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Can pimple patches relieve acne?

DAphney Edouard, 26, doesn’t mind being the youngest woman in her morning fitness class in Reston, Virginia. But every now and then, the decade-long age difference between Edouard, a digital producer for Sephora, and her fitness buddies becomes glaringly obvious. Earlier this year, a classmate came up to her after class and pointed to Edouard’s forehead. “She said, ‘Tell me, what religion does that represent?'”

Edouard wore a black, star-shaped hydrocolloid acne patch between her eyebrows.

“I laughed and she said, ‘What’s so funny?'” Edouard recalls. “I just said, ‘I have a pimple. It’s a pimple.'”

The other women in her class “were surprised that I wanted to wear such a bright, eye-catching pimple patch to fitness class and in public,” she says.

For several years now, pimple patches like the one Edouard had that day—opaque, bizarrely shaped, in strikingly inhuman hues like bright yellow, jet black, magenta, and even rainbow—have been appearing on more and more faces in fitness classes, in classrooms, in the workplace, and online. Many are treated with hydrocolloid or salicylic acid; they treat pimples while also covering them up, protecting them from both idle fingers and the gaze of strangers. As a skin-care device, pimple patches, which gained popularity in the late 2010s, were a groundbreaking development in skin-care technology. But they’ve also become a fashion trend. And while their proliferation heralds changing attitudes toward acne—one of the most universal inconveniences of being human—they’ve also begun to function as a social marker.

The first generation of pimple patches came out in the late 2010s. Hero’s Mighty Patch hydrocolloid dots, for example, came out in 2017, and around the same time, Peace Out started offering skin-colored and translucent versions of the same concept.

Then came Starface in 2019, whose pentagram-shaped Hydro-Star patches would finally be available in a full spectrum of opaque, bright colors. Decorative and splashy, they were an almost instant sensation. Hailey and Justin Bieber were photographed wearing them in their daily lives and, crucially, wearing them in photos on social media. Florence Pugh, Willow Smith and Nicola Peltz Beckham did the same, and the brand even presented its first black version of the product on models at a Puppets and Puppets fashion show in 2022.

In addition to being a hot celebrity accessory, Starface products are also popular among teens and young adults. According to Kara Brothers, president of the brand, 60 percent of Starface’s sales today come from Generation Z and emerging Generation Alpha consumers (born 2010 and later). Brothers spoke to the Washington Post after interviewing high school students in London, “and they were talking about how they’re all swapping pimple patches on their lockers,” she says.

Cadence Lawson, 12, just finished sixth grade in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and can confirm that she and her classmates trade their Starface pimple patches not only for other Starface colors, but also for higher-quality goods. “It mostly happens during lunch,” she says. “For ice cream or something like that.”

“These are the new Pokémon cards,” jokes Cadence’s father, Daniel, 34. Earlier this year, Daniel, who creates video content across multiple platforms with his wife as Awesome Lawsons, appeared in a skit inspired by Cadence’s use of the Starface stickers. (Though Cadence stresses that she had the last laugh when her father occasionally borrowed a Starface patch to treat one of his own breakouts.)

Starface’s dominance in the acne patch space is hard to dispute. Other brands are now offering colorful acne patches in eye-catching shapes (see Peace Out’s rainbow offering in the shape of a two-fingered peace sign), and the popularity of Starface itself has even inspired some young people to wear the patches purely as a fashion statement – with no pimples or blemishes underneath.

Cadence has seen the little stars on many acne-free faces in her elementary school; 15-year-old Annie Miller has seen the same thing in the hallways of her public high school in Fountain Hills, Arizona. (Both girls say they usually save their patches for when they have pimples.)

When Starface patches are placed on the jawline or chin, Annie assumes they’re being used to treat real pimples. But on the cheek, or in that seductive Marilyn Monroe mole position above the lip? That’s just fashion, baby.

(Brothers adds that Starface formulates its products to be safe for all young customers, as well as adolescent and older customers. Hydrocolloid, a gentle ingredient that creates a moist environment, has been used in the past to speed healing of all types of skin wounds and is, says Brothers, “a safe ingredient for everyone.”)

As strange and youthfully capricious as such a trend may seem, there is a centuries-old precedent for wearing stars and other cute shapes on the face just for fun, according to Susan Stewart, author of “Painted Faces: A Colorful History of Cosmetics.”

Tiny silk patches in the shape of “stars, crescents, diamonds and the like” were often stuck to the faces of wealthy young people in 17th-century Western Europe. The trend originated in the French royal court, where the patches were initially used to cover scars and skin damage from diseases like smallpox and syphilis, “but they eventually became quite popular. Where they were worn on the face could mean, ‘I am married’ or ‘I am not married’ or ‘I am available’ or ‘Not available’. Or alternatively, ‘I support this or that political party,'” Stewart says. The type or placement may also have indicated star signs or even religious beliefs, she adds. (So perhaps Edouard’s sports buddy wasn’t completely clueless—he was just off by a few hundred years.)

TToday, the star-shaped adhesive strips used as accessories can mean something different. Annie, the soon-to-be tenth-grader in Arizona, remembers her reaction when a classmate came to school one morning last year with about seven Starface stars that didn’t appear to cover acne: “I just thought, ‘You have a much of money,'” she recalls.

Annie’s mother, Sidney Miller, whose other daughters, 12-year-old twins, also use Starface products, points out that a pack of 32 can cost between $11 and $17. “Even if they put two on in one day during the school week,” she says, one pack would only last a child about three weeks. “So they’re constantly having to buy new ones.”

Miller is not surprised that children are trading for it, “because there are probably children who would otherwise not have access to it.”

For Stewart, the popularity of opaque, non-camouflaging pimple patches also represents a radical shift in attitudes toward acne. From the snow-white, lead-based full-face makeup of the 18th century to the thick concealers of the late 20th century and the color correctors of the 21st century, the goal has virtually always been to disguise pimples by making them look like the rest of the unaffected skin around them. As if to say: I do not even know have Acne.

However, covering up a visible blemish with an equally visible plaster sends a completely different message: I have a pimple. We’re just not going to look at it. (Or risk making it worse with multiple layers of makeup.)

“The next generations are certainly more comfortable in their own skin and definitely crave brands, people and workplaces that allow them to show themselves exactly as they are,” says Brothers.

“It’s very different from the way this sort of thing has been dealt with in the past,” Stewart says. “It seems like a fairly open-minded and positive way of looking at things, rather than trying to achieve the unattainable.”

In fact, Gen Z seems less inclined than previous generations to be ashamed (or to shame each other) of issues like pimples, which can — and do — happen to anyone. In recent years, TikTokers have shared unedited close-ups of celebrities’ skin at the Met Gala and other high-profile, glamorous events, highlighting that even people whose entire jobs revolve around being beautiful sometimes have uneven skin texture, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and, yes, acne.

This attitude seems to be contagious. One morning, about a month after Edouard’s pimple patch was mistaken for a religious symbol, she says, another woman from her training class came to that day’s session excitedly pointing at her own face.

Of course, she would remove it later before her work meeting, said the classmate – but there, proudly and without regret, was a pimple mark.

This shooting was photographed at John’s Restaurant in Palm Desert, California. Special thanks to George Argyros.

Modeling by Catherine Pham for DT Model Management. Styled by Bri Caamano. Hair and makeup by Caitlin Krenz for Exclusive Artists.