The Best Over-The-Counter Treatments For Cystic Acne, According To A Derm

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There's no beating around the bush: Dealing with cystic acne is a tricky business. But the right products can help. According to board-certified dermatologist Michele J. Farber, M.D., F.A.A.D, the best cystic acne treatments contain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids, or retinol. Dr. Farber tells Bustle that most people can use more than one acne-fighting product at a time for a more effective treatment plan. For example, you can wash your face with a cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid, all of which "are great for reducing inflammation and reducing clogging," and then follow up with a leave-on product, such as an exfoliating serum.

That said, Dr. Farber adds that “too many products or overusing medications can be drying, so it's important not to add too many active over-the-counter ingredients at once unless directed by your dermatologist on appropriate use and how to combine medications.” So start slowly with each new product and see how your skin reacts before adding more.

In addition to combating cystic acne with topical treatments, it’s important to avoid products with added fragrance or harsh surfactants, like sodium laurel sulfate, which can irritate acne-prone skin. Also, steer clear of facial oils (“Coconut oil is particularly comedogenic and should not be used on the face,” Dr. Farber says), especially essential oils. And if your acne doesn't respond to over-the-counter products, speak with your dermatologist; they might be able to come up with a more comprehensive treatment plan using prescription-strength topicals or medications.

Scroll down for the seven of the best acne treatments you can get over the counter, from cleansers and exfoliating pads to serums and more.

1. The Best Face Wash For Cystic Acne

Cleanser is the foundation of any good skin care regimen — especially one tailored to fight acne. For this, you'll want a face wash that contains salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or benzoyl peroxide, such as this Differin Daily Deep Cleanser, which contains the latter. “Benzoyl peroxide is helpful as it works to reduce bacteria and remove excess oil. It can be found in leave-on creams as well as washes; washes can often be tolerated daily while creams can be more irritating. When starting, it’s best to begin a few days per week, then increase to daily [use]," says Dr. Farber. That said, unless your cystic acne is very mild, washes will usually need to be combined with other leave-on products for best results, so keep scrolling to find an accompaniment to your new cleanser.

2. The Best Spot Treatment For Cystic Acne

PCA Skin's topical acne gel can be used all over your face or just as a spot treatment, depending on the breakout you're currently dealing with. Using ingredients like salicylic acid and azelaic acid, it works to calm current breakouts, ward off future breakouts, and control oil production throughout the day. “Salicylic acid is helpful for reducing excess oil and clogging," says Dr. Farber, and can generally be tolerated daily, though she notes that this will depend on the product, as well as any other products you're using, and your skin's tolerance.

3. The Best Peel Pads For Cystic Acne

Use these Radical Skincare Exfoliating Pads at night after washing your face. They work to unclog congested pores (and thus prevent/clear up breakouts) and resurface skin for a more even-looking complexion using both BHAs and AHAs, including salicylic acid and glycolic acid. According to Dr. Farber, "Alpha-hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid, are great for gentle exfoliation and removing excess dead skin cells." Soothing chamomile extract and witch hazel also make appearances in the formula, while the brand's Trylacel technology, which combines several antioxidants, helps keep skin protected and strong. These pads don't come cheap, true, but they're extremely powerful, and you get 60 in each jar.

4. The Best Moisturizer For Cystic Acne

Using a moisturizer is important, even for people with acne-prone and/or oily skin, but opt for one that's lightweight, oil-free, and fragrance-free, Dr. Farber says. The First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Oil-Free Mattifying Gel checks off all those boxes: It's oil-free, noncomedogenic, fragrance-free, and super lightweight, thanks to its unique gel texture that won't feel greasy or heavy on oily, congested skin. It also helps control oil production and gives skin a matte finish, thanks to zinc PCA, lecithin, and FMLT SeboCure, while the ceramides in the formula ensure skin stays balanced, hydrated, and strong. Feel free to use this moisturizer twice a day.

5. The Best Retinol Serum For Cystic Acne

“Topical retinols are a great option for comedonal acne, as they help with clogging of pores and evening out skin tone. These are best used a few nights weekly to start as they can be drying," says Dr. Farber. The CeraVe Retinol Serum is an effective acne-fighter encourages cellular turnover and promotes smoother, clearer skin, while ceramides in the formula work to keep the skin's natural protective barrier strong. It's lightweight, noncomedogenic, and fragrance-free, too. Be mindful that retinols can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so don't forget your daily sunscreen when using this product!

6. The Best Face Mask For Cystic Acne

This affordable mask from InstaNatural works to gently exfoliate skin using glycolic acid, while turmeric, aloe vera, pumpkin seed oil, and licorice root extract offer hydrating and brightening benefits. The result? Smoother, softer, clearer skin after each use. Treat your face to this about once a week!

Don't Forget:

Achieve more even-looking skin and reduce acne-related hyperpigmentation by using sunscreen daily, because, as Dr. Farber explains, "As acne heals it can leave dark marks; while this often fades with time, any pigment change is worsened by sun exposure." Look for mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which she says are typically better tolerated by acne-prone skin, and choose products that are oil-free and noncomedogenic. La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra-Light Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 50 fits the bill: It's an oil-free mineral sunscreen that's fragrance-free, too, and it has a matte finish that won't leave a white cast and wears nicely under makeup.


Michele J. Farber, M.D., F.A.A.D, board-certified dermatologist practicing at Schweiger Dermatology Group.