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On-the-Spot Acne Treatments

By Amalah

Dear Amalah, knower-of-all-things-wonderful,
First, I want to thank you for helping my complexion! I finally have a skincare routine that really works, and it’s all thanks to your incredible advice. Yay!
BUT – Philosophy has hurt me. To the core. They have apparently discontinued the “on a clear day blemish serum for adult acne.” That was the one thing I could count on to stop zits cold in their tracks. Now, they have “on a clear day oil-free acne spot treatment,” but the active ingredient is sulfur, and it just doesn’t do the trick like the salicylic acid did.
Thanks to your previous recommendations, I only get occasional blemishes, mostly on my chin. But when I do, I just want them GONE. FAST. The new stuff from Philosophy just isn’t cutting it. Please tell me you have a (some) recommendation(s).
Thank you!

I KNOW, RIGHT? Why, Philosophy, did you have to discontinue that magical serum of zit-stopping power? Whhhhhyyyyy?
Frankly, I blame the label instructions, which suggested it be used all over the face as a kind of prevention mask instead of an on-the-spot treatment. This kind of use probably led to a lot of people experiencing (and complaining about) dryness and irritation. So seriously, Anyone Out There Reading Who May Have Any Sort Of Pull Or Connection With Philosophy, please bring back the formulation as an on-the-spot, as-needed blemish zapper.
(I’m also guessing the bottle size had something to do with it — I only purchased one bottle in…oh, three years? Since I wasn’t using it all over, it lasted FOREVER. I finally went to replace it once the rubber dropper started to literally disintegrate, only to find that it was no longer available. Perhaps it was just a basic sales graph that suggested people weren’t repeat-buying it, when really, we were just still using our original purchase.)
(Look at me, struggling so hard to find MEANING behind a simple product discontinuation. Take away my pimple treatment and KNOCK MY WORLD OFF ITS AXIS.)
Anyway, a couple months ago I started experiencing some super hellacious skin. I will blame hormones, since it coincided with the Return Of The Period, and also a trip to the beach where I made Poor Decisions About Sunblock, and used something not specifically formulated for faces. Also, I think a new shampoo my hairstylist recommended was causing me to break out along my hairline. Basically, a TRIFECTA of terrible, crap, awful skin.
And NONE of my Philosophy products were cutting it. It wasn’t enlarged pores or blackheads or any of my usual annoyances — it was pimples. Red, raised, icky zits and blind pimples. I hadn’t seen skin like this since high school and in an act of desperation I went to Sephora with a bag over my head and grabbed the first thing I blindly bumped into. It was the Murad Get Clear, Stay Clear starter set. What a coincidence, as this was the very brand several readers have recommended as an alternative when Philosophy failed to work for them.
It thankfully contains a spot treatment, one that contains both sulphur AND our good friend salicylic acid. Does it work? Yes. Does it work as well as the Philosophy serum? No. I found it took a couple days — up to a week, for some — for the spots to disappear completely. BUT! These were existing blemishes, that I’d already had for some time when I started using the kit. For new zits, it works much, much faster. The Philosophy serum could kick ass overnight on any spot, while the Murad treatment definitely works better if you start using it the minute you suspect you’re getting a zit. It’s also very gentle and doesn’t leave a film on your skin, which was my occasional complaint about the Philosophy serum.
I was worried my search for a new blemish spot treatment would be long and arduous, given my lousy track record with useless products. (I’ve tried and been disappointed by Neutrogena, Clean & Clear Persagel, Clinique, Burt’s Bees, Dr. Hauschka, just to NAME A FEW.) Shockingly, while I’m lukewarm on the rest of the Murad kit (more on that below), I will definitely be buying the spot treatment again. You know, when I run out of my current tube in 2012 or so.
(I know the OP is only really interested in spot treatments, so I’ll just do a mini-review of the Murad system: if you have PIMPLES, as in COMEDONIC ACNE, it’s a very good one, although I would go with the Acne Complex starter kit instead of the one I purchased, because that contains a very-much-necessary moisturizer. The only moisturizer I had on hand was my Hope in a Bottle, which uses salicylic acid [the same active ingredient in the Murad products] and that’s just entirely too much of it. Now that I have the zits under control, I am less enamored with it, because it really doesn’t do much for any complexion problems that aren’t true comedonic acne, like blackheads or blind pimples or enlarged pores. My pores definitely seem more noticeable while using Murad than with Philosophy, for whatever reason. Would guess maybe the Murad is simply too strong and my skin is overcompensating, like it tends to do whenever I start treating my combination skin as truly “oily.” Then again, NO ZITS, THANK GOD.)


Published August 6, 2009. Last updated August 6, 2009.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Darcey

    August 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    For spot-treatment, I fell in love with the Bliss Change Your Spots Acne Gel. I rarely get breakouts on my face, but when I do find one coming up, a dab of it in the morning and again before I go to bed, and voila! It has 2% salicylic acid, which I, too, find to work better than sulfur-based treatments.

  • MommiePie

    August 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm
  • Amy J

    August 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I had fairly good luck with the Burt’s Bees Blemish Stick (though Amy mentioned she didn’t so …)

  • Jay

    August 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Zapzyt 10% benzoyl peroxide. Works like a charm for on-the-spot. I’m a big believer in Dan Kern’s regimen. It completely cleared up my back (along with the Neutrogena salycic acid body wash) and works 95% of the time for my face. When something pops up–Zapzyt puts it back down. Budget friendly and effective. I also have super dry skin, and this is gentle enough for me to use daily.

  • caleal

    August 6, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I had the same problem. The philosophy acne kit (with the serum) was the amazing, first thing that ever worked, love of my life kit ever. And then they changed it. And now I’m hideous again.
    Unfortunately, stupid Murad doesn’t work for me either for some reason. Their kit made me worse. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.
    I hear brown paper bags over the head might be making a comeback, hmm?

  • Procrastamom

    August 6, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    The dropper-squirty-thingy on the top of my Philosophy serum bottle started to disintigrate within weeks of purchase. I figured it was fairly strong stuff if it could melt plastic just by existing in that bottle.
    And Amy saved my skin too, with her recommendations. Using the Philosophy system made me acne free (finally!!) at 35. Bring on those wrinkles Mother Nature, you b*tch!!

  • Nayzer

    August 6, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Oh! I strongly second the origins spot remover recommendation. I searched for a long, long time for the perfect zit cream, and this is it. It’s pricey (~$12), but lasts a really long time. Also, it’s a clear gel, so you can put it on and then apply concealer over it to prevent your makeup from making things worse. It’s salicylic-acid based so it wont stain your clothes, and I believe that origins will let you return it if it doesn’t work for you.

  • Kelly J

    August 6, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    While I am nowhere near ready to forgive Philosophy for forsaking me in my time of need (angry, hideously broken-out pregnant skin that NEEDS the acne serum), like Darcey, I decided to give the Bliss Change Your Spots Gel a try after studying it’s active ingredients in the midst of my blind rage in Sephora after the new Philosophy spot treatment did diddly-squat for my skin, and I am finding the results considerably better than the new Philosophy crud. Alas, I cannot do a side-by-side test with our beloved old Philosophy serum.

  • CatherineJay

    August 6, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    So this probably sounds a little weird but I swear it works! Putting a dab of toothpaste on a new pimple before you go to bed works super well on pimples.
    Just don’t try and use it blackheads because it doesn’t work at all.

  • eva

    August 7, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Love the “medical” look of the Murad. It may be worth trying for that alone!
    My dropper for “on a clear day” disintegrated too, within about 6 months. And that stuff really fried my skin, no matter how miniscule a dab I used…so maybe Murad which sounds milder, will be IT for me. Wish me luck!
    I have no tricks to offer up. In fact I just sent you an acne-20-months-after-pregnancy question a couple of weeks ago!

  • Sarah in LA

    August 7, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Oh no! I just went to the Sephora website and they have also discontinued the on a clear day lotion that had peroxide in it that you put on at night! It smells funny, but it worked really well for me. At least I have a kinda full jar still…..

  • margot

    August 7, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    OH! This is kind of off-subject, but you know what ELSE Philosophy has just done? Their 3.5oz bottle of face wash, the one we all know and love is now a 3.0oz bottle. SAME PRICE. Call me a cheapskate but that seems really lame to downsize a product and still sell it the same price point.

  • Kate

    August 7, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Please, do NOT use toothpaste on a pimple.
    I did that and ended up with a crater-like, chicken pox pockmark scar in the middle of my cheek.

  • Sarah in LA

    August 7, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Margot, this is happening to A LOT of products. I’ve noticed:
    Haagen Dasz (or however you spell it) pints are no longer pints. They’re smaller than pints now.
    Science Diet cat food, used to be 20 lbs per large bag. Now it’s 17 per bag.
    SAME PRICE!!! Now I’m obsessed with finding these at the store.

  • Susan

    August 10, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    My miracle zit cure is Blistek Lip Medex. It’s not meant to be a zit cream, but it contains salicylic acid, in a petroleum jelly base. So it’s not too severe, and really works well as a night cure. Plus, it’s cheap ($3-4 a little pot), and lasts for a long time.

  • Sam

    August 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I just want to say that I bought Neutrogena’s acne treatment line – Advanced Solutions -$20, it has face wash, on the spot acne control lotion, and a moisturizer and it has worked LIKE A DREAM. I seriously haven’t had any big breakouts since I started using it. Certainly no systic acne issues. I really wonder if the moisturizer is the key? I don’t even use the face wash every day because it tends to dry me out.