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How to treat cystic acne, according to dermatologists

We spoke to dermatologists about the best treatments for cystic acne that can help avoid painful bumps and future scarring.
Experts told us in-office treatments and oral medications are the best ways to treat cystic acne. But certain OTC products can help.
Experts told us in-office treatments and oral medications are the best ways to treat cystic acne. But certain OTC products can help.

Millions of people deal with acne, but those who suffer from cystic acne know how difficult it is to treat compared to ordinary pimples. As its name suggests, cystic acne is a severe form of acne that results in large, pus-filled cysts forming underneath the skin’s surface, which usually makes them more painful than normal bumps and, depending on the severity, can cause scarring, says Dr. Emma Weiss, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus. But treating cystic acne is not impossible, and experts recommend starting treatment as soon as possible to avoid permanent scarring.

To help you determine the best ways to minimize the appearance of cysts or get rid of them altogether, we spoke to board-certified dermatologists about the best over-the-counter and prescription treatments to seek out. We also listed their recommendations for the best products that can be used in conjunction with more intensive treatments.

SKIP AHEAD Best treatments for cystic acne | What causes cystic acne? | What active ingredients can help cystic acne?

How to treat cystic acne

You may be familiar with OTC acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and retinol (a vitamin A derivative) that can be used to treat ordinary, run-of-the-mill pimples. However, these acne-fighting ingredients aren’t strong enough to cure cystic acne, according to the dermatologists we spoke to.

Treating cystic acne requires a trip to the dermatologist and likely some type of medical intervention, experts say. Some of the most effective treatments for cystic acne include in-office cortisone injections and oral prescription medications like birth control pills, spironolactone and isotretinoin (usually known by its brand name, Accutane) to treat the underlying causes of the cysts. The most important takeaway is that cystic acne requires early intervention and seeing a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible to prevent permanent scarring, says Weiss.

“Topically, it’s really hard to treat cystic acne. Over-the-counter products may help mitigate the inflammation and bring it down a bit. But making it go away is a lot trickier, and [OTC products] will not be effective if used alone,” says Dr. Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.

However, certain OTC acne treatments can be beneficial when used in conjunction with more powerful prescription treatments. You should cleanse your skin with a wash that contains salicylic acid or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like lactic acid at least a couple of times a week and moisturize with an oil-free moisturizer that’s gentle on the skin, says Dr. Tracy Evans, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology. Those with acne-prone skin should stick to noncomedogenic lotions, makeup and any other face products in order to not clog pores, says Weiss.

How we picked the best cystic acne treatments

While OTC products can’t cure cystic acne, they can play a part in improving your situation, dermatologists told us. When shopping for cystic acne treatments, our experts recommend considering the following factors:

  • Ingredients: Look for acne-fighting active ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and adapalene. Since people with moderate to severe cystic acne tend to have sensitive and inflamed skin, you should also consider a gentle formula that’s free of alcohol, fragrance or abrasive scrubs to prevent irritation.
  • Formulation: All of the products we recommend are noncomedogenic, meaning they’re less likely to clog pores and help prevent new breakouts from forming.
  • Product type: Consider what type of OTC product fits into your skin care routine, especially when pairing them with prescription medications. Types of products that can help treat cystic acne include face cleansers, gentle moisturizers and gel spot treatments.

Best cystic acne treatments

Below, we rounded up a few expert-recommended OTC products that can help treat cystic acne when used with oral medications and in-office treatments.

Best face washes for cystic acne

CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Face Cleanser

This foaming cleanser with 4% benzoyl peroxide is a great option if you have cystic acne on your face and around the body, says Weiss. It has added ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide that can be good for those dealing with acne due to their moisturizing and anti-inflammatory effects, she says. This wash gently removes dirt, excess oil and makeup, and it helps prevent new acne from forming, according to CeraVe. The noncomedogenic wash is also fragrance-free for those with sensitive skin.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Wash

This foaming cleanser comes recommended by Dr. Eileen Deignan, a board-certified dermatologist and chief of dermatology at Emerson Hospital, because it helps unclog pores and calm irritation from acne. The face wash has 2% salicylic acid, which helps remove dead skin cells and unclog pores, says Weiss. It’s suitable for most skin types because it’s free of oils, fragrances and parabens, according to the brand.

Panoxyl Acne Foaming Wash

If you have oily or non-sensitive skin, you can use Panoxyl’s foaming wash to tame cystic acne on both your face and body. Its formula is 10% benzoyl peroxide, the highest concentration of the acne-fighting ingredient on this list. However, such a high concentration of benzoyl peroxide can be irritating to some people, especially those with sensitive skin, so you should introduce the product gradually into your skin care routine, according to Weiss.

Best exfoliating and spot treatments for cystic acne

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

This liquid, leave-on exfoliant has 2% salicylic acid to help fight acne, unclog pores and remove dead skin. It’s also formulated with green tea to help soothe irritation, according to the brand.

Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Gel

This spot treatment gel contains 10% benzoyl peroxide, and you can apply it directly on top of acne to reduce its size and redness, as well as actively fight future breakouts, says Gohara, who usually recommends this product for her patients with cystic acne. Neutrogena recommends applying a thin layer of the acne gel one to three times daily.

Best OTC retinoids for cystic acne

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Products that contain adapalene — the only topical retinoid available over-the-counter — can be helpful when used in conjunction with other prescription treatments, and can cure inflammation, deep clean pores and prevent new pimples from forming, says Weiss. The brand recommends applying a thin layer of Differin Gel to the affected areas of the skin after cleansing and before moisturizing.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel

Another adapalene product Weiss recommends is La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Adapalene Gel, which contains 0.1% adapalene to help unclog pores and fight acne. The gel is fragrance- and oil–free, and it’s noncomedogenic.

Best moisturizers for cystic acne

CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion

“For my acne prone patients, I recommend moisturizing with a gentle, noncomedogenic moisturizer to keep their skin barrier intact,” says Weiss. This daily moisturizing lotion from expert-favorite brand CeraVe is good for sensitive skin because it’s fragrance-free and accepted by the National Eczema Association. The lotion has hyaluronic acid and ceramides to help retain the skin’s natural moisture for up to 24 hours, according to CeraVe.

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer

One of our favorite expert-recommended face moisturizers for acne-prone skin and rosacea, this La Roche-Posay moisturizer is both gentle enough for sensitive skin and has ingredients like niacinamide and ceramides to keep it hydrated, according to the brand. I use this moisturizer both day and night on my sensitive, acne- and rosacea-prone skin because it helps soothe my constant redness and inflammation. The moisturizer offers 48-hour hydration and can be used on the face, neck and hands, according to La Roche-Posay.

What causes cystic acne?

Cystic acne is a type of inflammatory acne that causes deep, painful lesions underneath the skin due to the accumulation of oil, bacteria and dead skin cells. Much like regular acne, the cysts can range from mild (you might develop one or two cysts on your chin around your menstrual cycle, for example) to severe, which can affect the entire face and even the chest and upper back, says Weiss.

Hormonal changes or triggers related to puberty, menopause and pregnancy, underlying medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), stress and genetics can all cause cystic acne, according to Weiss. Certain people may also have an increased risk of developing cystic acne, including those with a family history of cystic acne and teenagers going through puberty, she says.

What active ingredients can help with cystic acne?

There are three common active ingredients in OTC products that can help reduce inflammation caused by cystic acne: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and adapalene. Though they likely won’t completely treat cystic acne on their own, these active ingredients can be helpful if you use them with in-office treatments and prescription medications. Keep in mind, however, that all of these ingredients can cause irritation, so they may not be suitable for sensitive skin, and you should introduce them gradually into your skin care routine.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant and beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps fight acne by targeting excess oil production, unclogging pores and removing dead skin cells, says Weiss. You can typically find 2% salicylic acid in creams, washes and lotions.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide specifically fights acne-causing bacteria to help reduce inflammation and the appearance of acne lesions, according to Weiss. You’ll often see products with very high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide (usually around 10%), but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that higher strengths are more effective at treating acne.

“There are actually some studies that show that 2.5% benzoyl peroxide and 10% benzoyl peroxide have a minimal difference in terms of their efficacy in acne treatments,” says Gohara. People with cystic acne that experience sensitivity or dryness may be able to tolerate the lower strength ingredients better, says Weiss.


Retinoids are more powerful acne treatments that can be effective at reducing inflammation. Topical retinoids help increase skin cell turnover and clear out clogged pores, which may be contributing to the initial cause of cystic acne, says Weiss. While prescription retinoid gels and creams are the most effective at treating cystic acne, adapalene — a topical OTC retinoid treatment — works well to regulate the turnover of cells lining the pores to reduce clogging. 

Keep in mind that adapalene can be very drying, so you should introduce this ingredient gradually into your skin care routine, using a small amount and moisturizing afterward, according to Gohara. “Your skin is already irritated with the cystic acne, the last thing you want to do is stoke the fire,” she says.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Emma Weiss is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
  • Dr. Tracy Evans is a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology.
  • Dr. Mona Gohara is board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.
  • Dr. Eileen Deignan is a board-certified dermatologist and chief of dermatology at Emerson Hospital.

Why trust NBC Select?

Mili Godio is an updates editor at NBC Select who has covered a wide range of skin care topics, including face sunscreens, rosacea and keratosis pilaris treatments. For this article, Godio spoke to four dermatologists about how to treat cystic acne and highlighted their recommendations for the best over-the-counter products to consider.

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