For those of us who are struggling with acne, we definitely know firsthand how miserable this skin condition can be. While it can be tricky to put into words how hard it is to deal with breakouts on the regular, it’s safe to say that, of all the different types of acne out there, cystic acne is arguably the worst. It’s painful, it takes forever to heal, it scars, and it’s just the freaking worst.
Not only are cystic blemishes incredibly painful to the touch – where the skin itself can actually literally feel like it’s throbbing 24/7 – but it can also take a serious toll on your mental health. (The owners of CLEARSTEM skincare both struggled with hardcore cystic acne and went through serious depression because of it). Also- unlike pustules which show up to the party then fade away in a day or two, cystic acne can quickly overstay its welcome and linger on your face for weeks or months at a time. (1)
It’s a fairly safe bet to argue that if you have cystic acne, then you understandably want it gone for good. Who wouldn’t? But whether you get only one or two rogue cysts at a time, or you’re currently dealing with a cluster of them across your face, trying to attain clear skin can feel like an almost impossible task.
Fortunately, cystic acne is totally treatable, and it doesn’t require a medical degree or even an expensive trip to the dermatologist to do it. Rather, actually learning how to treat cystic acne is the first piece of the clear-skin puzzle. Not only can you get rid of those existing acne breakouts from your face, but you can also help prevent them from coming back.
Even better, you don’t even have to throw harsh medications (Accutane, we’re looking at you!) at your body to finally get the smooth and glowing complexion you deserve. So grab a seat, friends, and settle in. We’re going to break down everything you need to know about what causes cystic acne, as well as give you the tools to teach you how to get rid of it for good.
What is Cystic Acne?
Acne can come in a wide variety of shapes and forms, and contrary to popular belief, they’re not limited to just one type. Probably the most widely known kind of acne is the pustule, the white-capped ones that tend to show up unannounced but go on their merry way after just a couple of days.
However, of all the different types of acne out there, all of them pale in comparison to severe nodular acne, also known as cystic acne. But what is cystic acne, and how is it different from other types of breakouts? Characterized by large, painful pimples that rarely come to a head, cystic acne is typically super painful to the touch and can burrow deep beneath the surface of your skin. (2)
As a type of inflammatory breakout, not only are they admittedly fairly unsightly to behold, but they can also leave lasting scars in their wake. Fortunately, if you’re one of those lucky people who have been blessed with this type of skin issue (yes, we’re being sarcastic here), knowing how to treat cystic acne can empower you to take charge of your skin health once and for all.
What Causes Cystic Acne?
There is no one singular, root cause that can be blamed for the occurrence of cystic acne. Since there are a bunch of things that can lead to these breakouts, it’s incredibly important to be aware of your own triggers to learn what causes cystic acne breakouts in the first place. (3)
These can include:
- Clogged pores
- Menstrual cycles
- Using the wrong skincare products
Because there are so many variables that can play into your ongoing breakouts, it can make it much more difficult for people to start healing from them. A holistic review of your lifestyle needs to be done first in order to start narrowing down the culprits. Once you pin them down, then you can finally get back on the path to clear skin.
How Do You Treat Cystic Acne?
There are a few steps that will contribute to the healing process. What's most important, though, is to be patient. Cystic acne is both an inflammatory skin disease and an active infection, which means that it won’t simply just disappear overnight. (4)
That said, there are ways to help speed up the process and quickly reduce any signs that the cyst ever existed in the first place. If you want to know how to treat cystic acne, then these ten steps are going to help you establish a foolproof skincare routine that is all but guaranteed to give you a radiant complexion.
- Be careful when you wash. Make sure you are washing your face in lukewarm water – and not hot! When you wash with hot water, you’re essentially “burning” your face, causing it to become more inflamed and irritated. This can backfire, prolonging the healing process. (5)
- Watch out for comedogenic ingredients. Check all of your hair, skin, face, and makeup products against our pore-clogging ingredients list. You want to be sure that none of them are not contributing to your breakouts.
- Get plenty of sleep. We recommend a minimum of 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye each night. Sleep helps balance your hormones, which are pretty much the biggest cause of your cystic acne. (6)
- Move your body. Exercise is more than just staying in shape. You don’t have to run a marathon, either. However, regular exercise can help naturally detoxify your body and get your lymphatic system moving, promoting the healing process. (7 & 8)
- Pay attention to your diet. For proper skin nutrition, it’s best to focus on a low-glycemic diet. It should be one that’s rich in vitamins and nutrients, fiber, healthy fats, and high-quality proteins. On the other hand, you’ll want to avoid foods that contain processed sugars, dairy, and caffeine, as well as fried and fast food. (9)
- Manage your stress levels. Find ways to slow down and reduce stress, such as walking, meditation yoga, journaling, and resting. Not only will the extra zen really boost your mood, but it’ll also help lead to clearer skin. (10)
- No popping! We can’t stress this enough: keep your hands off your zits! Picking at your cystic acne can take the healing time from days to weeks – to even years in more severe cases. Plus, it can actually backfire, causing you to break out even more. (11)
- Use an ice pack. Grab a cold compress or ice pack, wrap it in a clean towel, and press it against your skin for about 10-15 seconds at a time. This can help to immediately decrease the redness and size of your cyst. (12)
- Wash your pillowcase regularly. Bacteria from your body and hair can linger (and spread around) on your pillowcase, then migrate to your face, making your acne worse. We recommend washing it weekly with an acne-safe detergent, such as DoTerra OnGuard Detergent, Tide Free & Gentle, and Up & Up Free and Clear (Target Brand).
- Build a solid skincare routine. You could be doing everything else correctly, but without a rock-solid regimen, you’re only going to fall short on your clear-skin goals. (Psst – we listed our favorite products below for ridding your skin of cystic acne!)
How Can I Prevent Cystic Acne?
Now that you know how to tackle those existing breakouts and get rid of them, your next step is to actually prevent those cysts from forming in the first place. And don’t worry – each one of these tips is super easy and seriously actionable, which means that you have literally no excuse to not try them.
Anything that has swelling (like a cyst) will respond to a cold compress (ice pack). This can be done multiple times a day, and we recommend placing an ice pack (or frozen water bottle, if that’s more handy) wrapped in a clean washcloth against the breakout.
Hold it there with medium-firm pressure for about 10 minutes, both morning and night. Don’t press the compress directly against the skin, though, as it can actually backfire and wind up hurting you. However, this alone will help drastically and is your first starting point toward getting clear skin.
The Face Reality line that we also carry has a sulfur spot treatment that we recommend as an overnight mask. Apply onto affected areas directly after cleansing and toning, and sleep with it on. Believe it or not, it’s not actually drying, and it’s actually going to play a big part in how to treat cystic acne breakouts on your face and body.
The way sulfur works is that it can help calm and soothe inflammation. Plus, as an added bonus, it can also unclog pores by dissolving some of the dead skin and oil that can lead to congestion. (13)
It’s also important to note that sulfur is not as harsh as benzoyl peroxide and doesn’t lead to redness or irritation. It’s generally considered to be safe for all skin types, and elemental sulfur (the type used in topicals) typically doesn’t cause reactions, even in people with sensitivities to sulfites. (14)
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol
We know this is going to be asking a lot of you, especially if you need your morning cup of joe to be able to function throughout the day, but we have to say it anyway. If you want clear skin, then you absolutely must be careful to avoid caffeine and alcohol as much as possible – at least, until the inflammation has calmed down. (15, 16, & 17)
Cystic acne is the most inflamed version of acne, and the source of the inflammation is mostly internal. The way that caffeine and alcohol further exacerbate that inflammation is because they get filtered through the lymphatic system (those detox pathways that run through the perimeter and lower half of your face, and all down your neck).
When you have cystic acne and still consume coffee and alcohol, the cystic breakouts tend to get more swollen and red. This is due to the lymphatic fluid applying pressure from the inside of the skin. We seriously can’t recommend strongly enough that you reduce your intake of these two substances if you’re battling breakouts, and this is doubly so if you have cystic acne.
Also, because acne is so hormonal, you need to be aware of the role that caffeine and alcohol have on your endocrine system. They both spike testosterone, which is the hormone that most inflames acne. And, to further compound it, they both also dehydrate the body. (18, 19, 20, & 21)
That alone are three seriously huge reasons to cut way back. If you’re a daily coffee drinker and you cut back for about ten days, then you’ll start to see the major difference in your acne. With some patients who have more sensitive lymphatic systems, this is literally the one thing keeping them from being clear.
PRO TIP: If you have little bumps near the end of your eyebrows and on your temples, it’s usually hand-in-hand with too much coffee. Go find a green tea and non-dairy creamer you really like!
Do Hot Yoga
We know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you have cystic acne (or any acne), hot yoga a few times per week is a godsend. This is by far one of the best ways to detox your entire system. It works its magic especially well on the lymphatic system, which is the unsung hero of your entire immune system. (22)
When we sweat and stretch and take deep breaths, we are literally purging out the toxins that are stored up in our systems. Think of your internal detox pathways as a crowded two-lane highway with a ton of traffic. A hot yoga session adds four more lanes and removes the speed limit.
This means those toxins are excreted quickly and not still floating around causing silent inflammation. In turn, you’ll start to notice the redness and swelling fading away, and your skin texture and appearance dramatically improving.
PRO TIP: Immediately rinse your face after any exercise, whether it's a sweaty yoga sesh or just a jog around your block. Quickly rinsing off is key to preventing the sweat from re-clogging your pores. Splashing off for 6-10 seconds counts, so don’t feel like you have to crack out your whole skincare regimen to reap the benefits.
Infrared Saunas and Steam Rooms
Similar to hot yoga, these heated rooms also help aid in detoxification and circulation, which promotes healing throughout the entire body. The heat can also be highly meditative and even surprisingly de-stressing, which can help balance your hormones and bring your adrenals back into stasis. (23)
Be sure to hydrate before and after to replenish water loss, though. Don’t push yourself too hard, and try to think of these sweat sessions as a chance to hit reset on your current stress levels. Ice packing the skin after a sweat session is also a great way to reduce cystic acne, too.
Benzoyl Peroxide (In Moderation)
We say moderation here, as the overuse of BP is known to be irritating and drying to the skin, which you definitely do not want. Stronger isn’t better here, friends. However, the way you apply it depends largely on your skin type.
For instance, if you have dryer skin, you can use benzoyl peroxide as a mask. While it’s tempting to want to blast those cysts into outer space with a super high concentration of BP, that can actually lead to more irritation to your skin. Instead, a 5% benzoyl peroxide product can be used as a mask on dry skin types, and you can simply apply it, leave it on clean skin for 30-60 minutes, then rinse it back off.
On the other hand, if you have oily or combination skin, then you can apply the benzoyl peroxide to any breakouts and leave it on all night. Just go ahead and dab the BP directly onto the active breakouts, let it sit alone for about twenty minutes, then follow with acne-safe moisturizer. (24)
Avoid Dairy Completely
So, we can’t stress this one enough. If you have painful breakouts and want to know how to treat cystic acne from the inside out, then you absolutely must avoid dairy, full stop. In fact, this is actually the #1 rule if you get breakouts, especially in the lower half of the face. (25)
The reason for this is because dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, and yes, ice cream) have something called Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) in it. This IGF-1 acts on our hair follicles, sending a message to them, telling them to produce more oil.
In turn, it leads to those inflamed, “underground” acne that often turns cystic. Dairy will affect you mainly on your chin and along the jawline, so if you have a concentration of acne near your mouth or chin. So the biggest thing you can do, diet-wise, is to completely eliminate dairy until you are clear.
Moderate Your Supplements
For many people, taking supplements can help them fill the gaps in their diet. However, so many different brands of vitamins have far too much of a vitamin or mineral in it. Just because you’re not reaching dangerous overdose levels, that doesn't mean that they’re not going to harm you.
Take a close look at the back of the bottle of your supplements, and stop taking any of them that include more than 80% of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of zinc, vitamin B12, or vitamin D. These three common vitamins are very important, but when in supplement form, it can be too high of a dose (versus foods that break down slowly). (26)
If you take too much of them, they can wind up spiking your body’s testosterone levels. This is much more common than you might realize, and it’s a huge acne aggressor. If you find that your supplements contain more than 80% of the RDI, take a three-week break from that vitamin product and then slowly reintroduce it to monitor effects.
It’s likely that inflammation will decrease, especially if you’re making time to ice pack and exercise. When re-introducing any supplement, take that product twice per week at first to monitor skin impact. If you don’t get any extra breakouts, then it’s probably safe to continue – albeit in moderation.
We also strongly recommend using a hormonal acne supplement that’s been specifically formulated for acne-prone people. Reach for one that has ingredients that can balance your system rather than antagonize it. Ours includes a winning combination of DIM, vitamin A, vitamin B5, 5-HTP, and glutathione, all carefully hand-selected for their anti-acne benefits.
Avoid Hot Water Directly on the Skin
There’s really nothing like a hot shower after a good workout, or to wake yourself up in the morning. As awesome as it is to blast yourself with scalding hot water, though, doing so will seriously tear up your face. Yes, steam rooms are great, but hot water directly on the skin is actually very unhealthy and inflammatory. (5)
Here’s why: heat inflames the skin and dries out the natural repairing moisture that we have. This forces the pore to clamp shut to prevent further moisture loss, and it also sends a frantic “help me!” message down to the oil gland to produce more oil. The end result is a closed pore with more oil trying to push its way out.
That hot shower is going to deeply inflame your breakouts and can even turn a smaller breakout into a cystic breakout. Remember, with cystic acne, a cold compress is your skin’s BFF in calming things down. Direct heat onto the skin, though, is contraindicated (not advised) for cystic acne.
PRO TIP: Heat destroys the surface of the skin and re-injures scar tissue that’s trying to heal. It also makes you accumulate UV damage much faster, too, since hot water strips your skin of its natural protective moisture barrier. This is the absolute last thing you want to do.
Instead, use only lukewarm water when cleansing your skin. That way, you won’t do as much damage to scar tissue or make your skin more vulnerable to the sun. Trust us… you’ll age much faster if you use hot water, so just stick to lukewarm!
Avoid Eating Meat at Night
You should also avoid eating meat at night, or at least, avoid eating it within three hours of bedtime. Meat is the most difficult thing to digest, so when we eat a lot of it in one sitting, it can take several hours to properly break down. Instead, you’ll want to eat the majority of your protein during the day to give your body the chance to fully break it down. (27)
This is extremely important, as when meat isn’t digested well, it actually ferments and creates alcohol in the body. To further compound the issue, some of the undigested protein can become toxic and wind up floating through your lymphatic system, causing major cystic acne. (28)
The bottom line here? Digestion is H-U-G-E for acne, and when that process goes better, there is far less inflammation in the body and usually far less acne. In fact, many people think they have hormonal acne but it’s really lymphatic, and poor digestion of protein is one of the main triggers.
PRO TIP: Egg whites contain a protein called albumin, which is very hard to digest. If you have been eating eggs multiple times per week and are experiencing cystic acne, we recommend that you do an elimination diet for 3-4 weeks to determine if it’s your acne trigger. Just FYI, but at our San Diego Acne Clinic, eggs spike cystic acne in about 80% of our clients. (29)
Take Bromelain Supplements
This is pineapple extract, so as long as you don’t have a pineapple allergy, you’re good to go. Bromelain is uniquely anti-inflammatory when taken on an empty stomach. Taking 2-4 capsules before bedtime (on an empty stomach) can drastically reduce the inflammation of acne. (30)
It’s also useful as a protein-digestion enzyme, so taking them with meat helps your body to break it down better. Use bromelain with food to aid in digestion, use it without food (at least two hours after eating) to aid in inflammation. (31)
Recommended Products for Cystic Acne
In addition to following these guidelines, you’re also going to want to build up a solid skincare regimen. It’s not enough to just simply splash your face with water before you go to bed at night, as cystic acne requires a more hands-on approach. In order to really get that clean skin you desire, you’ll want to add a few specific products to your lineup.
A gentle wash, as well as the right assortment of serums and a non-comedogenic moisturizer, will be just the ticket to finally bid a not-so-fond farewell to your cystic acne. If you’re wondering how to treat cystic acne and have a smooth complexion, then these products can definitely help make it happen.
- Gentle cleanser for cystic acne prone skin
- Acne stem cell serum for cystic acne prone skin
- Mandelic acid serum for cystic acne prone skin
- Stem cell moisturizer for cystic acne prone skin
If you’re wondering where to find these awesome cystic acne slayers, all products can be found in our online shop. And of course, if you have any questions about how to use them, you can always reach out to us. We’re more than happy to break everything down for you and help you build the perfect skincare regimen for your cystic acne.
Remember, cystic acne is a skin disease. It’s not a character flaw, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve somehow failed at taking care of yourself or anything like that. Rather, it simply means that you’re dealing with chronic systemic inflammation, and you don’t quite yet have the tools to tackle it head-on.
Also, not to beat a dead horse here, but it’s extremely important to remain patient. Your skin isn’t going to just clear up overnight, and it’s going to be an ongoing process. Yes, it’s totally understandable to feel impatient, especially if you’re sick and tired of dealing with these painful breakouts.
However, by taking a multi-pronged approach to your cystic acne, and by incorporating the recommendations we’ve made here, you’re going to be taking the first step on an amazingly rewarding journey toward healthy skin. And once you see the results you get from it, you’ll finally feel that confidence that you deserve, hands down.
Honestly, we’re super excited for you. Having beautiful skin is absolutely within your reach, and now that you know how to get rid of cystic acne, you’re going to be unstoppable. Without acne holding you back any longer, the world will be your oyster – and you’ll feel as beautiful on the outside as we know you are on the inside.
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