How Do Hydrocolloid Patches Work?

Since you’re here, that means you’re looking for a way to get rid of a zit ASAP. Because we’re living in 2022, it’s time to ditch the literal band-aid solution and embrace the pimple patch. But how do hydrocolloid patches work, anyway? See how and why this trend is sticking around. 

If you are active on social media or follow beauty gurus on YouTube, you have undoubtedly seen these hydrocolloid patches, a.k.a pimple patches. A pimple patch matches any look from nearly invisible discs to quirky, colorful stickers.

But how do hydrocolloid patches work, and are they a good solution for every type of acne? For anyone interested in trying these pimple patches out or are just curious to know what the hype is all about, this straightforward guide will give you the info you need:

  • Pimple patches vs. hydrocolloid patches
  • Proper use of a pimple patch
  • How to tell if the patch is working
  • Types of acne that pimple patches work on
  • Potential risks of patches

Pimple Patches vs. Hydrocolloid Patches– Are They Actually Different?

For first-time users, it is easy to get lost in the terminology. For a bit of background, a hydrocolloid is a gel-like material that absorbs and locks in moisture. While many people have only recently heard of hydrocolloids in these patches, it’s not a new invention. Believe it or not, you probably eat hydrocolloids daily as they are frequently added as thickeners and stabilizing agents in soups, sauces, sweets, and other food.

Generally, hydrocolloids are naturally derived, known by gelatin, pectin, and cellulose. Pectin and cellulose are plant-based, but gelatin is derived from animal sources, so check the label if you are avoiding animal products.

Now, going back to pimple patches vs. hydrocolloid patches. Simply put, the majority of pimple patches are made of hydrocolloids but not all patches use this technology. Naturally, if the packaging and label on your pimple patch include the words “hydrocolloid,” it’s safe to assume it is a hydrocolloid patch. Typically, hydrocolloid pimple patches are non-medicated, meaning they don’t contain active ingredients and rely solely on the physical barrier and oil-absorbing action of hydrocolloid. If you are looking for a hydrocolloid that is great for sensitive skin I highly recommend reading our best pimple patches for acne deep dive. We’ve had dozens of readers use these patches for spot treatments myself and we highly recommend this list in order to find the best patch for your specific acne needs.

Upping the ante, hydrogel, medicated, and microneedling patches can be found online and on store shelves. These types of pimple patches may still contain hydrocolloids, but the added innovations set them apart from plain hydrocolloid patches. And for the sake of being cheeky, if you use a hydrocolloid patch on anything other than a pimple, it’s not technically a pimple patch.

Although pimple patches can be effective for short-term emergency spot treatments they are not a good long-term solution to clear your skin from zit breakouts. The best way to clear your skin is through the proper nutritional and dietary changes. If you are interested in learning more about how you can change your diet to clear your skin I highly recommend checking out GoodGlow’s Unmasking Acne guide.

Proper Use of a Pimple Patch

Using a pimple patch is as easy as peeling the sticker and applying it to your zits, right? Rookie mistake! You may be asking yourself, “If that’s not the right way, how do I use a pimple patch then”?

Remember these essential tips and tricks when using a hydrocolloid or pimple patch:

1. Wash your hands and cleanse your face.

We all know that dirty hands contribute to the spread of bacteria and contaminants. Regular handwashing is a must for protecting the health of you and those around you. Cleanse your face with a gentle product, ideally a water-based, non-comedogenic formulation. Oil-based cleansers can prevent patches from adhering to skin securely.

2. Only apply patches to dry skin.

This is an important step, especially for hydrocolloid patches. Excess water or oil can prevent the patch from sticking properly and weaken its pimple-fighting powers. Pat your skin dry with a clean towel after cleansing.

3. Do not apply any moisturizer, oil, or serum under or over the patch.

If you swear by a 12-step skincare regimen, it may be complicated knowing where to squeeze in a pimple patch. The easiest way is to apply the patch after cleansing and drying your face. Carefully apply any toner, moisturizer, or serum to the surrounding skin, avoiding the areas near the patch. 

4. Pick the right size & formulation.

Size does matter, at least when it comes to your pimple patch. You want to choose a patch that completely covers the diameter of your blemish for the best results. If the patch is too small, it won’t offer enough protection and acne-fighting action. Opt for the slightly larger one when you’re caught between two sizes. Avoid using large sheets of hydrocolloid bandages meant to dress bodily wounds, as these are too excessive for facial acne.

5. Avoid touching the sticky side of the patch.

Sometimes this can get tricky. Some brands of patches use packaging designed to easily peel and stick the patches without touching the underside, while others are harder to set free. One trick would be to use a clean pair of tweezers to peel and apply the patch onto your skin.

6. Never reuse your patches.

No matter how much you want to save your hard-earned money, reusing, a pimple patch has little to no benefit. Saving a few cents is not worth possibly triggering new acne blemishes with dirty patches.

How to Tell if the Patch is Working

Pimple and hydrocolloid patches are not instant fixes, but they are pretty darn close. So, how do hydrocolloid patches work on your skin? Immediately after applying the patch, your zit will be out of sight and mind. Although, the real magic behind the patch takes a bit more time.

After several hours, you may notice the center of the patch turn opaque or whitish. Why do hydrocolloid patches turn white like this? This is due to the natural porous properties of hydrocolloids. The opacity in a used patch can be a mixture of water, sebum, pus, and dead skin cells.

But it is important to remember that these patches will go from clear to opaque or white even if they aren’t placed on a whitehead. Regular hydrocolloid patches only work on the skin’s surface and, contrary to popular belief, are not mini vacuums that suck up deep-seated dirt and germs.

With that said, the best way to know if the patch is working is to see what your skin looks like after removing the patch. Most likely, you will notice the treated pimples reduce in size and redness after being blanketed by the patch for several hours.

Types of Acne That Pimple Patches Work On

Not all acne acts the same way. According to dermatologists, pimple patches and hydrocolloid patches work best on pus-filled blemishes. The occlusive, moisture-sucking action of hydrocolloids offers the most benefits for oozing pimples.

This is where it gets a little tricky. Putting a patch on too early or too late will just result in disappointment most of the time. So, when is the best time to use a pimple patch on a whitehead? Place a patch when you see a reddish bump with a rounded white-to-yellow bubble on top. Basically, the kind of pimple you would be tempted to pop with your fingers. Sleep your way to clearer skin by applying a hydrocolloid patch before bedtime and take it off in the morning.

Do hydrocolloid patches work on cystic acne and blackheads? Unfortunately, blemishes without a noticeable whitehead don’t respond much to the effects of hydrocolloid patches. But thanks to innovations, there are special patches that have built-in microneedles that aim to penetrate the skin and deliver medication to deeper cystic acne lesions. For stubborn blackheads, try exfoliating or using pore strips.

However, because the patch acts as a physical barrier, hydrocolloid patches can still protect any blemish from environmental exposure and dreaded scratching and picking, leading to unsightly scarring and discoloration.

Potential Risks of Hydrocolloid Patches

Are there any risks to hydrocolloid or acne patches? While these little stickers seem entirely harmless, there are still precautions you need to take before using them. Watch out for the following:

  • Avoid applying patches to areas with hair– unless you are willing to lose it (ouch!). This includes areas around the eyebrows, sideburns, and scalp.
  • Never leave a patch on for too long. While each product is different, it is generally best to keep a hydrocolloid patch on for 8 to 12 hours. Leaving patches on for too long can end up irritating your skin, which is the opposite of what you want.
  • Don’t apply a patch on fragile or thin skin. While hydrocolloids help with the healing process and protect the underlying skin, delicate skin can easily be damaged when removing the patch. This includes areas around the eyes and areas to which potent corticosteroid creams have been applied.
  • Always check the ingredients list. Some patches are medicated while others are not. Medicated pimple patches contain ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, essential oils, and the list goes on. If you have ever had an allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in a patch, it would be wise to steer clear from it.

Patches Are Sticking with Us (for Now)

At the end of the day, pimple patches are the ultimate spot treatment when a new zit tries to live on your face rent-free. Hydrocolloid patches offer instant protection from dirt, sunlight, and habitual picking and continue to work overnight or throughout the day quietly. While these patches can be effective for spot treatments, it is important to remember that they are still only temporary solutions.

Addressing your underlying acne triggers such as certain food, too little or too much exercise, a hormonal imbalance, and poor sleep habits are still the keys to fighting both old and new pimples.

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Stephanie Nera (Pharmacist)
Analyzed by Stephanie Nera

I am a pharmacist who graduated cum laude in the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of Santo Tomas. I have worked as a writer for over 5 years, handling small time and multinational clients alike. Most notably, I have worked as an in-house writer and medical reviewer for Hello Doctor. I’m an Arizona native who has spent a good number of years in the Philippines. With that said, my health journey has gone through many extremes throughout my entire life. As a former “fat kid”, stressed-out medical student, and current PCOS warrior, I am passionate about sharing my professional and personal insights with those struggling with these problems and more. (Spoiler alert: you’re probably using way too many medications and products right now). Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, anytime! Read more of Stephanie's articles.


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