If you’ve ever suffered from painful and enlarged pimples that don’t exactly rise to the surface, then you probably are somewhat familiar with cystic acne. And unlike those pesky blackheads and whiteheads that can be cured pretty easily with a spot treatment, cystic acne proves to be one skin condition that can be both extra painful and extra frustrating to deal with.
But while irritating conditions like these are definitely treatable, cystic acne can also be made worse if you aren’t exactly careful. Not only do certain factors like poor diet, bad skincare habits, and medication side effects sneakily contribute to making cystic breakouts worse, but other surprising and hidden factors can lead to flare ups you never saw coming.
If you want to finally take the reigns back on your skin this year, it’s best to seek out your dermatologist so they can help you develop a treatment plan that's best for you. But if even if you are combatting cystic acne with the help of a doctor, educating yourself more about the issue is definitely your best weapon of defense. For more hidden causes of cystic acne, here’s seven ways you’re secretly making your cystic acne worse.
1. You’re Picking Or Squeezing Your Acne
Popping zits is really something you should never make a habit of, but popping cystic acne beneath your skin is one of the worst things anyone can do with the condition. This type of acne is found deep beneath the skin’s surface layer, so popping these zits can contribute to bad bloody spots that can be extremely hard to cover, explains board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Dr. Joel Schlessinger tells me over email.
“Trying to pop cystic acne is one of the worst things you can do for your skin,” he says. “This type of acne occurs so far beneath the skin, that you won’t even come close to reaching the bump, and you’ll be left with a bloody spot that’s impossible to cover up with makeup.”
In addition to scabs, picking cystic acne can also lead to severe scarring. Dr. Schlessinger explains, “It’s better to make an appointment with your dermatologist at the first sign of cystic acne. With professional treatment, it may be possible to avoid scarring altogether.”
Picking at your skin can also contribute to cysts, which can be extremely difficult to treat. Your fingers can easily transfer bacteria to your face and you can actually force acne further into the skin, the combo of which can lead to cysts, Dr. Schlessinger continues.
2. You’re Using The Wrong Types Of Products
Your skincare routine can also secretly contribute to cystic acne, since certain products and habits can make breakouts even worse. Although there are some oils that can be good for acne prone skin (like tea tree and vetiver) layering too many on can clog your pores, leading to more breakouts in return.
“I have seen a number of patients that use oils to combat the oiliness and acne, which really does not make any sense to me,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Baxt via email. “If you have cystic oily acne prone skin, avoid other oils or products with oil that can easily clog your pores.”
It's true that many people have found the oil cleansing method actually helps their acne, but don't assume that means it'll work for you. If your skin seems to be getting worse after you've switched to oils, consider cutting them out of your routine to see if things clear up.
3. You're Over Washing Your Skin
Washing equals no bacteria equals no acne, right? Well, washing also strips your skin of its necessary oils, and can rid skin of nutrients it needs to fight future breakouts.
“Over washing strips skin of the necessary oils and nutrients that it needs to fight off acne causing bacteria,” explains Heather Wilson, InstaNatural, Director Of Brand Development and Esthetician through email. “When we strip our skin of its natural oils, excess oil is produced in an effort to recover and repair itself.”
When you are washing, take note of your product ingredients. Some soaps and washes contain very harsh ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin. To avoid making cystic acne worse, it's important to find pH-neutral products that won’t aggravate your skin.
“It’s crucial to avoid any products that inflame the skin such as harsh soaps or exfoliants and scrubs” says Dove’s dermatologist, Dr. Mona Gohara through email. “To avoid making cystic acne any worse, I prefer a pH neutral non-soap cleanser (the Dove Beauty Bar is a perfect choice) that won't irritate the already inflamed and tender skin.”
4. You're Using Too Many Products
Using too many skincare products can leave your skin extremely dehydrated. And in addition to drying, most skincare products only penetrate the surface layer of skin, not remotely reaching the deeper layers where cystic acne usually occurs.
“Using too many products on cystic acne can leave skin dry and flaky,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “It’s important to remember that many over-the-counter spot treatments aren’t designed to reach the deeper layers of skin, where cystic acne occurs.”
5. You're Wearing The Wrong Makeup
Makeup can definitely be helpful in concealing bad breakouts, but piling on heavy foundations and concealers can only worsen acne conditions. Full coverage products often contain heavy oils and clogging ingredients, which can trap dirt and oil underneath your skin, making it more difficult to heal your acne, says esthetician Heather Wilson.
If you want to still wear makeup during a flare up, it's good to switch over to mineral or non-comedogenic makeup, as it's special formula won't clog pores.
"If you have acne-prone skin, one of the first things you should do is switch to non-comedogenic cosmetics," says Dr. Schlessinger. "This means the makeup is specially formulated so it won’t clog pores or aggravate acne."
Heather Wilson also recommends finding makeup products with acne fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid or willow bark. "Look for BB creams with acne fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid or willow bark. BB creams tend to be lighter and offer skin loving benefits, allowing your skin to heal while also blurring redness and breakouts," she says.
Wilson finds that even water based makeup is better, as it less likely to clog your pores, and aggravate cystic acne. Brands like Koh Gen Do and CoverGirl are some of her favorites for these types of products.
"Water based makeup is even better, as it is less likely to clog your pores," she says. "For troubled areas, dab concealer lightly and use in moderation."
6. And You're Not Taking That Makeup Off Every Night
Even if you're using the best type of products possible, taking off your makeup every night is crucial, as leaving makeup on while you snooze can make your cystic acne completely unbearable. And while removal may be the last thing you want to worry about before bedtime, it's one step you really can't afford to skip out on.
"Always wash your makeup off at the end of the day, as nothing is worse than sleeping in your makeup," Heather Wilson says. "It definitely adds a few extra minutes to your night time routine, but your skin will thank you for it."
7. You Don't Cleanse After You Sweat
Those with cystic acne should definitely cleanse twice a day, but if you find yourself in the gym, or sweating more than usual, you might need to add an extra wash. Sweat definitely aggravates cystic acne, so to avoid any future breakouts, showering after you workout can definitely help keep pimples at bay.
“While going to the gym or working out is great, make sure you shower afterwards and use a benzoyl peroxide wash if you can tolerate it,” states Dr. Rebecca Baxt. “Sweat will aggravate cystic acne, so shower fast and get the sweat off.”
8. You Aren't Eating Enough Veggies
Eating a high glycemic index diet and drinking lots of alcohol, can worsen cystic acne, Dr. Baxt explains. If you've tried everything else and still suffer from cystic acne, consider tweaking your diet.
“Try to eat lots of organic fruits and vegetables, drink lots of water, and stay away from processed foods as much as possible.” says Dr. Rebecca Baxt. “A healthy body helps to create healthy skin.”
9. You’ve Got Bad Sleeping Habits
Most people don’t get the recommended hours of sleep they need, poor sleeping habits can actually make breakouts worse, being that stress hormones kick in, making cystic breakouts a force to be reckoned with.
“Lack of sleep puts the body into stress mode, and stress causes hormonal release that worsens acne,” says Dr. Rebecca Baxt. “Get the sleep your body needs to help have the clearest skin possible.”
10. You Take Medications
And while it’s not a principle cause, some medications can also lead to cystic acne-flare ups, being that certain medications such as corticosteroids, can contribute to acne or acne-like symptoms.
“Although it’s uncommon, certain medications can cause acne or acne-like symptoms,” Dr. Schlessinger says. “These medications include corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, lithium and barbiturates. Most cases of acne, however, are not related to medication.”
11. You're Not Going To A Doctor
Again, going to a professional IRL is key here. Every case of cystic acne varies from patient to patient, so seeking the assistance of a dermatologist can help you develop a treatment plan that works just for you.
"Visiting your dermatologist at the very first sign of cystic acne is the best way to treat and heal your skin, as well as minimize the risk of scarring," says Dr. Schlessinger. "Once you see (or feel!) any of these signs, it’s time to make an appointment. A board-certified dermatologist will be able to create a customized treatment plan that meets your specific needs, putting you back on the path to healthy, beautiful skin." And that's all we really want, right?