Mar 11, 2023

Can Putting Iodine on Pimples Really Help Clear Them Up? Dermatologists Weigh In

The internet is buzzing with a new pimple prevention technique—iodine.

When it comes to breakouts and pesky zits, many of us will try anything to get rid of them—including applying ice, toothpaste, spot treatment creams, and pimple patches to the affected area.

However, the newest skincare hack on TikTok suggests using povidone-iodine—a topical antiseptic used to clean cuts, burns, and scrapes—as a way to get rid of pimples and clear up acne and scarring.

Nico Olsen, in a TikTok video with over 1.2 million views, said that using the antiseptic not only helped to heal a cut on her chin but also helped with acne and scarring.

"I’m using it as a pimple disinfectant on my face today at the office just to do a little experiment and I really feel like this is going to be a game changer for pimples," Olsen explained in the video. "I think the iodine works. I have no irritation anywhere else."

Olsen is not the only one who has boasted about iodine's acne-clearing benefits. Multiple TikTok creators sing the praises of iodine as a means to remove and prevent pimples from popping up.

Before you add iodine into your skincare routine, here's what dermatologists want you to know about the antiseptic, whether or not it truly works on pimples, and if it poses any health risks.

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Iodine is a chemical element like oxygen or gold that is listed on the periodic table and is represented by the symbol "I," Murad Alam, MD, Vice-Chair and Professor of Dermatology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, told Health.

However, people who are using iodine to prevent or eliminate acne are not putting elemental pure iodine on their faces, Dr. Alam clarified. The typical form used for acne is a 3% povidone-iodine solution, which is a liquid antiseptic used for cleansing skin prior to surgical incisions.

It is also sold over-the-counter as an antiseptic to treat or prevent skin infections in minor cuts, wounds, scrapes, or burns, Brendan Camp, MD, double board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology, who also sees patients at MDCS Dermatology, told Health.

Iodine can come in various forms, such as in dietary supplements, medications, salts, and disinfectants.

While iodine solutions like povidone-iodine are used as antiseptics to clear the skin of microorganisms and bacteria prior to surgical procedures, experts say there is not enough evidence to support whether or not the solution truly works to clear up acne and eliminate pimples.

"Povidone iodine is used to sterilize skin before surgery. If you let it dry, it does remove harmful bacteria from the surgical field," Dr. Alam agreed. "Whether it is appropriate to use for acne reduction is a different matter."

He added that since acne is multifactorial—meaning that multiple things can contribute to the formation of a pimple, including bacteria—using povidone-iodine topically may be useful in some cases.

"Like using an alcohol wipe on a zit, topical iodine may be helpful for some people, and in small quantities, is unlikely to be harmful," he explained. "If you have played with a pimple or popped it deliberately, it may be a good idea to cleanse it—usually soap and water will suffice, but if you want to use an alcohol wipe or povidone-iodine, that is not unreasonable."

If you plan on using povidone-iodine, Dr. Alam suggested using a cotton ball, cotton swab, or a small piece of sterile gauze to apply the solution to your pimples. In addition, people should avoid using their fingers to apply the solution and should not use too much because it can drip and stain clothing.

While there is limited data regarding the safety of povidone-iodine for acne, it has been used for decades in surgery and is generally safe, even around the eyes and mouth, Dr. Alam said. But, the solution should not be swallowed, injected, or deliberately introduced into the nose, mouth, eyes, or ears.

"Iodine applied onto the skin for acne doesn't really get into the body, so it can't really help or harm the body overall," he said.

However, applying iodine in the concentrated form it comes in over-the-counter regularly and leaving it on the skin for an extended period of time can put the skin at risk for contact dermatitis, Dr. Camp added. This is a rash that can cause redness, itching, and scaling as a result of damage to the skin barrier from an external irritant.

"When used according to the directions, iodine can be a useful antiseptic to clean minor cuts and scrapes," Dr. Camp said. "When used improperly or without caution iodine can cause skin irritation."

Furthermore, people who have an allergy to some components of a povidone-iodine solution may experience rashes, redness, blisters, or breakouts, Dr. Alam warned.

While it may not cause too much harm to the user, experts do not recommend using povidone-iodine to get rid of pimples and acne because there is little data that exists to support its safety and effectiveness for this purpose.

"I do not regularly recommend the use of iodine as a treatment for acne," Dr. Camp confirmed. "There are a number of other options, both over-the-counter and prescription, that have substantial scientific evidence that supports their safe and effective use to treat acne."

In addition, Dr. Alam pointed out that it is not known what problems, if any, are associated with or related to the long-term use of topical povidone-iodine for acne. The solution is also not currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat acne and pimples.

"I do not recommend iodine to my acne patients because we don't know much about it, it is not approved for this purpose, and other safe, proven medications for acne are available," Dr. Alam agreed. "This is not an FDA-approved treatment for acne and long-term use may have risks."

While iodine is not what they’d recommend to patients struggling with managing acne, Dr. Alam and Dr. Camp noted there are several self-care steps people can take at home to prevent and manage breakouts.

Besides taking these measures, Dr. Camp said people can also try using natural ingredients and treatments for acne, including tea tree oil, honey, aloe vera, zinc, and green tea.

If you are not able to successfully address acne with over-the-counter products, he recommends seeking the assistance of a board-certified dermatologist to evaluate causes and potential treatments.