If the only cystic acne advice you’ve received so far is "don’t pick it," you’re in a good place. The next step, after visiting your dermatologist and seeking pro advice, is enlisting the help of skincare products that can help keep your skin in the clear.
"Cystic acne consists of deep, swollen, red, and sometimes painful pimples," explains New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Howe.
What can be confusing about cystic acne, he explains, is that they’re usually so deep that no whitehead develops, and they’re often found on the cheeks or along the jawline. More annoying news: They last longer than that random zit on your nose. "A duration of 2-3 weeks is typical, and when they go away, they often leave behind pigmentation, lingering purplish-red marks, or even scars," he adds.
While he says it’s best treated by a derm, which could be prescriptions and other treatments, curating your skincare routine with the proper OTC products is key, too. So we went to the best of the best to find out exactly what you should buy at the store to help conquer cystic acne. Read on to shop their top picks.
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1. Differin Acne Treatment Gel
More than one derm we interviewed sung this new-to-the-shelf product’s praises. Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, a New York City-based dermatologist and clinical attending at NYU Langone Health and Mount Sinai Hospital, says it’s a true game changer for acne, including cystic acne, because it’s a topical retinoid treatment.
"Retinoids are the absolute backbone of an acne treatment—since they treat and prevent acne by declogging pores by normalizing skin cell turnover and as an anti-inflammatory," she explains. "Furthermore, retinoids have been proven to improve skin discoloration and texture and therefore, restores the skin from prior outbreaks. While not all retinoids are the same, Differin Gel was designed with tolerability in mind so it is a great starter retinoid or a retinoid for more sensitive skin."
New York City-based derm Dr. Francesca Fusco also touted its effectiveness. "It’s equivalent to prescription strength meds and treats all variations of acne—from blackheads to red bumps to clogged pores—and to my knowledge, has worked for everyone age 20 and up," she says. This product is meant to be applied daily all over the affected area, and not just as a spot treatment.
Differin | $12
2. Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
"Mario Badescu Drying Lotion is a very effective spot treatment, armed with sulfur, salicylic acid, and calamine—it reduces oiliness and unblocks pores," says dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler. "The sulfur is antibacterial as well. Use with a cotton swab at night to spot on the affected area and the cyst is reduced by the AM. It works best when paired with the Mario Badescu Buffering Lotion, which is packed with niacinamide, amino acids, and vitamin B, to decrease inflammation and promote quick healing."
Mario Badescu | $17
3. Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser
After Dr. Levin gets her patients on a retinoid and a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser, she adds a cleanser with glycol acid, like Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser. She says it "has alpha hydroxy acids which chemically exfoliates the skin with a small percentage of glycol acid." Dr. Levin also adds this particular acid is safe for pregnancy, which makes it ideal for expecting women with adult acne.
Glytone | $33
4. Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Control Foam Wash
While derms love Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser for this skin condition, Dr. Fusco also suggests this formula made to control oil production. She says it’s "non-drying and great for acne of all ages from teens through adults," adding that it works on chest, back, neck, and on other delicate areas.
Cetaphil | $10
5. La Roche-Posay Repair Moisturizer SPF 30
Dr. Adam Friedman, Associate Professor of Dermatology and Residency Director at George Washington University, says he’s been recommending La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Moisturizer SPF 30 because it contains prebiotics that act as "nutritional support that help the populations of bacteria on our skin rebalance." He says that in many inflammatory diseases there can be an overgrowth of certain bacteria. The sunscreen in the formula is key, too, because it helps prevent further inflammation.
La Roche Posay | $20
6. SkinCeuticals Blemish and Age Defense Serum
Dermatologist Dr. Kim Nichols of NicholsMD says this serum is best for anyone with combination to oily skin, and it targets acne and aging. "Use 4 to 5 drops of this potent serum onto a dry face daily. Blemish + Age Defense fights and treats cystic acne, as well as other chronic acne conditions," she adds.
Skinceuticals | $90
7. EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF
"Wearing sunscreen is important in people who have cystic acne since sun can worsen inflammation and hyperpigmentation, prolonging and worsening scars from the cysts," notes Dr. Levin. "Look for sunscreens that say 'non-comedogenic' or 'acne-prone skin.' My go-to recommendation is Elta MD UV Clear."
EltaMD | $33