Acne affects almost 80% of adolescents and young adults.¹ So, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced acne at some point in your life. The underlying factors that contribute to acne vary, and hormones, genetics, stress, skincare, diet, and the environment can all play a role. In short, what it often boils down to is an overproduction of sebum and dead skin cells clogging pores, which result in annoying pimples.
Inflammatory acne results when bacteria thrive in the excess oil of a blocked pore. The bacteria trigger an inflammatory response and acne results. Inflamed acne often presents as red pimples or larger deep cysts, most commonly on the face, back, or shoulders. It’s often accompanied by pain, swelling, and discomfort. Sometimes, it results in scarring. Inflammatory acne can take the form of cystic acne with painful cysts living deep under the skin, or it can be in the form of papules, pustules, or nodules. This may all sound a bit scary, but know that inflammatory acne can be treated!
Knowing the specific type or types of acne you’re dealing with determines how you can best treat and help prevent it. A few common ingredients found in some of the best treatments for cystic acne include:
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). It’s a chemical exfoliant that buffs away dead skin cells to clear and help prevent clogged pores.²
Benzoyl peroxide helps prevents and clear clogged pores by killing bacteria that contribute to acne.
Adapalene is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid, commonly known by the brand name Differin, that helps regulate skin cell turnover, keeping pores unclogged.³
Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring dicarboxylic acid found in barley and rye. It has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and works by keeping acne-causing bacteria and fungus at bay.
Cleansing your skin is the first step in treating your acne. Here are three go-to cleansers that work to control breakouts.
The cleanser by Curology is a gentle, lightly foaming daily cleanser designed by dermatologists to be non-clogging and safe for sensitive skin. Our cleanser uses an anti-inflammatory oat extract to soothe your skin while cleansing.
Acne Free Oil-Free Acne Cleanser with Benzoyl Peroxide is formulated with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, which is known for fighting Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes)—aka the bacteria that contribute to acne.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser is an oil-free gentle cleanser that helps clear blemishes and restores balance to your skin. It’s made with salicylic acid to treat and help prevent breakouts.
The dermatology experts at Curology don’t think toner is totally necessary. But if your skin is extra oily or your pores are super clogged, you might consider one of these toners.
Paula’s Choice Pore-Reducing Toner contains antioxidants and soothing plant extracts to help tone oily skin and reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.
Moon Juice Acid Potion Resurfacing Exfoliator is a blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids to treat hyperpigmentation, age-related changes, and oily skin.
Dickinson’s Original Witch Hazel Pore Perfecting Toner helps remove excess oil, relieve inflammation, and minimize the appearance of pores.
You can apply the serums on this list before adding a richer moisturizer (so, cleanse, tone, treat with serum, moisturize), providing another level of treatment for acne-prone skin.
Pixi Glow Tonic Serum gently exfoliates and hydrates your skin, providing nutrients for a clean, healthy complexion.
The Ordinary Niacinamide can improve dull and congested skin using niacinamide (vitamin B3), zinc, and other vitamins and minerals that may regulate sebum production.
SkinCeuticals C + AHA is a rich antioxidant formula that neutralizes free radicals and gently exfoliates the skin.
EltaMD Skin Recovery Light Moisturizeris a non-greasy, lightweight cream that helps restore the skin’s natural protection.
Aveeno Calm + Restore Oat Gel Moisturizer is a soothing lotion designed for sensitive skin, made with prebiotic oat and calming feverfew (aka wild chamomile) to help hydrate the skin.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream is an oil-free, non-comedogenic cream that strengthens the moisture barrier without clogging your pores.
How you treat cystic hormonal acne depends on your commitment to a skincare regime. Regardless, topical acne treatments serve as your first defense against inflammatory acne. While there are many options out there, these are some of the best products for acne.
Differin Adapalene Gel is an OTC retinoid that boosts skin cell turnover, helping to keep pores unclogged.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Treatment is a micronized benzoyl peroxide and micro-exfoliated lipohydroxy acid acne spot treatment.
Curology Custom Formula is formulated based on skin type and skincare goals. It’s designed to stop breakouts (and/or other skin concerns) using three active ingredients.
Some ingredients, like retinoids, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. In addition, UV rays can damage the skin, leading to premature aging and skin cancers. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day, and remember to reapply every two hours if you’re out in the sun.
Need a sunscreen recommendation that’s designed to be safe for acne-prone skin? The sunscreen by Curology is a no-clog, grease-free SPF 30 formula with silky texture and no white cast that’s perfect for everyday use. If you’re a current Curology member, you’ll be happy to know that our team of dermatologists designed the sunscreen to work with your Curology routine in support of your skin goals—so you never have to choose between sun protection and clear skin. If you're new to Curology, you can try the sunscreen when you sign up for a free trial* (more on this later).
The good news is that inflammatory acne is treatable. But it takes time—even when using some of the best topical products for cystic acne. Because acne is a complex skin condition with multiple causes, it can respond to treatments differently. In many cases, you’ll notice results in about 4-8 weeks, but for some, it can take longer. But it’s worth the wait—just check out these acne before-and-after pics.
Over-the-counter skincare products are the first line of defense against inflammatory acne, but they don’t work overnight. You’ll need to develop a skincare regimen that includes treatment and prevention. Here are some tips to get the most from your skincare routine, including (but not limited to):
Wash problem areas twice daily. Use one of the cleansers mentioned above and gently cleanse using your fingertips—avoid washcloths or scrubs that can be harsh on the skin.
Be consistent. It’s okay to begin using a new product every other day or even every three days as your skin gets used to it. Use as directed and give it time to work.
Be patient. Don’t give up on products too quickly. Inflammatory acne doesn’t develop overnight, and a great routine takes time to start working. In the meantime, incorporate seasonal foods for healthier skin into your diet as part of your overall wellness program.
Use products with ingredients proven to fight acne. Select products formulated for acne. If the product you choose doesn’t give you the results you want after giving it enough time to work, try a different product with different ingredients. Remember, acne results from various underlying factors, and different ingredients help with different acne types.
Avoid picking, squeezing and DIY treatments. Okay, we know this one isn’t necessarily easy! But we recommend fighting the urge to pick at your face at all costs. Doing so is an easy way to only make it worse and, potentially, cause an infection or scarring. And those DIY treatments? Here are eight that don’t work. Stick with what dermatologists recommend.
Just as important as giving your products enough time to do their job is knowing when it’s time to seek professional help. If you’ve been diligent about your skincare routine for 2-3 months with little improvement, it may be time to see a dermatologist. Even if you don’t have severe acne, you can benefit from seeing a professional.
If you’re feeling unsure about what your skin needs to beat breakouts, talking to a dermatology provider can help. You can get started with one at no extra cost when you start your Curology free trial. Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few selfies and one of our licensed medical providers will evaluate your skin.
If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a 30-day supply of your Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients chosen for your unique skin concerns, plus any of our recommended products, for free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.
Inflammatory acne results when bacteria thrive in the excess oil of a blocked pore. The bacteria trigger an inflammatory response and acne results.
The good news is that inflammatory acne is treatable. But it takes time—even when using some of the best topical products for cystic acne. In many cases, you’ll notice results in about 4-8 weeks, but for some, it can take longer.
If you’ve been diligent about your skincare routine for 2-3 months with little improvement, it may be time to see a dermatologist. Even if you don’t have severe acne, you can benefit from seeing a professional.
Tanghetti, EA. The Role of Inflammation in the Pathology of Acne. Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology. (September 2013).
Zaenglein, AL, et al. Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (May 2016).
Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2022).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required.
Meredith Hartle, DO