Think back to middle school when, year after year, person after person would tell us that we’d grow out of our acne. We get it: The adults in our lives wanted to be encouraging. They threw out a glimmer of hope — an “it gets better” kind of thing that has us bamboozled all these years later. Because after countless cycles of hormonal acne, we’re here to say that it does not, in fact, always get better: A 2011 study showed that nearly half of women aged 20-29 has clinical acne.
One of the most notorious types? The cystic variety, which can be brought on by monthly hormonal cycles — and can be way more intense to deal with than your average pimple.
“Cysts are like balloons under the skin that are filled with oil, but have no place to go. As your oil glands make more oil, cysts become enlarged, the wall cracks, and inflammation develops,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Unlike more surface-based pimples, he explains, cystic zits can’t be picked: “They have no connection to the surface of the skin so any attempt to pick them will cause more harm than good.”
Extractions are also out when it comes to cystic zits. S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD, a Miami-based dermatologist with a celebrity-heavy clientele, notes that these suckers can start deep in the skin, one or two millimeters beneath its surface. “They’re extremely difficult, if not impossible, to extract or ‘pop,’ even by a skin-care specialist or dermatologist,” she says. In short, these zits are deep-rooted and tough to fight, which is why our pros suggest booking an appointment with a derm as a first line of defense.
And though Accutane has proven controversial for some, Marina Peredo, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and associate clinical professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, also likes the medication to treat cystic acne. “For most patients, it's a cure and will prevent deep scar formation if started early in a course of a disease,” she says, noting that a proactive approach is key. “It is very important to start Accutane as soon as possible with severe cystic acne because prolonging the start of the treatment can cause deep scars, which are very hard to treat even with the most aggressive laser treatments later.”
Bottom line? If you want to get serious about cystic acne treatment, there’s no getting around time-consuming derm visits and prescribed meds. But here’s the upshot: We can take action from our own bathrooms to help minimize cystic acne from forming and help control those mighty bumps in between doctor’s visits.
Ahead, get pro advice on how best to tackle deep-rooted acne at home.
1 of 17
Benzoyl peroxide can help shrink cysts, Dr. Peredo notes. A whopping 4.5% benzoyl peroxide is used in this face wash, a concentration that might normally be too harsh for sensitive skin. However, the ingredient is micro-encapsulated, which controls its release (reducing the risk of irritation) while allowing for better penetration.
2 of 17
Dr. Jegasothy likes probiotic cleansers for acneic patients, as they help keep the skin’s good bacteria balanced. This foaming formula uses the bifida ferment lysate strain — along with lactic acid, turmeric root, and antioxidant-rich blueberries — to refresh and rebalance skin without stripping.
3 of 17
Dr. Peredo notes that salicylic or glycolic acid peels can help keep breakouts in check. This gel-based peel not only contains skin-clearing glycolic acid and charcoal, it gently gathers gunk and dead skin cells into clumps as you exfoliate and leaves skin super soft.
4 of 17
We've been privy to the wonders of Medik8's blemish products for a while, but it bears repeating: This shit works. The brand's Blemish SOS (which was previously known as Beta Gel) uses the power of salicylic acid and niacinamide to clear pores, and both azelaic acid and dioic acid to fight blemish-causing bacteria and help control oil production within the skin.
5 of 17
Hundreds of Amazon reviewers say this is the one product that actually cleared their acne after years of trying everything. With its main active ingredient being 2% salicylic acid, this treatment unclogs pores and clears away dead skin cells to allow the skin to deeply absorb acne-fighting serums.
6 of 17
This cream has a mixture of 5.5% benzoyl peroxide and LHA, a derivative of salicylic acid, to fight acne and exfoliate.
7 of 17
This lightweight gel makes a bold claim right out of the gate: With five powerful acids and soothing, dryness-defying plant extracts, it promises to reduce breakouts — even the cystic type, thanks to that potent acid complex that cuts through clogged pores — in just one week, without leaving skin flaky or dry.
8 of 17
The star ingredient of this spot treatment is monolaurin, a coconut-derived antibacterial that not only helps address cystic zits, but also addresses acne that results from sweat. What’s more, it’s built to keep skin cooler, which helps prevent excessive sweating, which can create even more zits.
9 of 17
This cult-favorite is an effective acne spot treatment that's also cost-effective. Because it has sulfur, it works to reduce oiliness and unblock pores. There's no need to rub or blend this stuff into your entire face — just use a cotton swab to dot it on any spots, hit the hay, and you'll see reduced pimple size by morning.
10 of 17
Keeping skin hydrated means preventing its own overproduction of pore-clogging oils. This moisturizer contains ingredients high in linoleic acid to help balance sebum and pH levels. It also boasts antibacterials and antifungals, and yes, ingredients to hydrate, too.
11 of 17
Yes, we know it can feel kind of counterintuitive to put a face oil atop oily and acne-ridden skin. But this formula, a dry oil made with 1.5% salicylic acid, tea tree, and chamomile, helps address congested skin while treating fine lines, dullness, and hyperpigmentation.
12 of 17
We use this vegan mask as an overnight spot treatment to help minimize oncoming acne. Dr. Peredo notes that algae can have a tightening effect, which can help reduce the size of the blemish. But don’t take that to mean the mask makes skin feel tight when used on the entire face; you'll feel soft and hydrated after rinsing.
13 of 17
This cleansing duo is the perfect antidote to over-washing that leaves skin stripped of natural oils: It includes a detoxifying cleansing oil and sea mud-and-charcoal cleansing bar that allows you to double cleanse and target blemishes without zapping moisture from the skin. (Plus, Marilyn Monroe used it, so there's that.)
14 of 17
Anyone lucky enough to have visited Kate Somerville’s L.A. clinic knows that she’s a wizard when it comes to clearing skin. (Required reading in the waiting room: an entire picture book of patients with and without acne, before and after treatment.) This cleanser (inspired by the original best-selling treatment) is one way to get Kate’s skin-clearing skills at home. It uses 3% sulfur, along with honey and rice bran extracts, to gently unclog pores.
15 of 17
We swear by Renee Rouleau's Anti-Cyst Acne Treatment, but the celebrity esthetician has given us cystic-zit sufferers even more of a fighting chance at clear skin with this new anti-inflammatory mask, made especially to target cystic zits before they blow up. Prone to monthly hormonal breakouts? Use this gel mask a few days before your cycle to treat acne before it forms.
17 of 17
This mask zaps hormonal pimples and heals cystic acne, but makes doing so feel downright chic. While it has exfoliating AHAs that work to clear acne, the most plentiful ingredient is honey, which means it'll keep your skin moisturized and soft — and clarified.