches may not be the best or even the most effective option for certain pimples. They’re generally effective for whiteheads and surface-level blemishes, and may not be as effective for deeper cystic acne. “Since these are being applied as a spot treatment, you can use them daily on individual pimples, and there isn’t much worry of overusing [them],” Rouleau explains. “But if using them consistently isn’t yielding results, you may benefit from turning to a different spot treatment! Not all blemishes are equal and respond to the same type of treatment.” Rouleau's brand has their own spot treatment, Night Time Spot Lotion, and toners with salicylic acid such as Medik8 Press & Clear Exfoliating 2% BHA Tonic or Skincare Junkie Pore Therapy Daily Toner Pads are great alternatives.

What are the risks of using pimple patches?

Pop one on when you feel or see a pimple, and you’re good to go, right? Not exactly. Pimple patches may seem simple (and cute!) at face value, but they can come with some risks. “Most consumers can tolerate a pure hydrocolloid bandage without issue, although an allergy to the material, including adhesives, is not uncommon,” explains Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic, medical, and surgical dermatologist and founder of Skincare Junkie. “Those with sensitive skin may not tolerate certain actives well, like salicylic acid, for example; some with dry or sensitive skin tend to be more at risk of experiencing skin irritation.” Those prone to eczema, rosacea, or other skin conditions may be more likely to react to pimple patches than others, and it’s especially important to avoid using them on open wounds or skin rashes. Contact allergies to one of many ingredients used to make adhesives are also fairly common. If you develop local rashes from bandages, starting with a patch test on your wrist (or avoiding pimple patches altogether) may be wise before applying them to your face. Patch test your pimple patches, and always apply them to a clean and dry face — it may save your skin.
Your ultimate goal with a pimple patch is to see a reduction in signs of inflammation, such as swelling, redness, and discomfort, as well as flattening of the lesion. (Reducing the urge to pick at the blemish and getting a cute Star on your face helps, too.) If you notice increasing redness or red streaking, swelling or pain, it’s best to seek medical attention to evaluate for a possible skin infection or an adverse reaction. Here are some things to keep at the top of your mind to ensure you’re not accidentally giving yourself another boo-boo.

Avoid Oil-Based Products

As stated on almost every pimple patch box, pimple patches work best on clean, dry skin. Avoid applying oil-based products or heavy moisturizers to the area before using a pimple patch, as this can reduce the patch’s adhesion and effectiveness.

Skip Retinoids on Patched Areas

If you use topical retinoids, such as retinol or prescription-strength retinoids, avoid applying them directly on areas where you’ve also used a pimple patch. Cosmetic Chemist and Chief Innovation Officer of Cosmetica Laboratories, Alessandro Mendes, explains: “Retinoids can be potent and may increase the risk of irritation or over-drying when combined with the concentrated treatment of pimple patches.” However, if you do want to use retinol, you can use pimple patches that are specially formulated with it, such as innisfree Retinol Cica Focusing Patches and Peace Out Skincare Acne Healing Dots. (Just don’t add any additional retinoids.)

Be Mindful of Exfoliating Products and Fragrance

Chemical exfoliants or physical scrubs can cause excessive exfoliation, compromising the skin barrier and hindering the patch’s ability to adhere properly. “Those with sensitive skin should be cautious about added fragrance or active ingredients, including salicylic acid, other hydroxy acids, and tea tree oil,” says Dr. Rose. “When used in an adhesive patch, these ingredients may be more likely to irritate skin compared to a serum, solution or cleanser.” 

Keep the Surrounding Skin Moisturized

While you should avoid using heavy moisturizers directly on the pimple patch, keep the surrounding area and skin moisturized, which can help the skin barrier while also preventing dryness.

It’s a Patch, Not A Pore Strip

“A good pimple patch should be easy to remove without causing trauma to the skin,” says Mendes. You may be tempted to rip the pimple patch off, but even the force of that can tear or tug on the skin, worsening inflammation and possibly harming the skin’s healing process. 

Read The Directions

“Usual spot treatment use of pimple patches is generally considered safe, yet there is limited data on long-term effects,” says Dr. Rose. “Theoretically, so long as you are not allergic to or irritated by the pimple patch, you should not expect to experience any long-term negative effects or dependency on pimple patches.” The words on the back of the box are there for a reason. Apply a pimple patch with clean, dry hands to an area free of oils and debris, and remember to change the patch according to the manufacturer’s instructions — and not when you remember to, like me.
So when exactly in your routine should you apply a pimple patch? Honestly, the verdict is out: Mendes recommends using the patch before other treatments, serums, and actives to allow the patch to adhere correctly and deliver its active ingredients without interference from other products, while Rouleau recommends using them after. “I recommend applying any spot treatment, including pimple patches, as the very last step in your skincare routine,” she explains. “After you’ve applied all of your products (including moisturizer or SPF), take a cotton swab and dampen with water or toner, and gently wipe the area you will be spot treating. Let dry, then stick on the patch and let it do its work.” 
While I’m still figuring out how to repair and soothe the damage from my disaster in the pimple patch world, I won’t do it again — and we can both learn from my mistakes this time. (Maybe.)
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