Types of Acne: Cystic Acne - Gladskin

Types of Acne: Cystic Acne

You know you have acne… But have you ever considered which type of acne you have? Your blemishes could either be fungal acne, acne vulgaris, or cystic acne.

Each form of acne has its own unique set of symptoms and treatment needs. That makes understanding which type of blemishes you’re experiencing pivotal in helping manage and get rid of them for good!


What Is Cystic Acne? 

Cystic acne is often considered the most serious form of acne. The skin condition causes cysts to form deep under the skin surface. These aren’t surface-level blemishes.

Cystic acne shows up most commonly on the face but can also appear on your back, chest, butt, neck, shoulders, and upper arms.

The symptoms of cystic acne include:

  • Large, boil-like cysts on the skin
  • Large, red bumps
  • Redness
  • Tenderness
  • Painful to touch

These pus-filled cysts in the skin are the form of blemishes most likely to scar. They also aren’t often able to be popped like you can with some other forms of pimples. 


What Causes Cystic Acne?

Cystic acne occurs when oil, bacteria, or dead skin cells clog your pores and cause cysts to develop deep beneath the skin’s surface. Teenagers and women with hormonal imbalances are most likely to experience the pesky cysts associated with the skin condition. That’s because these demographics are more likely to deal with oily skin from hormone fluctuations. For teenagers, cystic acne often goes away as they age and their hormones balance out again.


How to Treat Cystic Acne

Once you’ve determined you’re dealing with the cystic form of acne, you can start to dig into possible treatment options, including:


1. Managing Oily Skin

Unfortunately, oily skin is often very misunderstood — so is the proper way to care for it. Many products designed for oily skin are overly drying and can dehydrate the skin. 

When this happens, your sebaceous glands may overcompensate for the dehydration and lack of oil by producing more sebum. This results in even oilier skin than you originally had and creates a vicious cycle.

Instead of opting for a standard face wash that contains harsh, drying ingredients, which can exacerbate acne and strip oils, opt for a gentle, fragrance- and preservative-free face wash to cleanse your skin.

It’s important to realize that oily skin, while it may seem hydrated, can still be dehydrated, so you may want to find a fragrance- and preservative-free moisturizer that’s non-comedogenic as well.


2. Reducing Refined Carbs and Dairy Intake

Research continues to show a connection between the gut and skin. So it comes as no shock that certain foods seem to influence the severity of acne. The two biggest offenders? Refined carbs and dairy.

One study shows that people between the ages of 18 and 30 who regularly consume milk and ice cream are four times more likely to suffer from acne.

Another study found that people with acne consume more refined carbs than people with little or no acne. Refined carbs are anything from white bread to pasta, white rice to crackers. 

Both dairy and refined carbs affect insulin and blood sugar levels, which may negatively impact the skin.

The process goes like this:

Dairy and refined carbs increase insulin levels and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). This causes skin cells to grow more quickly and increase oil production. Enter… blemishes.

By avoiding these insulin spikes with a dairy-free and low-refined-carb diet, you may be able to lessen the severity of your acne. However, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the connection between food and acne. Always talk to your primary healthcare provider before making any dietary changes.


3. Practicing Good Acne Hygiene 

Developing good hygiene habits will help to alleviate dirt, oil, and other impurities from clogging pores and contributing to these painful acne cysts. Although, don’t worry! If you’re suffering from cystic acne, it doesn’t mean you have poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, acne sufferers just need to be even more diligent about hygiene. Here are some tips to help you establish a routine that helps to prevent clogged pores:

  • Try not to touch your face or rest your head in your hands. Even think about how you sleep. You may not realize you sleep with your hand under your cheek.
  • Wash your phone, makeup brushes, and pillowcases frequently.
  • Always remove your makeup (preferably with a microbiome-friendly makeup remover) and cleanse your skin before sleeping.
  • Be sure to regularly wash the towel that you use to dry your face.
  • Keep your hair off of your face as much as possible.

      4. Visiting a Board-Certified Dermatologist

      Because cystic acne is often a more severe form of acne, you may need to visit a board-certified dermatologist to determine the best treatment plan for your blemishes. Before you go, though, it’s important to educate yourself about common treatments for cystic acne and their side effects.

      Many acne treatments are very harsh on your skin and can have major impacts on your overall skin health — even causing additional pesky long-term problems.

      Some treatments a dermatologist may recommend include:

        • Isotretinoin: Commonly referred to as Accutane, isotretinoin is an oral retinoid derived from vitamin A. Because most people who use Accutane will be acne-free after four to six months, it’s considered one of the most effective cystic acne treatment options. However, side effects range from chapped lips to joint pain and even vision troubles. Because of the severity of the effects Accutane can have on pregnancy, doctors require a negative pregnancy test before starting treatment as well as the use of two forms of birth control during treatment.

        • Corticosteroid injections: If you’re experiencing very painful, large cysts when you visit the dermatologist, they may recommend corticosteroid injections (also called cortisone injections or steroid injections). These aren’t meant to be a regular treatment but can help to rapidly reduce painful cysts.

        • Birth control pills: Because hormone imbalances are often factors in cystic acne, many healthcare providers may recommend oral contraceptives to regulate hormones. A provider is even more likely to recommend this route of treatment if your cystic acne flares up in relation to your menstrual cycle. 

        • Topical retinoids: Like isotretinoin, topical retinoids are derived from vitamin A, but they don’t have the same strength as Accutane. Retinoids are available in the form of creams, gels, and lotions. No matter which form you use, these retinoid products work to unclog pores and exfoliate dead skin cells to prevent future clogged pores. Temporarily, these products can cause red, peeling skin — and also make your skin more sensitive to the sun.  

        • Antibiotics: Oral antibiotics help to kill off bacteria associated with cystic acne. They can also help to reduce inflammation. While oral antibiotics can seem effective short-term, these pills aren’t able to only target bad bacteria… meaning they also kill off the good bacteria that work to protect your skin — and even the good bacteria in your gut. 

        • By educating and empowering yourself with knowledge, you can determine which treatment routes you’re willing to take — and which may be too aggressive for you to be willing to try.



          Cystic acne is often a very persistent form of acne and may require serious forms of treatment to get the blemishes to subside. Whatever treatment route you choose to take, stay diligent and hopeful, seeking the support of family, friends, and healthcare professionals along the way. Treating cystic acne isn’t an overnight process. But with diligence and a supportive group of friends and family encouraging you along the way, you can experience relief from these painful cysts.