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Do “zit patches” work? The Science of Hydrocolloid Patches

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If you’re like me, you’ve struggled with acne for as long as you can remember. Ever since I was a teenager, I had issues with blackheads, inflammatory acne, body acne, and especially cystic acne. I’ve tried just about everything to treat it- salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide- you name it, and I’ve probably tried it. (Until I finally reached a breaking point last year and went on Accutane- but that’s a story for another post).

Alternatively, maybe you’re someone that has been dealing with maskne (acne resulting from wearing a face mask for extended periods of time) that is struggling to find something that works.

If either of those sound familiar, I’m willing to bet you’ve tried your fair share of acne-treating products- possibly including hydrocolloid patches.

In recent years, hydrocolloid patches have become increasingly popular as a method to spot-treat acne. Products like Mighty Patch claim to “flatten pimples overnight…pulling the pus out of whiteheads and speeding up healing.” These patches typically have a single ingredient: hydrocolloid.

What is Hydrocolloid?

Hydrocolloid is a gel made of a combination of ingredients like gelatin, pectin, and polysaccharides (large sugar molecules). These compounds work together to absorb moisture from water, pus, and oil, forming a white gel.

Hydrocolloid has been around for a while, and has been used to treat a variety of skin conditions- mainly dressing and bandaging wounds. Its ability to absorb moisture can help drain wounds while also creating a sealed, sterile, and moist environment which facilitates healing. Most hydrocolloid dressings are also waterproof, which makes them more practical than some other methods of dressing wounds. Research suggests hydrocolloid dressings can be effective for treating several skin conditions including burns and skin graft donation sites.

What Causes Acne?

When we think about whether hydrocolloid gel is effective for treating acne, it’s worth discussing why we get acne in the first place.

Generally speaking, acne is a common skin condition which involves (among other things) hair follicles and their adjacent sebaceous glands, which produce oils such as sebum. Sebum is full of lipids (fats) which can serve as a good growing medium (food source) for bacteria. When hair follicles produce excess oil and/or become plugged, it can result in a buildup of sebum and dead skin cells, which creates an ideal environment for the proliferation of bacteria. In particular, the bacterial species Propionibacteria acne tends to cause inflammatory acne- the kind which is raid, painful, warm, and swollen. Research suggests that the severity of acne is in part related to sebum (oil) production. In essence, more sebum provides more food for bacteria, which makes it easier to get acne.

There are many factors which contribute to the severity of acne- including hormones, bacteria, diet, genetics, medications, stress…you get the idea. There are also a variety of different kinds of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, cystic acne, etc. (I’ll go into more detail about the differences between them in a future post). Because acne is influenced by such a variety of things, treating it can be very complicated. Often, what works for one person may not work for you, depending on the cause and type of your acne.

Do Hydrocolloid patches work to treat acne?

In short, it depends.

Hydrocolloid patches are not a miracle product. They are not pore strips: they aren’t going to do much for your blackheads. They also won’t work well on cystic acne (as someone who has dealt a lot with cystic acne, your best option here is to see a dermatologist).

Remember that hydrocolloid gel is used to absorb moisture and facilitate wound healing. That means that the more wound-like (inflamed, pus-filled, etc.) your acne is, the more hydrocolloid patches can potentially help. Hydrocolloid patches tend to work best with inflammatory acne, especially when pus has come to a head. For these types of acne, the gel can help absorb pus and other fluids while protecting skin and facilitating the healing process.

Personally, I’ve had mixed success with hydrocolloid patches. I can confirm from experience they don’t do much for blackheads and cystic acne. When it comes to inflammatory acne, I’ve found it can be a bit hit or miss. These patches haven’t made much of a difference for my small, barely noticeable whiteheads, BUT can make a huge difference for large and extremely inflamed zits.

Before and after images of a “Mighty Patch” hydrocolloid patch on inflammatory acne. As the hydrocolloid absorbs water and pus from acne, it produces a white gel. Image from Amazon reviews.

There is some science to back this up, too. One study in 2006 tested the effects of 3M Acne Dressing on acne. They found that using hydrocolloid patches for 7 days reduced the severity of acne (improving redness, oiliness, and pigmentation, and sebum production). They also found that the patches reduced damage from UVB light (which can help acne heal faster). In other words: science says hydrocolloid patches can potentially help treat and lessen the severity of acne.

If you’re like me and struggle with picking your acne, there is an added benefit of hydrocolloid patches: it’s hard to pick your skin when it is covered by a hydrocolloid patch. Dermatologists always discourage picking and popping zits because it can increase risk of infection and worsen scarring. In this respect, even if hydrocolloid patches don’t do much to the acne itself, they can help your skin by reducing how much you pick at your acne. If I’m honest, I use these patches more for this reason than anything else.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of gimmicky skin care items on the market, but hydrocolloid patches are not one of them in my opinion. There is some solid science suggesting hydrocolloid facilitates wound healing. Although they cannot be used to prevent acne, “zit dots” can potentially help spot-treat inflammatory acne. If you’re struggling with inflammatory maskne, hydrocolloid patches could be something worth trying as a backup to your normal skincare regimen.

Although hydrocolloid patches carry minimal risk of skin irritation, be sure to use as directed and check any allergy warnings.

Have you tried hydrocolloid patches? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!