As someone who survived high school and college with barely a zit in sight (no, seriously), you can imagine the shock and dismay I felt about breaking out with cystic acne at age 24.
The day I went to my dermatologist, I convinced myself that the hard, red bumps on one side of my cheek were a weird allergic reaction or even bed bugs (I lived in New York City at the time). But as soon as my doctor put on her plastic gloves and touched my cheek, she said, “Oh honey, you have acne, not bug bites.”
“Acne?! No, I don’t get zits ... like ever,” I quickly said back.
“Well it looks like these three pimples on your cheek have been growing under your skin for awhile now and it’s likely cystic acne,” she said.
Once I was able to absorb the fact that I was having my first bad skin day (or month) ever, my doctor began to explain that a lot of adults deal with acne. Cystic acne is even less fun because they’re the kind of pimples you can’t pop — they just hurt a lot and look like you have little red volcanoes on your face. To make matters worse, they sometimes last for weeks at a time.
It took about two years to get the cysts under control, but it was a constant struggle physically and emotionally. Looking at my makeup-free face in the morning was insanely hard for me and it would often affect my self-esteem. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
I was eventually prescribed an oral antibiotic that cured the issue (topical treatment didn't work for me) and learned some helpful tips and tricks along the way.
Now, I hope that my hard-earned knowledge will make the process a little less painful for others.
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1. Don’t try to pick or pop cystic acne.
This is so important because picking at the zit can scar your skin and, even worse, make the infection spread and last longer.
2. Do take the oral antibiotics, but make sure you also take a probiotic to balance it out.
If I were to do it all over again, I would’ve listened to my dad who warned me about the effects of taking antibiotics every day. I’m not a doctor, but my dermatologist confirmed that the daily use of antibiotics can throw off the balance of “good bacteria” in your stomach. Taking a daily probiotic can help restore that balance.
3. Don’t overdry your skin.
This is the most common acne myth! Breakouts don't always mean that your skin is oily or greasy. In fact, I’ve always had skin that’s a little on the dry side. When I first started breaking out, I made the huge mistake of using over-the-counter, topical acne treatments on my pimples. Salicylic acid and sulfur can be fabulous for some kinds of acne, but not for cystic acne. Make sure you hydrate your skin with a good moisturizer so that your skin doesn’t feel the need to overproduce its natural oils.
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4. Do use makeup to cover up redness, but don't expect it to cover the bump itself.
The thing that sucks the most about cystic acne is that each zit is usually pretty big and round. Even after makeup, you can definitely still see the texture difference. After some experimentation, here’s how I covered up my mini volcanoes:
- Apply a primer.
- Use a full-coverage foundation. This was the hardest part for me because I’ve always preferred a lighter foundation, but I noticed that a thicker foundation would make the bumps appear smaller.
- Dab concealer on with your clean finger. I tried using sponges and it just never stuck for some reason.
- Lightly dust your cheeks with a setting powder so that it doesn’t rub off throughout the day.
5. Do spot treat with the right products.
Like I mentioned earlier, salicylic acid and sulfur won’t help cystic acne. It can make it even worse if it dries out or irritates your skin. But I was pretty loyal to two products that were 100 percent worth it in my books.
- Renee Rouleau Anti Cyst Treatment: While it didn’t make the bumps disappear all together, this treatment would always make them heal faster and feel less painful.
- Biologique Recherche Lotion P50: I met a facialist who insisted that this product would change my skin forever. She was right. I used it pretty religiously for the last year of my acne and still turn to it when I get breakouts. The P50 helps speed up the skin's natural exfoliating process and helps maintain the acidity level.
6. Do get a cortisone shot.
When you get a really bad cyst, I would absolutely recommend seeing a dermatologist if possible. The cortisone gets injected into the root of the pimple (i.e. where all the bacteria is sitting) and kills it quickly. Every single time I got one of these shots, the zit was completely gone in about three hours. Not even joking.