Cystic Acne – What It Is And How To Treat It ASAP

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Of all the different types of acne, cystic acne is perhaps the most persistent – and definitely the most physically painful. If you’ve experienced these red, angry spots that live teasingly under the surface of the skin, never quite coming to a head, you’ll know exactly what we mean.

But that’s not the only reason why cystic spots win the unpopularity contest – they’re also much more difficult to treat than blackheads, whiteheads or closed comedones.

If you’ve tried every trick in the book, and come up short every time, don’t give up just yet. We’ve spoken to the country’s leading acne experts to discover exactly how to manage these deep-seated breakouts safely and effectively. Stay with us for everything you need to know about treating, covering, and preventing cystic acne, both at home and in the hands of a dermatologist.

What Is Cystic Acne?

‘The term cystic acne is used to describe large, red, painful, deep lumps that look like boils and represent the most severe form of the acne condition,’ explains consultant dermatologist Dr. Justine Kluk. Like other manifestations of acne – think whiteheads and pustules – these persistent blemishes are caused by an abnormal level of sebum mixing with dead skin cells deep inside our pores. ‘This leads to blockages, activation of a bacterium known as cutibacterium acnes and subsequent swelling, pus and inflammation.’

The Best Cystic Acne Treatment – The At-Home Tool Kit

At-home treatments for cystic acne do exist, though – and they can be pleasingly effective when it comes to mild-to-moderate cases.

Like most experts, Thomas considers topical retinol the most powerful and proven ingredient when it comes to treating acne – but you must use it correctly, and be patient.

‘Retinol can now be bought over the counter at a 0.5% strength, or you can get a prescription from your doctor for 1% or higher. You need to use retinol consistently and regularly for 6-12 weeks to see the results,’ she says. It’s best to introduce your skin to this ingredient slowly: try applying it every third night for the first fortnight, and monitor any redness and irritation you experience. If it feels sore or inflamed, scale things back until your skin acclimatises more.

Another option is salicylic acid. ‘It’s oil-soluble, so it can penetrate much deeper than other acids, and is also slightly antibacterial and anti-inflammatory,’ says Thomas. Again, this pore-clearing beta-hydroxy-acid can be drying, so remember that less is more, and always layer a light hydrator on top.

The Best Products For Cystic Acne

Of course, everyone’s skin is unique, and the treatment that worked for your mate may not do a thing for you. However, Thomas’ no-messing routine for cystic acne-prone skin makes a brilliant jumping-off point for anyone attempting a skin transformation – even if it’s a stop-gap while you wait for a dermatologist’s appointment.


  • Wash with a salicylic-acid face wash to keep pores as clean as possible.
  • Apply a vitamin C serum. This helps protect the skin and reduces the likelihood of post-inflammatory pigmentation.
  • Apply a lightweight lotion.
  • Finish with an oil-free SPF.

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