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Could Acne Patches Be the Answer to All Your Spot Treatment Needs?

They're all the rage in Korea. (And they work!)
The Cosrx patches. Photo: Cosrx

The Cosrx patches. Photo: Cosrx

Not much has changed in the way of acne treatment over the past decade, especially when it comes to topical options. Benzoyl peroxide, sulfur-based compounds and salicylic acid are mainstays. They all sort of work, but all of them have some disadvantages. Then there are the so-called natural options, most notably tea tree oil, which has been proven to have some benefits but is far from from a magic bullet. Thankfully, there's now a new option in your fight against pesky pimples: the acne patch.

Actually, acne patches aren't new, though they are to our shores. They've been used for at least 10 years in — where else? — Korea and Asia. It’s difficult to determine exactly where they originated, but I picked up tons of them from multiple brands during my trip to Seoul and from various Korean beauty shops in New York City; I’ve also seen Japanese versions. This month, U.S.-based skin care brand Peter Thomas Roth just launched its own variety, so I'm calling it now — acne patches are a thing. (While I've come across pictures of patches from acne treatment brands Clean & Clear and Oxy, I'm pretty certain they've never been available stateside.) 

So, how do they work? To confuse matters, there are two types of patches: one is medicated and one is not. Both generally come packaged as a sheet of various-sized sticky dots, and after popping one over a blemish you just wait for the magic to happen. But the way each type works is markedly different. 

The unmedicated version takes cues from wound care principles, because if you think about it, a zit is just one big, disgusting, oozy wound. These patches are made out of a thicker, flexible hydrocolloid material. "The hydrocolloid dressing helps keep the area protected from trauma — your finger! — and can absorb excess fluid, which in theory may allow it to heal faster," says Dr. Sandra Kopp, a dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. "They also keep the acne from drying out, which can speed up healing time." 

They essentially work like pimple liposuction. The material in the patch physically draws gunk out of the blemish; it then gets sucked into the patch and away from your skin. You can actually see a white pod in the middle of the patch when you remove it, which is either very satisfying or very disgusting, depending on your feelings about exudate. The blemish will be noticeably flatter and calmer when you pull the patch off. (Korean skin care brand Cosrx, which launched in 2014 with a line of smartly formulated acne and skin care products, offers the gold standard unmedicated hydrocolloid patch now. According to a representative, it is the company's global best-seller. K-beauty aficionados rave about them and I can attest that they are miraculous. See more of my recommendations in the slideshow below.)

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Then there is the medicated patch, which is more common — many Korean brands offer them, and it's the type that Peter Thomas Roth just launched. These are also sold on sheets, but the material is more rigid and feels almost like vinyl. They're much thinner and sit more flush against the skin, meaning it's not as obvious that you're wearing a sticker on your face. They are impregnated with various active ingredients meant to treat the blemish, and while it varies from brand to brand, what I mostly see is salicylic acid, tea tree oil or a combination of the two, with other ingredients thrown in. 

These patches don't suck fluid out of the blemish. Instead, they help medicine stay in, while also stopping you from picking at your face. "In theory, occlusion can help with absorption of any topical. The risk, though, is that people can be very sensitive to products like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, as well as the adhesives used to maintain contact. Irritation can occur if left on too long in a sensitive individual," says Dr. Kopp. So, if you are already sensitive to salicylic acid, these little patches provide a more concentrated dosage and could cause issues. The good news, though, is that since the medication is so targeted on the pimple, it spares the rest of your skin — unlike a cream or gel, which can cause dryness and flakiness on your healthy skin.

Which one is better? It totally depends on the state of your zit, in my experience. I've been experimenting with various brands over the past few months, and I've found that using the medicated patches on early blemishes — when they're red and inflamed but there's nothing obvious about to come out — works best. When used overnight, they will definitely decrease inflammation, which makes the blemish less noticeable. Then, when the blemish starts to look like a whitehead or you know that something is brewing under the surface, that's when I put a hydrocolloid patch on to suck out the gunk. (Dr. Kopp thinks the biggest advantage of the patches is that they prevent you from picking and squeezing, which ultimately will reduce healing time and decrease the chance of scarring.)

There are some cons with both types, though. Lest you think these are going to make a zit disappear overnight, they won't. It may look a lot better, but it won't be totally gone. Plus, Dr. Kopp thinks that they won't be very effective at all with more severe cystic acne, since inflammation can run pretty deeply. And again, even if you choose the unmedicated versions, your skin can react to the hydrocolloid material or the adhesive, so always patch test before you stick them on an active lesion. Finally, you can't really leave the house with these on. I tried covering up the thin ones with concealer and it didn't work, so I suggest using them when you're stuck inside for a few hours or overnight. 

Below, six brands to try (all are easy to find!), with descriptions of ingredients.