Zits, pimples, blemishes, bumps—whatever you want to call them, acne breakouts are par for the course in this thing we call life. And while that one stray blemish right between your brows or the stubborn chin flare-up pre-period are equally benign in the grander scheme of things, that doesn’t mean acne isn’t frustrating, painful, and confusing. And to make matters even more complicated, not every type of pimple is alike, and not every type of pimple requires the same prescripted treatment. Case in point: cystic acne—those underground, painfully stubborn bumps with the irritating capacity to hang on (and on) for days, weeks, or even months on end. So what’s so special about cystic acne? Well, according to esthetician to the stars Renée Rouleau, it won’t respond to your hefty arsenal of whiteout-esque zit creams lying on the bottom of your medicine cabinet.
“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. What now? 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’re quintessential antidotes in prevention, management, and healing. Keep reading to discover 11 home remedies for cystic acne approved by celebrity dermatologists and facialists.
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.)
Next up, find yourself a triple-threat product containing hydrocortisone cream, which will be easy to apply at home. “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.
As you resist the urge to sing (sorry, couldn’t resist), 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.
Celebrity esthetician Angela Caglia tells us her go-to methodology: “Remove an ice cube from your ice tray and rub it in circular motions directly on top of the cystic acne spot. Continue the motion until it is too sensitive from the cold.” She suggests three times daily for best results.
“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.”
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.”
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: According to Rouleau, our skin will excrete any substance that doesn’t agree with our bodies. “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. Therefore, if or when we ingest more dairy than our body can tolerate, it can be excreted in the form of cystic acne, which Rouleau describes to us as hard, painful bumps under the skin, which often pop up on the chin and along the jawline.
Her suggestion: 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.
As Zeichner tells us, “tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, making it 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.)
“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.”
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. It also has high levels of antiseptic properties. When you apply turmeric to cystic acne, it will first help dehydrate the acne, the pus will drain out, and then the inflammation will reduce.”
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. Apply up to two times a day. (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 $30 for its bump-busting abilities.)
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. (And if you looked inside virtually every Byrdie editor’s product cabinet, you’d 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 Cyst Treatment, which can help calm the infection from within while also preventing future ones,” Rouleau concludes.
And there you have it: Instead of spending a portion of your paycheck on multitudes of products and in-office treatments, these expert-approved home remedies for cystic acne might do the trick instead.