The Independent Pharmacy

Cystic Acne Treatment: What is Cystic Acne & How To Address It

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 8 Feb 2024

Cystic acne is a more severe type of acne that causes painful red or white bumps under the skin called cysts. Unlike milder acne, cystic acne happens deep under the skin surface. The swollen cysts rarely come to a visible head and are inflamed lumps filled with pus.

Cystic acne treatment isn't just about dealing with pimples and skin health, it can potentially lead to permanent scarring if not treated correctly. The good news is there are many affordable over-the-counter treatments and prescription medications to improve cystic acne. The most effective method depends on how severe your cystic acne is and how your skin responds to the ingredients in acne products.

If you’re dealing with cystic acne, it’s important that you get the support you need.

Let's explore how you can successfully treat cystic acne.

Key Takeaways

  • Cystic acne is a severe, painful form of acne that forms deep in the skin tissue, leading to tender red lumps and potential scarring.
  • Treatment options range from affordable over-the-counter washes, creams and spot treatments to advanced prescription medications, injections or laser procedures from a dermatologist.
  • Making lifestyle changes like managing stress levels, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and starting a simple skincare routine can help prevent cystic acne breakouts.

What Is Cystic Acne?

Cystic acne is a more serious form of acne that goes deep down into the skin. It happens when oil and dead skin cells clog up hair follicles, causing red, painful cysts to form. Acne cysts are inevitably full of pus, making them painful and obtrusive — and making this the worst form of acne.

Unlike a regular pimple that pops up near the surface of the skin, cystic acne starts much deeper under the skin, where there are more oil glands. The cysts feel like hard, round knots underneath the skin’s surface. When the walls of the plugged follicle break down from all the pus and swelling, it causes inflammation. This can be painful.

Cystic acne looks like big, red or white bumps. They can be itchy and tender to the touch. These acne cysts usually do not have a noticeable “head” that comes to a point like a regular whitehead pimple. Because the swelling and inflammation happen so deep down in the skin, these blemishes rarely pop on their own and often leave scars.

Cystic acne doesn’t just produce acne cysts, though. It also leads to the reddened and flaky skin typically associated with acne, making it fairly easy to identify. If you have red, blotchy skin with large white lumps that are sore to the touch, you’re probably suffering from severe cystic acne. The face is the most common area for it to develop, but it can appear all over the body.

Cystic acne is most common on the face but can also show up on the body in places like the back, chest, or upper arms. Treatment is focused on preventing acne scarring.

How Can You Treat Cystic Acne?

Due to the severity of the condition, there’s a pressing need for cystic acne treatments. While mild to moderate acne can often be managed with a variety of easily accessible medications, we understand the unique and more intense challenges of cystic acne. It usually requires stronger, more targeted treatments, which we will explore together.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

There are many acne medications and anti-acne skin care products you can buy at pharmacies and stores without a prescription. These over-the-counter remedies can help treat mild to moderate acne.

Some popular OTC remedies are spot treatments containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. When applied directly to cystic acne blemishes, these ingredients can help dry out pimples, reduce swelling and redness, and prevent more breakouts. Start with lower concentrations and use carefully to avoid dryness or peeling.

OTC anti-acne remedies are easy to find and buy. But speak to a pharmacist or your doctor if you have concerns about products irritating sensitive skin or causing side effects.

Advanced Medical Treatments

If over-the-counter remedies don’t clear up cystic acne, prescription medications and in-office procedures may be needed. A doctor can help figure out the most effective treatment based on your acne type and severity.

Your treatment might include topical retinoids, which are creams or gels that help your skin renew itself faster, combined with antibiotics. Dual-action treatments such as Treclin can prove very effective at treating acne with cysts. Large cystic breakouts can make it worthwhile to use oral antibiotic tablets, like Tetralysal, Minocycline or Doxycycline.

Treclin Gel
Treclin Gel
View Treatment

However, it’s necessary to regulate their use to avoid raising resistance. The chance of antibiotic resistance can often be reduced by using a second non-antibiotic treatment, such as Differin, Skinoren, or Epiduo, alongside the oral medications.

Hormonal treatments like hormonal birth control pills or spironolactone tablets can regulate hormones like androgen that contribute to cystic acne in teen girls and adult women.

Professional treatments from a dermatologist, such as cortisone injections to reduce inflammation, draining the cysts, or using laser or light therapy, can also be effective against cystic acne. Laser treatment applies pulses of high-energy light to alleviate swelling and kill acne-causing bacteria. Side effects like scabbing or redness are usually mild and temporary.

In the average case, treating cystic acne requires more time than treating normal acne: you may need to stick with it for more than two months to see major progress. Frustratingly, many treatments for acne will make your symptoms (though not truly your acne) worse before things start to get better, so it can feel as though you’re moving in the wrong direction. All inflammatory acne takes time to treat, though, so it’s simply something you need to accept.

We recognise how disheartening it can feel. We’re here to support you throughout this journey, understanding that progress, while gradual, is achievable.

How to Prevent Cystic Acne

Skincare Routines and Practices

Even if you are already dealing with cystic acne, starting a solid skin care routine focused on prevention can keep breakouts from getting worse. Gently caring for skin prone to cystic acne is key.

Your aim should be to keep dry skin cells from clogging up your oil glands, and you can take these steps to further this goal.

  1. Wash your face twice a day. Using lukewarm water and a sulfate-free cleanser made for acne-prone skin like CeraVe Blemish Control Cleanser keeps pores clear.
  2. Apply a lightweight hydrating gel or oil-free moisturiser like CeraVe Blemish Control Gel. Look for water-based formulas with hyaluronic acid and skin-strengthening ceramides.
  3. Layer on products with retinol like CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, which helps your skin shed dead cells faster and prevent pore blockages.

Avoid scrubbing or picking cystic acne, which can cause scarring. See a dermatologist right away if over-the-counter prevention fails to halt cystic acne or if you need help learning your skin triggers.

Diet and Lifestyle

What you eat and drink plays a part in the health of your skin. Along with topical skincare, adjusting daily habits can help to prevent cystic acne from forming under the skin:

  • Choose a balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, antioxidants and omega-3s. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Cut back on dairy and high-glycemic foods that inflame skin like white bread, pasta, and sweets.
  • Develop a consistent sleep routine of 6-8 hours and wind down from stress with relaxing activities to lower hormone changes that lead to cystic acne.
  • Exercise regularly to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery for faster healing of cystic acne lesions.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure which can darken acne scars. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing when outside.
  • Aim to limit your level of stress. There’s a combination of issues that causes cystic acne, with major stress and a bad diet making it much more likely.

While cystic acne has internal causes like hormones and genetics, outside triggers can make it better or worse. Identifying and controlling external factors leads to clearer skin.

Healthy living will lead to healthy skin tissue.

Stress Management and Hormonal Balance

There is a clear connection between high-stress levels, hormonal changes, and cystic acne breakouts. Finding healthy ways to keep stress in check can help prevent cystic acne flare-ups.

Stress causes the body to produce more cortisol and other hormones that increase oil production and inflammation. This disrupts the natural balance of hormones like testosterone and insulin, leading to cystic acne.

Relieving stress through relaxing activities balances hormones. Try daily exercise, yoga stretches, meditation apps, or keeping a journal. Getting enough sleep gives the body time to regulate hormones as well.

Eating a hormone-friendly diet full of clean proteins, antioxidant-rich veggies, and healthy fats provides nutrients that enable normal hormone function. Supplements like omega-3 fish oils, zinc, and vitamin D also aid overall hormonal balance.

Learning to manage stress levels, get quality sleep, follow a nutritious diet, and use supporting supplements can all help stabilise hormones. Aiming for overall wellness is key to keeping cystic acne at bay.

Take the Next Step With The Independent Pharmacy

We know that the journey to control cystic acne can be frustrating and sometimes overwhelming. Remember, you’re not alone in this. We’re here to offer support, guidance, and the most effective treatment options tailored to your unique needs.

The first step is paying attention to when and where cystic acne appears on your skin. This helps you and your doctor choose the best treatment plan. What works for one person may not help another as much.

The Independent Pharmacy has knowledgeable staff who can provide suggestions tailored to your cystic acne concerns. Simply request a consultation and their team provides a list of recommended treatment products and tips based on your needs.

The best part is that The Independent Pharmacy ships all the suggested remedies for severe acne right to your door. They offer everything from over-the-counter formulas to prescription-strength products, avoiding trips to the drugstore.

Having a pharmacy recommend custom solutions makes finding the right treatment of acne much easier. Getting personal guidance gives you the power to take control of your skin’s health.

Get in touch with us today and make the first move towards clear skin!


What is the fastest way to get rid of cystic acne?

The fastest medical treatment is getting a cortisone injection from a dermatologist. The shot reduces swelling and pain within 48 hours. Over-the-counter spot treatments with benzoyl peroxide can also help speed up the healing of cystic acne breakouts when applied at the first sign of a lump developing under the skin.

What triggers cystic acne?

Common triggers leading to cystic acne include hormone changes, genetics, Blocked sweat gland ducts, a diet high in sugar and unhealthy fat, food allergies, bacterial overgrowth on the skin, excess oil and skin cells blocking pores, and stress levels.

Does cystic acne eventually go away?

Cystic acne tends to last longer without treatment since it is buried deep within the skin tissue. While it may sometimes clear up on its own into your thirties, over time, cystic acne has a high chance of leaving scars without properly treating the inflamed cysts as soon as they develop. Using the right medications decreases cystic acne recurrence.


Acne - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic

Pictures: Different Types of Acne & How to Treat Them (

What can clear severe acne? (

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