Aspirin for Acne: Helpful Hack or Internet Hoax?

March 16, 2021

Aspirin for Acne: Helpful Hack or Internet Hoax?

By Sara Spruch-Feiner

If you’ve ever had a pimple show up at the worst possible time (hello, everyone), then you likely understand the importance of a fast-acting, potent spot treatment. But sometimes zits pop up when we’re away from home, or we’re caught with our zit-busting arsenals in short supply.

So what’s the deal with the aspirin as a spot treatment? Well, the answer is complicated. Interestingly, the dermatologists we spoke to were not unanimous on this—some said hack, others said hoax. Even when viewed as a hack, however, using aspirin as a topical spot treatment is never a dermatologist’s top choice when other options are available. (More on what they prefer later).

The bottom line: Though topical aspirin isn’t the worst thing to use in a pinch, it’s also not the best, if it can be avoided. “We have many other treatments that have been well studied and are effective,” says New York City–based board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD.

Why Is Aspirin Used as a Spot Treatment?
First things first, the basics. “Originally derived from the bark of willow trees, salicylic acid can be found in commercial and ‘natural’ pimple products,” explains Silicon Valley-based board-certified dermatologist Amelia Hausauer, MD. “It has drying effects that minimize excess oil and dead skin cells, ideally helping to clear acne.” It’s one of the most well-known ingredients for fighting acne, and has a starring role in many a spot treatment.

So you might be wondering: What does it have to do with aspirin? Aspirin’s active ingredient is acetylsalicylic acid, a similar ingredient, though they are not actually the same. “Acetylsalicylic acid is a larger molecule that needs to be broken down to release different parts, one of which is salicylic acid,” Hausauer explains. “That means you have an extra acid in the mix when you make a paste of aspirin and water—acetic acid—which can add to irritation in combination, or at high doses.”

“Aspirin is an NSAID (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory),” New York City–based board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD, notes, and as such, “it may provide some relief from inflammation if applied topically. It will not work for blackheads or whiteheads (non-inflammatory acne.)”

“At this time, there is no current evidence for the use of aspirin in the treatment of acne, so further research will be needed prior to me recommending it,” Garshick says. Yet, for some dermatologists, that doesn’t preclude it from being useful in a pinch. “While I would recommend other products that are specifically designed with acne-fighting and hydrating ingredients over aspirin, I wouldn’t say that aspirin is necessarily a last resort," says New York City–based board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD. "It contains acetylsalicylic acid, which is similar to salicylic acid, which is found in many acne products. As it is anti-inflammatory, it can also help to calm redness.”

How to Use It
If using a homemade aspirin concoction at home, there are a few key things you can do to ensure the best results possible. First, “make sure that you don’t use aspirin with any sort of coating or capsule, because this is where all the additives usually are,” New York City–based board-certified dermatologist Marie Hayag, MD, advises.

Typically, aspirin spot treatments are made by mixing crushed-up aspirin with a couple drops of water. However, since the aspirin can potentially be drying and irritating to the skin, Hayag says you could also combine the mixture with another pantry staple—something moisturizing like honey.

Then, make sure to do a patch test first: Apply the paste to a non-affected area, like your forearm, and rinse it off after 10–15 minutes at most. If you experience a negative reaction or irritation, better to leave your pimple alone!

Before putting anything on the spot, you’ll first want to wash your face with a gentle cleanser. It’s preferable to apply the mixture with a cotton swab, so you won’t introduce any bacteria to the area, Los Angeles–based board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD, recommends. If you need to use your fingers, make sure to wash your hands right before doing so. If you experience a negative reaction or irritation once you apply the mixture to the spot, wash it off right away so as not to further irritate your skin.

“Try to stick to doing this 2–3 times a week at most,” Hayag warns. “Since you are making a mixture by yourself, you cannot be sure of the concentration of the ingredients, and overdoing it can result in over-exfoliation and irritation.”

It’s best not to combine this with any other spot treatments, and you should definitely avoid it if you’re already using acne treatments daily. “You will give yourself more than a headache if you combine aspirin with benzoyl peroxide. It's a no-go,” Shamban says.

Better Alternatives
“It comes from generations ago, when aspirin was a cure-all for everything, and you used what you had,” says Rabach. Nowadays we have options, so we might as well take full advantage of them! Here are some of the blemish-busting hero ingredients that dermatologists recommend over spot-treating with aspirin.

Salicylic Acid
Dermatologists agree: Salicylic acid is a better choice than the acetylsalicylic acid found in aspirin. Luckily, it’s very easy to find, too. This Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment contains 2%, the highest recommended amount.

Benzoyl Peroxide
The other best-known spot treatment ingredient can be found in drugstore staples like Neutrogena’s Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Gel and helps kill acne-causing bacteria.

The dermatologist favorite here is Differin, which uses 0.1% adapalene, a vitamin A derivative that helps promote cell turnover and reduce inflammation that can cause acne.

Hydrocolloid Patches
Hydrocolloid patches would be useful just to help prevent picking, but many, like these Rael Microneedle Acne Healing Patches, also deliver salicylic acid or tea tree oil to to the affected area, helping to clear zits faster, too.

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