If you're faced with an inflamed pimple that won't go away, here’s everything you need to know.
Fact checked by Grzegorz Stanislawski, MD
It’s the most frustrating thing - you go to bed with clear skin only to wake up the next morning with a red, tender, and swollen bump on your face that hurts like a spot but just won’t come to a head!
We’ve all been there and it seems to only happen on days that you’d really rather it didn’t, right?! You’ve probably got yourself a cystic pimple.
They normally come up when we’re feeling stressed, or when our hormones are playing up. That’s why the “ability to understand and take action, to me, is the definition of perfect skin,” as Perrie Samotin writes in her article “Skincare isn’t a con”.
Join us as we learn about cystic pimples, what they are and how to treat them right.
Before we start, please go and check out our holistic skin health app. It’s the perfect preventative system that will help you to get to know your acne prone skin so you can avoid getting more cystic pimples and start treating your skin right.
Let’s start by understanding what we’re up against when it comes to cystic pimples.
What is a cystic pimple?
- A large, and painful bump deep in your skin
- Often covered by new skin, which makes it really difficult to get rid of, to pop or to squeeze
- Normally brought on by hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy, or even just monthly fluctuations in your hormone levels
- Can leave a scar - which is why you shouldn’t try to pop your cystic pimple.
If you get cystic pimples a lot, we have some more information about cystic acne and want to find out more, just click here.
In the meantime, if you’re unlucky enough to have developed a cystic pimple right before an important event like a wedding, graduation, or hot date, here are some ways to help shrink that cystic pimple.
How do you reduce the size of a cystic pimple?
Your concealer may hide your cystic pimple, but it won’t help reduce the swelling. Taking care of your skin, on the other hand, will go some way to help accelerate the healing process and clear away any existing blemishes.
We’re not talking about magic tricks and overnight miracles. Our skin doesn’t work like that, unfortunately. But certain skincare products can make a big difference, if you know which active ingredients to look for.
If your skin doesn’t improve after 4 weeks, make sure you make an appointment with a professional. Cystic pimples can be tricky to treat, and sometimes you might need prescription medication to do the heavy lifting.
How do you pop a cystic pimple?
If you leave the zits alone and don't squeeze them, they'll clear up in about a week or pop on their own. If you want to pop the cystic pimple, you should never do so by squeezing it. I know that the thinking behind popping a cystic pimple is to get rid of it for good, but the bad news is that the reality is the exact opposite.
No matter how tempting it may be, don’t attempt to pop your cystic pimple and try to avoid touching it as much as possible. Touching your pimples could encourage the spread of bacteria, making the infection worse, and squeezing or popping the pimple can push the infection deeper into the skin or even, in the worst case scenario, help it to spread.
Keeping your pores from getting clogged is one step on the journey to clear, radiant skin.
Active ingredients like Ictasol and Zinc PCA help to control the state of acne-prone skin, as well as fight inflammation without drying out the skin.
Step #1: Will an acid exfoliant help rid of cystic pimples?
One way to keep your skin clear and cystic pimple free in the long-term is to use an acid exfoliant.
I used to think that exfoliation didn’t make any difference. I was wrong. One of the reasons we break out is that dead skin cells stay on the surface of the skin and block our pores.
Exfoliating with acids (e.g. our Exfoliant) helps to clear away any dead skin cells that could block your pores and result in cystic pimples.
Which Ingredients should I look for?
Lactic Acid is my favorite acid because it is both an exfoliant and a humectant. It’s also less irritating than glycolic acid. Lactic acid belongs to the alpha hydroxy acid group, which work on the surface of the skin and gently dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells so that they can be removed.
Salicylic Acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) which helps to dissolve pore clogging plugs and has both anti-inflammatory and skin exfoliating properties. One word of advice is to avoid leave-on treatments with salicylic acid in, as these can feel drying.
Azelaic Acid is a super star ingredient. This naturally occurring acid has anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and skin exfoliating properties, but make sure to use in moderation as it can also cause some dryness.
How to use acids? Apply a thin layer to a clean face. Remember to introduce acids into your routine slowly and not to over-exfoliate. Choose a safe concentration and make sure you don’t experiment with lots of different acids at once.
When will I see the results? If you stick to your routine, you will start seeing results within 35 - 40 days.
Pro tip: If you wear makeup, exfoliation can help you to apply it more smoothly and help your makeup to last longer.
Step #2 - What is the best face mask for cystic pimples?
A good face mask can help to give your skin a deep clean, as well as shrink and smooth out your pores. It’s also a good chance to relax, unwind and give yourself some self-care, which is really important, especially given that breakouts can knock our self-confidence sometimes.
Which ingredients should I look for in my face mask?
Sulfur is a natural element and has very strong smell. Applied topically, sulfur dries and peels off the skin. Sulfur is more suitable for treating blackheads and inflammatory pimples and is not very effective on cystic pimples. However, as I said, keeping your pores clear is very important, so you should use it in a combination with other active ingredients (see below Step #3).
Pro tip: As I said, taking time out to relax can really help you to reduce your cystic pimples, especially if they’re brought on by stress. If you have a cystic outbreak, try some relaxation techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or anything else you find calming.
Step #3 - How to choose an anti-bacterial treatment for cystic pimples?
Blocked pores and excess oils are the favorite foods of acne-causing bacteria. Use an anti-bacterial treatment on the affected area (e.g. our SOS Target), which helps to fight inflammation and spot-causing bacteria.
Whichever treatment you decide to use, make sure that it’s actually meant for use on your face. Antibacterial hand soap won’t do the trick, and has the potential to dry out your skin and make it feel tighter.
Which skincare ingredients can help?
Ictasol is a water-soluble substance. It’s an anti-inflammatory, antiseborrheic and antimicrobial substance. We use Ictasol in our SOS Target because we wanted a non-drying and non-irritating substance which helps to reduce swelling and the size of a cystic bump (inflammation). Check out what Dr. Guido Gayko had to say about this spot-fighting ingredient in our latest interview.
Sepicontrol™ a5 is dermo protecting and purifying ingredient which helps to regulate the state of acne prone skin. It’s suitable for oily, sensitive acne prone skin. We use this ingredient in our SOS Target and Moisturizer.
Do home remedies get rid of cystic pimples?
- Vinegar cleanser does NOT work for treating your acne, and can burn your face. In fact, there are many many reasons why you shouldn’t put vinegar on your face. Moreover, there is no significant proof that vinegar can treat blemishes.
- Lemon juice mask - It’s NOT safe to put lemon juice on your face. Lemon juice can sound very promising, because why spend money on Vitamin C serum or exfoliants with Citric Acid, if you have a lemon at home, right? But, lemon juice can cause irritation, redness and even an acidic burn. Also, lemon juice is not just vitamin C and citric acid, it contains some other, probably unknown, ingredients too.
- Does ice cubes on pimples help? If you put an ice cube into a clean washcloth or paper towel and gently apply to your cystic pimple it can help to reduce the redness and swelling. This is because ice-cold temperatures help to constrict blood vessels. I recommend doing this in intervals of a couple of minutes, and only after you’ve washed your face.
- Can Onions help to treat your cystic pimple? There is a scientific evidence that onion extract applied on the face with other ingredients for at least 10 weeks may improve the appearance of scars.
- Raw Honey can help to cure some pimples on your skin but hard evidence of this is still missing. Raw honey has antimicrobial properties, but it’s not clear if it’s enough to kill the acne causing bacteria.
How to cover up a cystic pimple?
If you don’t wear makeup, then you can skip this step. Being comfortable in your own skin is the most important aspect of any acne treatment! If you do wear makeup, this will give you a good opportunity to cover your cystic pimple.
Concealer can be used to cover blemishes, pimples, and other spots. It is great to use over cystic pimples, as it will cover the redness induced by swelling and make it less noticeable. If you’ve never used makeup before, here’s our tip on how to use concealer to cover up a blemish:
Pro tip 1: When using concealer on a cystic pimple, it should have a thick texture, instead of a runnier, thinner texture. Use a precision brush to cover just the pimple and red area around it. Less is more in this case, as using a lot will only make it look worse than it really is.
Pro tip 2: Don’t put any highlighter or other shiny makeup on a cystic pimple. The area with a huge & swollen pimple should be kept as matte as possible to reduce the shininess.
After applying concealer, you can then apply the rest of your makeup as usual.
When To See a Doctor?
If you have a particularly bad outbreak of cystic acne, have suffered from cystic acne for a long time, or your home treatments just aren’t doing the trick, it may be time to book an appointment with a dermatologist. They are trained in this area and can help you get the treatment you need.
If you wake up with a cystic pimple or outbreak, don’t worry! You can use home treatments like exfoliation, face masks, and anti-bacterial treatments to help shrink cystic pimples. If your acne isn’t responding to home treatment or you’ve been struggling with cystic acne for a long time, make an appointment with a dermatologist for further treatment.
- DO use an acid exfoliant
- Use face masks
- DO something you like to relax
- DO use an anti-bacterial treatment
- DO use a concealer with a thick consistency and apply with a precision brush (if you wear makeup)
- DON’T panic! Cystic pimples are perfectly normal
- DON’T attempt to squeeze or pop your cystic pimples
- DON’T touch your face (or at least as little as possible