If you have acne bumps on your skin, you’re not alone. Many people experience acne—around 50 million annually in the United States.¹ That makes acne one of the most common skin conditions in the United States.
There are different types of acne that come in varying shapes and sizes, and knowing which type or types of acne you’re experiencing helps determine the best treatment options. Comedones (whiteheads and blackheads) are clogged pores filled with a buildup of dead skin cells and excess oil.² Inflammatory acne (papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules) are larger and often appears as red bumps on the skin. If you feel acne bumps under your skin, however, you may be experiencing cystic acne or nodular acne.
Deep acne bumps are most likely cysts or nodules and are sometimes referred to as “blind pimples” because of how deep under the surface of the skin they occur. They’re often painful and can potentially cause scarring. There’s no single answer as to what’s triggering yours, but there are some common contributing factors that could be the culprit.
Hormones. Hormonal changes can play a significant role in acne. Whether they happen because of puberty, menstrual cycles, or hormonal therapy, when hormones fluctuate, it’s not uncommon for acne to follow.³ During puberty, an increase in androgen hormones can cause sebaceous glands to increase in size, producing excess oil.⁴
Diet. For some of us, what we eat can affect acne. Research has linked cow’s milk consumption with acne, and studies have also shown that low glycemic diets can reduce acne lesions.⁵ But before you start tossing out all your sugar and dairy products, remember this: Everyone is different, and enjoying your favorite sweet treat every now and then is not a bad thing! Instead, take inventory of everything in your diet and try reducing the amount of any potential culprits that could cause breakouts.
New medication. Some medications can cause breakouts, so if you suddenly notice acne bumps under the skin all over your forehead or other areas, the culprit could be a new medication. Potential medications are known to cause acne include oral corticosteroids, some types of contraceptives, and testosterone.⁶ If you think medication could be the cause of recent breakouts, talk to your medical provider.
Stress. Stress doesn’t directly cause acne, but it has been shown to worsen breakouts. Unfortunately, stress is a part of life, but that’s why it’s all the more important to make time for your favorite relaxing techniques every now and then to help keep stress at bay. Whether it’s going for a long walk, doing yoga, or curling up with a good book, your skin will thank you for it!
Wondering how to get rid of acne bumps under the skin? Luckily, there are many effective treatments for cystic acne. That said, everyone’s skin is unique, so what works well for one person may not work for another.
Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is an over-the-counter topical treatment—often available in cleansers but also found in spot treatments—that targets the bacteria that contribute to acne.
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a popular topical retinoid that’s available with a prescription from a medical provider. It’s also one of our favorite active ingredients in our custom prescription formulas. Retinoids help treat acne by blocking inflammatory pathways,⁷ and if you’re experiencing big inflamed acne lesions like a cyst or a nodule, fighting inflammation is just what you want.
Hydrocolloid bandages. Hydrocolloid bandages (sometimes referred to as “pimple patches”) like the Curology emergency spot patch have been shown to reduce the amount of sebum (your skin’s natural oil), redness, and pigmentation in blemishes.⁸
If you're experiencing severe cysts or nodules, oral prescription medications are another option for treating those deep acne bumps. Talk with your medical provider to learn what’s best for you:
Isotretinoin. Formerly known by the brand name Accutane, isotretinoin has been shown to be very effective in reducing severe acne lesions (cysts and nodules) and oil production in those with treatment-resistant acne.⁹
Oral antibiotics. Oral antibiotics, most commonly tetracyclines, are commonly used to treat severe acne. In addition to fighting the bacteria that contribute to acne, they have also been shown to combat inflammation.
Pimple patches. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again! Hydrocolloid bandages make for an excellent at-home treatment because you can leave them on overnight (or whenever you want), and they also help keep you from feeling tempted to pick or pop.
Over-the-counter topical treatments. Never underestimate the power of dedicating yourself to a simple, solid acne skincare routine. Use a cleanser that contains acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and use spot treatments and creams to regularly treat your acne lesions.
Warm compresses. These can help increase blood flow to the cyst, which can help the healing process.¹⁰ Think of it like an at-home spa treatment to help you relax and unwind.
Cold compresses. If you’re experiencing acne bumps that are exceptionally swollen and painful, icing them can help reduce inflammation and also help ease the ouch and decrease inflammation. You can wrap an ice cube in a paper towel and apply it to the area for about 10 minutes. Repeat for a total of three icings, taking 10-minute breaks in between.
How long can acne bumps under the skin last? While there’s no definite timeline, cysts can take three months or more.¹¹ That said, it’s important to remember that everyone’s skin is different, so it’s not necessarily going to stick around for months. And even if it does, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
If you’re experiencing extreme pain or your acne is causing significant emotional discomfort, a dermatology provider can help with treatment options to help speed up the healing process. Don’t forget, your options for getting rid of acne are many!
Don’t pick or squeeze. No matter how tempting squeezing a pimple may be, you want to leave those acne bumps alone. Picking and popping can cause more inflammation and possibly result in scarring. If you think it needs to be popped, leave it to a dermatology provider.
Lather on the gentle cleanser. Consistently washing your face with a gentle cleanser twice daily is one easy way to help prevent acne.
Keep it non-comedogenic. A sneaky cause of pimples can be skincare products and makeup that contain comedogenic ingredients like these, which can clog your pores. Luckily, there’s no shortage of amazing products that are entirely non-comedogenic; just remember to check the label.
Remove makeup at night. Beauty sleep is no joke, but neither is taking off your makeup at night. It’s important to keep your pores clear because even non-comedogenic makeup can cause buildup over time.
Exfoliate gently. Exfoliation can be great for removing dead skin cells from your skin’s surface, you don’t want to overdo it. It may be tempting to try to literally scrub away cystic or nodular acne, but that can only make matters worse. Instead, try a gentle chemical exfoliator with an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) like glycolic acid or a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) like salicylic acid.
Moisturize generously. Dry and irritated skin can lead to breakouts, especially if you’re using harsh ingredients in other skincare products. Look for a great moisturizer, like the moisturizer by Curology to help keep dry skin away.
When it comes to skincare, we’ve got your back. Whether it's mild breakouts or deep acne bumps under the skin, our licensed dermatology providers are here to help guide you on your skincare journey. With Curology, we make skincare simple, and becoming a member is easy. Just take a short quiz and snap a few selfies. After that, you’ll be paired with one of our dermatology providers, who will customize a formula just for you with three active ingredients.
Plus, you can opt to receive a cleanser, moisturizer, and any of our other non-prescription products to try. Your first month is on us—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.*
There’s no single answer as to what’s triggering yours, but there are some common contributing factors that could be the culprit such as hormones, diet, new medication, and stress.
There are many effective treatments for cystic acne. That said, everyone’s skin is unique, so what works well for one person may not work for another.
American Academy of Dermatology. Skin conditions by the numbers. (n.d.).
Feldman, S., et al. Diagnosis and treatment of acne. American family physician. (2004).
Elsaie M. L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology. (2016, September, 2)
American Academy of Dermatology. Acne: Who gets and causes. (n.d.).
American Academy of Dermatology. Can the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.).
Oakley A. Acne due to a medicine. DermNet NZ. (2014, n.d.).
Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne.Dermatology and therapy. (2017, June 5).
Chao, C. M., et al. A pilot study on efficacy treatment of acne vulgaris using a new method: results of a randomized double-blind trial with Acne Dressing. Journal of cosmetic science. ( March- April 2006).
A. L. Zaenglein, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J AM ACAD DERMATOL. (May 2016).
Cleveland Clinic. Pimples. (2022, March 4).
Cleveland Clinic. Cystic Acne. (2021, August 5).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary.
Meredith Hartle, DO