Of all the types of acne you might be cursed to suffer through, cystic acne is undoubtedly the worst. And while it’s tough enough to experience it in high school, it’s even more horrifying to see it pop up on your face when you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s.
Unlike blackheads, whiteheads, and surface acne, which are smaller and stick to the surface of the skin, cystic acne tends to create deep pockets of inflammation deep under the skin, causing mountainous, red lumps on the skin that can tend weeks to resolve. They also tend to leave massive scars, something normal acne doesn’t do.
What Causes Cystic Acne?
Strangely, doctors still don’t understand acne. They know it’s a problem with your pores, the small troughs that house your hair follicles, but there still isn’t an overarching theory to explain why cystic acne pops up on some people, and not on others, and why it comes and goes the way it does.
There are, however, a few things to seem to impact the prevalence of cystic acne for some people (though not for all). These include:
- Hormones. Cystic acne that pops up on your jaw or around your mouth is often an indicator of hormonal acne. Some women experience acne flare-ups before their periods, which might be connected to the body’s natural rise in testosterone. This might also explain why male teenagers are more likely to get acne than their female counterparts.
- Stress. Some individuals (especially women) find their cystic acne increases during times of stress. Perhaps it’s the inflammation stress triggers or perhaps certain hormones; either way, it’s a reliable trigger for some.
- Diet. Sugar and dairy are often triggering for people who aren’t otherwise dairy or sugar intolerant.
What we do know is that it’s a bacteria that causes acne–the P. acnes bacteria strain, to be precise. As science learns more about the importance of the microbiome–the delicate balance of beneficial bacteria on our skin, in our gut, and throughout our body–some have begun to theorize that perhaps it’s the kind of P. acnes bacteria on our skin that determines whether or not we’ll develop acne.
A New Theory for What Causes Cystic Acne
In 2018, researchers presented evidence for two different strains of P. acnes bacteria–one that colonizes and is found on people who suffer from acne, and one that doesn’t colonize and is found on people who do not experience acne.
Eureka? Maybe. There’s a lot more to learn. In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know so you can learn how to get rid of cystic acne.
Natural Cures for Cystic Acne
Here’s how to get rid of cystic acne naturally:
1. Change Your Diet
There’s evidence that diet changes can cure cystic acne and there’s evidence that it does not; we suspect it depends on the person and your type of acne. However, a diet change is the least invasive and potentially most effective cure–and involves no harsh chemicals or hormones with crazy side effects.
The two most common culprits are sugar and dairy, and since sugar is linked to inflammation and hormonal issues like PCOS, we recommend starting there if you suspect your acne is hormone-related.
Once you’ve eliminated sugar from your diet for approximately 30 days, you can try some again–and track your body’s reaction carefully.
2. Lower Your Stress
We know that people–especially women in their 30s and 40s–are more stressed than our predecessors, and we know that stress directly impacts inflammation in the body, and we know that acne has a lot to do with inflammation–so it stands to reason that if we can lower our stress, we might be able to minimize cystic acne.
Two great options are meditation, which is proven to lower stress, and exercise, which has the same impact.
3. Use Natural Ingredients on Your Face
There’s a whole host of natural ingredients that act like superpowers for your skin. Here are our favorites:
- Aloe Vera
- Tea Tree Oil
- Apple cider vinegar
- Honey has antimicrobial properties and acts as a natural humectant, holding moisture against your skin (acne can be caused by a damaged skin barrier).
- Aloe vera is extremely nourishing and packed with powerful antibacterial properties.
Tea Tree Oil
- Tea tree oil is also known for its ability to kill bacteria without stripping your skin of its natural oils.
- Turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and can be used as a mask.
Apple Cider Vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid, a powerful bacteria-fighter. You can dilute it with water and use it with a toner to wipe out the bad bacteria on your face naturally.
4. Eat Your Probiotics
If you buy into the latest research about P. acnes bacteria on the skin, then improving your body’s microbiome by consuming probiotics is your next best bet. You can take probiotics in supplement form, or you can get them through foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha. Just watch out for added sugar, though!
5. Cleanse With Oil
It sounders counterintuitive to cleanse your face with oil, but oil cleansing is one of the biggest face care trends right now, and here’s why: if you battle excess oils, you’ll likely reach for harsh astringents or soap that remove excess oil. Your face, however, responds by producing additional oil, so all you’ve done is make the problem worse.
Using non-comedogenic oils like castor oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, or jojoba oil to cleanse your face removes excess oil that has built up without forcing your face to produce extra oil. You’ll see your skin start to rebalance itself–and you’ll likely see it start to glow.
Plus, the oils we’ve mentioned have similar pH levels to your skin, which might help the good bacteria thrive and the bad bacteria wither.
6. Try an Over the Counter Retinol Cream
While not, strictly speaking, a natural solution, a retinol cream can do wonders for breaking up clogged pores and resurfacing the top layer of your skin, helping you get rid of cystic acne.
Most creams and washes the local drugstore offers for acne include salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide, which can’t get down deep enough to help. Retinol, however, can, so it’s worth a try. Be careful, though, as it can sometimes cause acne when you first start using it; spot test and go slowly.
Working With Your Doctor to Cure Cystic Acne
If you have serious and pervasive acne that doesn’t readily respond to spot treatments or natural treatments, we recommend you see a doctor or dermatologist as soon as possible. Since cystic acne can leave scars, this is a problem you want to get to the bottom of quickly!
Pros and Cons to Using Antibiotics
For cystic acne, doctors often move directly to antibiotics–either oral or topical. These aren’t always the best choice since they are usually short-term problems; as soon as you stop using them your acne returns. However, they might be able to stop the scar-causing acne long enough for you to find a more permanent solution.
Be careful, however–antibiotics can wreak havoc on your microbiome, which can cause short-term problems like diarrhea and long-term problems like poor mental health.
Retinoids may also be recommended to blast through clogged pores to minimize further breakouts.
If your doctor believes your acne is hormone-related, she might refer you to your OB-GYN, who can run tests, and prescribe birth control or other hormones to help remedy the problem.
Another option for how to get rid of cystic acne is photodynamic therapy or laser treatment. It is likely to be expensive, especially if you can’t get your insurance to cover it, but in a twelve-week study, volunteers experienced a 72% reduction in acne, making it an attractive option for treatment–especially since it doesn’t involve antibiotics.
Light therapy doesn’t work for everyone and it rarely completely treats the problem, but it can help with things like scarring.
One of the best options to completely ending cystic acne for good is Accutane. It’s an intense form of Vitamin A that permanently changes how your face produces oil and how your skin cells mature. It’s the only product available now that completely ends cystic acne forever.
People on it complain about dry skin and have to keep a close eye on their cholesterol levels (no eating greasy foods while on Accutane!), and it can cause birth defects so if you’re a woman, you’ll need to be on birth control and using an additional form of protection.
Final Thoughts on Getting Rid of Cystic Acne
Cystic acne has a habit of making you feel like you’re the only one suffering from it.