Sorry, But Pimple Patches Are Worse Than You Think
What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for and answers all of your most pressing questions.
I don’t have any children, but I do have one trillion microorganisms living on and in my skin barrier. They’re the bacteria, fungi, yeasts, viruses, and more responsible for symbiotically maintaining the health of the skin—I affectionately refer to them as my microbiome—and they are on the receiving end of every maternal instinct I’ve ever had. I love them. I would do anything to keep them safe. I obsess over skincare ingredients the way an overprotective mother obsesses over…I don’t know, whatever a mother obsesses over. (Like I said, I’m an expert on biomes, not babies.)
When pimple patches rose to popularity a few years ago, they earned my initial seal of approval. I mean, a protective covering that sucks the pus straight out of a painful pimple?! In the cartoonish shape of a star, or a flower, or a heart? It seemed like the beauty equivalent of a blankie.
But the more I researched the ingredients, side effects, and environmental impact of pimple patches, the more I questioned whether they were the right choice for my own family of microbes.
First of all, the ingredients are kind of mysterious and not always microbiome-friendly.
Most pimple patches are made from a material called hydrocolloid. “Hydrocolloid dressings have been used in the field of wound care for decades,” Aanand Geria, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Geria Dermatology, tells HelloGiggles. “They function by absorbing liquids and converting them to a gel that provides a moist environment important for wound healing.” That sounds lovely, there’s just one problem: It’s really hard to find out what hydrocolloid material itself is made from. (It’s synthetic, but the majority of stickers on the market list only “hydrocolloid” on the ingredient list.)
There are a few possibilities here: gelatin, cellulose gum, pectin, polymers, styrene, and polyurethane, to name a few. Gelatin is produced through the “prolonged boiling of skin, cartilage, and bones from animals,” so that’s a hard no, thanks. Cellulose gum and pectin are plant-based, which is better by my personal standards, but they are unfortunately combined with plastic or plastic-adjacent ingredients like polymers, styrene, and polyurethane to create the stretchy backing and adhesive components of a pimple patch. I personally don’t consider hydrocolloid to be “clean” or “natural.”
Some pimple patches are straight-up hydrocolloid dressings; their sole function is to soak up whatever liquid is oozing from your face. Others feature hydrocolloid infused with targeted ingredients to “clear” breakouts. “The main acne-fighting ingredient in these stickers is salicylic acid,” Dr. Geria says, but there are also options with hyaluronic acid, volcanic ash, and alcohol.
All of these ingredients can have not-so-nice side effects—especially if you have sensitive skin.
Full disclosure: The only kind of pimple patches I’ve used myself are the pure hydrocolloid kind. They’re excellent for shrinking pulsing pimples overnight. However. While the previously pulsing area in question may be flat by morning, it’s always super dry, too. (For me, at least.) I’m talking peeling-and-flaking-level dryness. This may be due to the fact that hydrocolloid absorbs moisture. Perhaps it’s not only pulling out the “pus” but pulling out my skin’s internal water stores, too. Another possibility: “For those with sensitive skin, the adhesive can be irritating and cause some dryness or peeling,” Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology, tells HelloGiggles.
For that same reason, I don’t feel comfortable using pimple patches with salicylic acid (an ingredient that eats away at dead skin cells—aka cells that are essential to well-protected and hydrated skin), alcohol (which can kill acne-causing bacteria, sure, but also the good bacteria of the microbiome), volcanic ash (again, it might absorb too much moisture), or hyaluronic acid (which can cause inflammation and dehydration).
Since the whole point of using a pimple patch is to heal and protect the skin, it’s not worth it to me if the patch leaves another problem in the pimple’s place.
Finally, pimple patches involve so much plastic.
My love for microorganisms doesn’t end at my skin barrier. I care about all the earth’s organisms, micro and macro: humans, animals, sea creatures, bugs, plants, microscopic beings in the water and soil, as-of-yet undiscovered life forms. Plastic harms each and every one of them—and pimple patches are basically dots of plastic, stuck onto sheets of plastic, contained in little boxes of plastic. (That’s not unusual for the beauty industry—beauty brands produce about 77 billion units of plastic packaging per year, and over 70 percent of that ends up in landfills.) As someone striving to live a low-waste life, this particular product is a pass.
All things considered, I’m sorry. I just can’t get behind pimple patches.
That doesn’t mean they’re not right for you, though. Everyone is different, with different needs and goals for their skin. If you’re looking for a quick way to zap an open zit (and don’t mind the potential peeling), these stickers get the job done. If you’re a skin picker, a patch can help protect from your own prying fingertips. A cute pimple patch (like this star-printed one or this flower one) can even act as a creative alternative to concealer.
There are plenty of other natural, “clean,” effective ways to spot-treat, though.
My favorite way to give my blemishes a little lovin’ is by dabbing them with pure manuka honey. It’s scientifically proven to help decrease inflammation and heal open wounds; it’s used in hospital burn units for this very reason. Manuka honey is also considered a prebiotic, which means it acts as food for the microorganisms of the microbiome, which means a better balance of good bacteria to keep acne-causing bacteria from taking over. In other words, manuka doesn’t only spot-treat; it also supports long-term skin health. Can your pimple patch do that? (No.)
“Aloe vera can help decrease inflammation, similarly to how it works for sunburn,” Dr. Geria says, adding that while he recommends aloe straight from the plant, gel versions work, too. “Turmeric can also help, since the active ingredient, curcumin, has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity.” He suggests mixing turmeric with water and applying it “as a paste to the skin.” But be careful: Turmeric's yellow tone could leave a slight, temporary discoloration behind.
If you want to use any of the above ingredients overnight without the risk of ruining your pillow, it helps to cover the area with a biodegradable bamboo band aid, like these from Patch.
Is my stance on pimple patches a little extreme? Perhaps. Am I being overly protective of my microbiome? Maybe. But as a mother of one trillion, I’d rather be safe than sorry. My microorganisms will thank me someday.