Zits, pimples, blemishes, bumps—whatever you want to call them, acne breakouts are par for the course in life. To make matters complicated, not every type of pimple is alike, and not all require the same treatment. Case in point: cystic acne breakouts—those underground, painfully stubborn bumps with the irritating tendency to hang around for days, weeks, or even months—which don't respond to usual zit creams, according to Renée Rouleau.
Meet the Expert
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician based in Austin, TX. She is also the founder and creator of her eponymous skincare line.
- Dr. Jennifer Herrmann is a Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon. She graduated from Princeton University and received her medical degree from Harvard.
- Dr. Joshua Zeichner is Mount Sinai's Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology and an Associate Professor of Dermatology.
- Angela Caglia is a celebrity esthetician and facialist based in Los Angeles and trained at the Sorbonne in Paris.
"Most spot treatments are meant to dry up pustular blemishes on the surface. If you use this type of product on a cyst, you'll only end up with dry, flaky skin on top while a painful bump still remains underneath," explains Rouleau. Yikes.
Expensive facials and treatments aside, what can we be doing at home to treat unwavering cystic acne breakouts? Well, we called in the experts (four to be exact) to help break down some of the best home remedies for cystic acne that might actually work. And while we're not promising these solutions will magically erase a bump overnight, they will aid in prevention, management, and healing.
Watch Now: 4 Natural and Easy Remedies to Treat Cystic Acne
Keep reading to discover 11 home remedies for cystic acne, approved by celebrity dermatologists and facialists.
Make an At-Home Aspirin Mask
For cystic acne (those pesky, red, painful, under-the-surface bumps), both Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD, and Joshua Zeichner, MD, recommend a simple at-home mask consisting of crushed aspirin and water.
"Crush up an aspirin tablet, and mix it with water to make a paste. Then, apply it directly to a cystic pimple," Zeichner explains. "Aspirin is a cousin to salicylic acid and may help calm inflammation and pain." (However, he tells us it won't nix excess oil.)
Apply a Spot Treatment
Next up, apply a triple threat of acne-fighting ingredients. "Benzoyl peroxide lowers levels of acne-causing bacteria, hydrocortisone cream reduces inflammation, and salicylic acid removes excess oil to dry out a pimple," says Zeichner. He recommends the above pick from Neutrogena and other acne-targeting options like Clean and Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment ($6) and Cortaid.
Put Some Ice on It
Celebrity esthetician Angela Caglia tells us her go-to methodology: Applying ice, which can be anti-inflammatory for acne (just be careful not to use it for too long to prevent damage to the skin). "Remove an ice cube from your ice tray and rub it in circular motions directly on top of the cystic acne spot," she says. "Continue the motion until it is too sensitive from the cold." She suggests three times daily for best results.
Simply applying ice to your cystic breakout can also work wonders when it comes to decreasing the swelling, redness, pain, or even itchiness associated with cystic acne.
Mix Together a Vinegar Cleanser
"Diluted white vinegar is an amazingly broad antibacterial that can help kill the acne bacteria," explains Herrmann. "I recommend mixing a couple of capfuls of white vinegar in a cereal bowl full of purified water to use as a cleanser over the skin twice daily."
Embrace a High-Quality Retinoid
According to Herrmann, a hard-hitting retinoid can also be a helpful tool to have in your arsenal when it comes to a painful cystic acne breakout. "Differin, a powerful retinoid, is now available at its lowest strength over the counter. This is an excellent choice to help exfoliate and remove surface skin cells clogging pores."
Check Your Diet
This one's tricky. After all, we're each unique, and our bodies have different likes, dislikes, and sensitivities. That being said, if you're consistently battling cystic breakouts, making some subtle tweaks to the foods you are (or aren't) consuming can be one of the best home remedies for cystic acne, according to our experts.
Try swapping out dairy: "Dairy is a mucus-forming food that can be difficult for the body to digest—which is why many people are lactose intolerant," she explains. There have been a few studies that suggest a connection between dairy consumption and acne flare-ups, but note that this connection isn't proven or fully understood by the medical community.
Try cutting out all forms of dairy (yogurt, milk, and all cheeses) for three weeks to see if any new breakouts appear. If not, you might know your instigator.
Avoid processed foods and sugar: We get it. This one can be hard. But scientifically speaking, it's impossible to argue that processed, sugary, and starchy foods don't exacerbate inflammation, which in turn can lead to breakouts. So if you're on a mission to decrease the occurrence of cysts, Zeichner suggests avoiding these kinds of foods, which he says promote inflammation throughout the body and have been shown to lead to acne breakouts.
"Although research is still ongoing, there is a connection between gut health and skin health," Herrmann shares with us. "Regulating the healthy bacteria in the gut by getting a daily dose of probiotics can help decrease overall skin inflammation and encourage clearer skin."
Caglia is also a fan of this at-home cystic acne antidote and suggests loading up on things like yogurts, kefir, kimchi, and veggies, as these types of foods help "seal the gut," which creates a healthy barrier to ward off inflammation which can encourage acne.
Tap on Tea Tree Oil
As Zeichner tells us, "Tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, making it a home remedy for treating cystic acne." Plus, he adds, "It can decrease the amount of acne-causing bacteria sitting on top of the skin and simultaneously reduce inflammation." There's a reason the oil is found in many natural acne-targeting products, folks.
Meditate More Often
"Acne breakouts have been directly linked to stress, whether it stems from school, work, anything," Zeichner tells us. "Therefore, anything you can do to keep calm will help lower the risk of a breakout. I typically suggest things like meditation, yoga, exercise, or whatever else you love to do that settles your mind."
Make a Turmeric Mask
One of Caglia's favorite ways to remedy cystic acne at home? A kitchen-made face mask. Her not-so-secret ingredient: turmeric. "Turmeric contains curcumin, which is a known anti-inflammatory," she says. "It also has high levels of antiseptic properties. When you apply turmeric to cystic acne, there is a potential anti-inflammatory effect that decreases the redness and size of the pimple."
Note that turmeric can stain the skin, so it's best not to leave it on for more than 30 minutes a day. But as always, listen to your skin and consult your dermatologist (30 minutes a day is still enough time for some skin to be stained, while others can endure a longer treatment without staining).
Turmeric powder is made from the root of Curcuma zedoaria, a form of ginger native to Southeast Asia. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is what gives it that yellow-orange tinge; it's also what makes it such a potent anti-inflammatory. Turmeric is also found to lighten hyperpigmentation.
Her how-to: Add a little water to turmeric powder to make a thick paste. Apply directly to the cystic breakout and leave on for 45 minutes before rinsing off. (Oh, and if you're not in the mood to be your own mixologist, the Byrdie team also loves Crop Natural's Purifying Turmeric Mask, $36 for its bump-busting abilities.)
Don't Pick at Your Face
Yes, the temptation to pick will always be there, but ultimately, your cystic flare-up will be much happier (and disappear sooner) if you strategically use product instead. If you look inside virtually every Byrdie editor's product cabinet, you'll likely find this magical little bottle for that exact purpose.
"As they mostly occur in the chin and jaw areas, it is important to remember that cysts are like submarines; they are meant to stay under the skin," muses Rouleau. In other words, don't pick. "No matter what method you employ, the infection from a cyst won't rise to the surface of the skin, even though you can feel a painful bump underneath. Your best bet is to treat the symptoms of the cyst with something like my Anti Bump Solution, which can help calm the infection from within while also preventing future ones," Rouleau concludes.
There you have it: Instead of spending a portion of your paycheck on a multitude of products and in-office treatments, these expert-approved home remedies for cystic acne might do the trick instead.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Pimple popping: why only a dermatologist should do it.
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Katta R, Desai SP. Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(7):46-51.
Vaughn AR, Branum A, Sivamani RK. Effects of Turmeric (Curcuma longa) on Skin Health: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence. Phytother Res. 2016;30(8):1243-1264. doi:10.1002/ptr.5640