Should You Be Using Neosporin for Acne?

Is the wound-healing ointment secretly a blemish-fighting miracle product? Derms answer just how beneficial it is to use Neosporin for acne.

Photo: Getty Images / Hispanolistic

As the cliché goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. And when you wake up with a massive, pus-filled zit in the middle of your cheek but are fresh out of your beloved spot treatment, you might slather on any product you have on hand in an attempt to shrink it down — including Neosporin (Buy It, $4, After all, it's formulated to fight bacteria and speed up healing, so it might get you back to your blemish-free state in no time, right?

But should you really be using Neosporin for acne? Here, derms break down whether the first-aid staple actually has zit-zapping abilities — as well as the risks it poses.

Can You Use Neosporin for Acne Treatment?

A medicine-cabinet mainstay, Neosporin is an ointment that uses a combination of three antibiotics — neomycin sulfate, polymyxin b sulfate, and bacitracin zinc — to kill bacteria in wounds and, in turn, prevent infection, according to the brand. Since acne can be caused by bacteria, it's reasonable to think that the gel you put on a scraped knee could also be applied to kill the germs triggering an angry pimple.

The problem: The antibiotics in Neosporin don't target the specific kind of bacteria that causes acne, known as Cutibacterium acnes, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. "[The antibiotics are] more commonly targeting bacteria that would be more likely to cause a superficial skin infection as opposed to true acne," she explains. The ointment's bacitracin zinc, for example, generally works to kill Staphylococcus aureus — the bacteria behind staph infections, says Dr. Garshick. "I would not recommend using Neosporin for acne — you're not targeting the main cause of it," she adds.

To combat those red, inflamed pimples and pustules, you're better off using a treatment specifically designed to kill acne-causing bacteria, such as a spot treatment with benzoyl peroxide or a prescription antibiotic, says Dr. Garshick.

"If you were to use something to kill bacteria [in acne], neomycin is probably not the best agent," agrees Corey L. Hartman, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama. "I can name 10 other things that I would recommend that you use to do that before neomycin."

That said, acne isn't always caused by bacteria — oil build-up, dead skin cells clogging pores, and inflammation can all contribute to the development of stubborn zits, says Dr. Garshick. "Traditional blackheads and whiteheads may not necessarily be associated with bacteria and, as a result, wouldn't necessarily respond to this [Neosporin] type of treatment," she explains. Instead, you'll need to use a retinoid, potentially in combination with a product featuring benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or azelaic acid, to remove all the gunk from your pores, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Plus, slathering Neosporin on your skin could do more harm than good. The antibiotic neomycin is one of the most common contact allergens in the United States, and it can lead to skin redness, flaking, rashes, and blistering, says Dr. Garshick. This sensitivity can develop out of the blue — even if you've been using the product for years, adds Dr. Hartman.

Due to those unpleasant potential side effects, "any dermatologist worth their salt, who has passed the boards and has any amount of respectability, will tell you that we tell people to never use Neosporin for any reason," he explains. Yes, even for cuts and scrapes. (

Can You Use Neosporin On Popped Pimples?

If you picked at or popped your pimple — an act that can contribute to scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation — applying an acne treatment (e.g. benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid) isn't a good choice, because it can cause irritation, says Dr. Garshick. Instead, you'll need to treat it just like any other wound or cut and apply an ointment designed to help speed up the healing process two to three times daily, she says.

Does that mean Neosporin can help in this stage of the pimple lifecycle? The answer is still "not really."

"There is evidence to show that using something like Vaseline or Aquaphor can be just as effective [as Neosporin]," she explains. "Neosporin has other ingredients in it — not just the antibacterial component but also petroleum jelly or cocoa butter — that provide this barrier effect similar to Vaseline or Aquaphor, which can help to facilitate the healing and reduce irritation."

Translation: Moisturizing, antibiotic-free ointments can help heal your busted breakout without as great of risk of an allergic reaction as Neosporin. And Dr. Hartman agrees: "I'd rather you just use Aquaphor when we're talking about wound-healing," he says.

Aside from the risk of experiencing skin irritation and redness, there is a concern that overuse of topical antibiotics could lead to antibiotic resistance (when infection-causing bacteria change in a way that decreases or eliminates the effectiveness of the antibiotics), so they should be used wisely, according to research published in the journal Infection and Drug Resistance.

When you notice your popped zit has become yellow and crusty — potential signs of an infection — Dr. Garshick recommends giving your derm a call, as they can help you minimize the risk of scarring and ensure you're not dealing with something more serious (i.e. basal cell carcinoma, which can appear as stubborn, non-healing acne spots). "In some cases, I will prescribe an antibiotic ointment for the healing process called mupirocin, which is different from Neosporin in the sense that the antibiotic it uses is slightly different, but it's also less likely to cause allergies," she explains.

The Final Verdict On Neosporin for Acne

TL;DR: Neosporin isn't the acne fighter you may believe it to be, and it's not a product experts recommend you keep in your blemish-healing toolkit. Instead, stick with the traditional treatments that have been proven to be effective, says Dr. Garshick. Look for products with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sulfur, or chat with your doctor about your prescription treatment options, such as a topical containing clindamycin, adds Dr. Hartman. "Even though everybody's always looking for the next best trick," says Dr. Garshick, "we already have good treatments out there."

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