Picture this: You've just woken up, feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep, only to be greeted by the sight of a large, angry spot when you look in the mirror. Having a regular skincare routine can help keep your skin looking its best in the long term, but it’s also worth investing in a spot treatment (or two) to keep on hand for when an expected blemish or dark spot appears.
To get the scoop on which ingredients make for the most effective spot treatments, we chatted with Kiehl’s expert and board-certified New York City dermatologist, Dr. Michelle Henry. Here, Dr. Henry dishes on her favorite acne spot treatment ingredients and offers her tips on using spot treatments. Keep reading for your Kiehl’s guide to spot treatments.
What Ingredients Should You Look For In a Spot Treatment?
Now that you know what a spot treatment is, here are some of our tips on what to look out for when choosing one for your skin.
Are Spot Treatments Just For Blemishes?
Though Dr. Henry says that spot treatments are “predominantly for” breakouts, there are also spot treatments that are meant to target other concerns, like discoloration (including post-blemish marks).
What Is a Spot Treatment?
According to Dr. Henry, a spot treatment is any targeted treatment designed to help address a specific skin concern, like a breakout. Spot treatments differ from moisturizers, serums, and essences in that they’re not designed to be applied to the whole face or meant to be used daily; rather, they’re designed to only be used on problem areas, as needed.
Dr. Henry says that two of the most common ingredients you’ll find in blemish spot treatments are ones you’re probably familiar with: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
Benzoyl peroxide, she explains, helps “kill the bacteria that causes acne,” specifically P. acnes. It’s useful for addressing both comedonal breakouts (like blackheads) and deeper pimples. You’ll generally find it in concentrations between two and 10 percent; the higher the percentage, the more potent. With that said, that potency can be a bit harsh for some. Therefore, Dr. Henry says, “if you’re really dry and sensitive…salicylic acid may be more tolerable” and less irritating.
Salicylic acid, by contrast, is a beta-hydroxy acid capable of “penetrating and unclogging clogged pores,” which Dr. Henry notes makes it a particularly effective treatment for blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid helps exfoliate the skin’s surface and prevent clogged pores (which can lead to breakouts). In over-the-counter products, you’ll usually find it in lower concentrations, between one and five percent; higher concentrations can have effects similar to a chemical peel.
Blue Herbal Spot Treatment
To address blemishes, we recommend Blue Herbal Spot Treatment, which contains 1.5% salicylic acid, ginger root essential oil, and witch hazel water. The potent treatment for blemish-prone skin targets problem areas to help clear blackheads, whiteheads, and other stubborn spots. It’s dermatologist-tested for safety and can be used daily or as needed for visibly clearer skin.
For Dark Spots
Dark spots and discolorations can result from any number of factors, such as blemishes, trauma to the skin, and unprotected sun exposure. Similarly, there are numerous products formulated with ingredients that can help improve their appearance over time. These ingredients include licorice extract, azelaic acid, and kojic acid. Another ingredient known to help improve the appearance of dark spots is vitamin C, though Dr. Henry notes that she “thinks of [vitamin C] more as a full-face treatment than a spot treatment.”
To help even the appearance of your skin and minimize noticeable dark spots, we recommend adding Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector to your daily skincare routine. This Kiehl’s favorite with stabilized vitamin C and buffered salicylic acid visibly brightens the skin, helping to improve the appearance of a wide range of dark spots, including post-blemish marks. The gentle serum is suitable for all skin types and tones and can be used morning and night for more even, radiant-looking skin. Use it all over or as a spot treatment to target stubborn discolorations.
You can also boost your routine by pairing Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector with Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity Renewing Ampoules. The two-week treatment contains 28 individual ampoules packed with a blend of vitamin C, glycolic, and lactic acid. When used twice daily, the high-powered treatment visibly evens skin tone, helping to reduce the appearance of stubborn discolorations. You can use this treatment as an adjunct to your regular routine as needed for brighter-looking skin.
Kiehl’s Tip: Sunscreen is always a must, but it’s especially crucial if you’re using a spot treatment with alpha or beta-hydroxy acids, which can increase sun sensitivity. We recommend reaching for a broad-spectrum formula, like Super Fluid Daily UV Defense 50+. The lightweight sunscreen absorbs easily without clogging pores, and it’s suitable for all skin types.
If your skin is sensitive, try reaching for sulfur-based treatments. It’s a mineral that helps reduce oiliness—and the key ingredient in Breakout Control Targeted Acne Spot Treatment. This gentle treatment is clinically-demonstrated to rapidly reduce the appearance of acne blemishes.* It also helps prevent new breakouts from forming for clearer, more comfortable skin over time.
*Tested in a dermatologist-controlled clinical study.
How Do You Use a Spot Treatment?
Per Dr. Henry, most acne spot treatments don’t need to be used every day. “Spot treatments shouldn’t be considered your baseline treatment,” she explains, “because you’re kind of just chasing your tail—you’re not doing anything to prevent” your concerns from developing in the first place. “If you need to use something every single day, you really want to speak with a dermatologist,” she adds. Dark spot treatments are an exception to the rule, as they can often be used daily to supplement your regular skincare routine. That being said, you should always read the instructions on your chosen products and use them as directed.
When you do use a spot treatment, you’ll want to apply it to freshly-cleansed skin, ideally before any of your other treatments like moisturizers or sunscreen. “Everything is more effective if it’s the first thing to touch your skin,” Dr. Henry explains. “The more layers there are underneath it, the less effective it’s going to be.”
Next: Find your ideal skincare routine in our article Your Complete 7-Step Routine For Acne-Prone Skin.