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The 40-Year Odyssey of the Pimple Patch

These tiny dressings are taking the world of DIY dermatology by storm. But how well do they actually work?

Magic is cool, but have you ever adopted a new skin treatment and bore witness to dermatological sorcery?

Cue the pimple patch: These tiny, often transparent (but sometimes opaque) Band-Aid-like dressings have taken the at-home, DIY, I’m-at-home-and-want-to-fuck-around-with-my-face urges of people of all ages by storm. In 2019, just a few months before the pandemic, Cheryl Wischhover wrote for Vox that at the time, “five of the top 100 best sellers on Amazon’s beauty and personal care best seller list are acne patches.”

So what are they exactly?

Per SELF, “pimple patches are just hydrocolloid bandages in cuter, smaller, single-serve packaging.” The hydrocolloid material, according to the aforementioned Vox article, has been around since the 1980s and was first popularized in ostomy care as a way to absorb the bodily fluids that would, via surgery, be rerouted to exit through a person’s stomach. In other words, the technology behind the pimple patch was first designed to absorb the stuff that normally goes in the toilet, hence the reason why the material is great for protecting lesions that leak a bit of pimple pus as they heal. But, says SELF, “some brands are impregnated with medications like salicylic acid and niacinamide, and others even contain dissolving microneedles designed to enhance the penetration of those medications.”

The basic goal of a pimple patch, then, is to accelerate the healing process. “They’re aimed at treating the superficial kind of acne, like pus-filled bumps, blackheads and whiteheads. It’s unlikely, however, that these patches penetrate to the level that will be able to help cystic acne,” Lavanya Krishnan, a board-certified dermatologist, told Healthline. Last year alone, everyone from CNN to Elle to NBC News put together a roundup of the best pimple patches — even Men’s Health even got into the mix.

As for whether or not they work, the general consensus is that they do, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Sure, they’re meant to soak up liquid to dry your juicy pimples out, but equally as important, they protect that piece of your skin from more bacteria, face picking and sunlight, all of which can prolong and even embolden the Vesuvius on your visage.

More largely, it seems the pimple patch, more than any other fairly inexpensive dermatological tool, is a measure of glimmering faith. For adults, especially, who’ve perhaps lost any reason to be hopeful about tomorrow, the pimple patch is a worthy stand-in for the adage “tomorrow is a new day.”

Put one on at night, wishing for the best, and when you wake up and remove that squishy little disc from your face, the surprise of a mostly healed pimple is enough to get you through your Tuesday.