Dealing with acne is annoying and, as emotionally traumatic as it is, dealing with cystic acne is even worse (if that's even possible). "Of all the types of acne someone can get, cystic acne is both the most frustrating to treat and can be the most damaging to the skin," says celebrity esthetician and founder of Renee Rouleau Skincare, Renee Rouleau. "Cystic acne consists of hard, painful blemishes that develop deep within the skin and can linger for weeks. They can often lead to scarring because they stretch and damage the surrounding tissue deep within skin, leaving indentations and red, dark or purple marks." Joy. But don't worry, it's not all bad news; there are things you can do to help get rid off these pain-in-the-butt (face?) pimples. Here, six complexion clearing tips for those who suffer from cystic acne.
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Do. Not. Pick.
Put those hands where we can see 'em, please. Adopting a hands-off policy is a good rule to abide by when it comes to pimples in general, but it's especially important when it comes to cystic acne. "Unlike blackheads, these painful undergrounders don't necessarily have a connection to the surface of the skin. Picking them inevitably does more harm than good, causing inflammation, scabbing and scarring," explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "The rule is, if a whitehead doesn't form, which never happens if it's a true cyst, then hands off," adds Rouleau. Resist the urge to squeeze or pick, no matter how tempting it may be. (And trust us, we know it's oh-so-tempting.) If there's one bumpy blemish that you need to get rid of immediately, a trip to the derm for a cortisone shot will tamp down inflammation and bring the cyst down in a day, says Zeichner. Otherwise, icing any particularly painful or swollen blemishes can also help.
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Make your own spot treatment
"When treating acne, the goal is to address as many causative factors as possible," says Zeichner, who recommends taking a DIY approach when it comes to topical spot treatments. He suggests combining equal parts of 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, 2% salicylic acid, and 1% hydrocortisone cream. "Benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria, salicylic acid removes excess oil to dry out the pimple, and hydrocortisone calms inflammation," says Zeichner of the power trio. Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment, $7.50, Clean and Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment, $6, and Cortaid, $4, all fit the bill.
Change your diet
"When you develop cystic breakouts, specifically on the chin, jawline and neck, it might be a sign that you're getting more dairy in your diet than your body can tolerate," points out Rouleau. "Your skin acts as an excretory system to get rid of things that your body doesn't agree with, so when you eat too much dairy, it can come out in the form of cystic blemishes in the lower area of the face." Why does your skin not understand the deliciousness that is a triple creme brie? "It's thought that sugars in milk, as well as perhaps growth factors from lactating cows, stimulate our skin's oil glands," notes Zeichner.
To determine if your pimples are a result of too much cheese, Rouleau suggests completely eliminating dairy from your diet for two weeks. "If you don't develop any new cysts when you normally would have, then this may be the solution," she says. Happily, this doesn't mean you can't eat dairy at all. Slowly introduce it back into your diet; once you start breaking out again, you'll know you've hit your body's tolerance level, she says.
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See a derm
Unfortunately, because cystic acne is a different beast than your standard, run-of-the-mill zit, it often requires a little more help from the pros. And that's not only in order to treat the immediate blemish but also avoid future scarring. When the spots from cystic acne heal, they often leave marks, some of which can be permanent. It's important to get the skin cleared up as quickly as possible to prevent scars from developing, advises Zeichner. The bottom line: If OTC products aren't doing the trick within two to four weeks, see your derm for an evaluation and personalized prescription treatment, he says.