Welcome to Skin School, besties! Today’s topic is one that many of us might find all too familiar: cystic acne. Yep, that's right. We're here to talk about those deep, painful bumps that seem to have a knack for showing up at the most inconvenient times. Let’s dive into the mysteries behind what causes cystic acne and uncover the potential culprits hiding within your everyday routine.

acne hack spot treatment sitting on pink and orange gradient background

What is cystic acne?

Alright, let's start with the basics. Cystic acne is no ordinary pimple. It's the heavyweight champ of breakouts, forming when pores get clogged with a mix of oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. These deep, painful, and inflamed bumps are a force to be reckoned with. These bad boys go deeper, leading to those painful, swollen bumps that seem to take forever to heal. So what's causing this skin sabotage? Let's investigate. 

Does dairy cause cystic acne?

Ah, dairy - that beloved food group that might be wreaking havoc on your skin. Some studies suggest that due to the hormone levels in cow's milk, this can cause inflammation in the body and trigger excess oil production, therefore leading to an increase in acne. Experiencing this heightened inflammation alongside pre-existing breakouts (often due to factors like stress or hormonal fluctuations) has the potential to make existing acne worse. So, it’s unlikely dairy is the sole cause of your breakouts, but it might not be making things any better… 

Are your hormones causing cystic acne?

Hormonal fluctuations are often the masterminds behind the scenes. Fluctuations in hormone levels, like during puberty, your menstrual cycle, or during times of stress, can lead to an overproduction of oil in your skin. This excess oil can clog your pores, creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and the development of those painful, inflamed lumps under the skin. 

Is PCOS contributing to my cystic acne?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) isn't just about irregular periods and fertility struggles. It can also have an impact on your skin. PCOS can lead to hormonal imbalances, which can ultimately stimulate excessive oil production and the formation of cystic acne. See above!

Can stress cause cystic acne?

We've all been there - stress levels through the roof and a sudden breakout rearing its ugly head. But guess what? It's not just in your head. Stress can actually mess with your skin. When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that can increase oil production and lead to breakouts. 

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Which skincare processes can lead to cystic acne?

Cystic acne can be influenced or aggravated by specific skincare routines and products. Let's dive into some of these factors:

Using comedogenic products

Imagine that your skin is a highway. Well, there are some skincare and makeup products that act as big traffic jams, clogging your pores. These pore-clogging ingredients disrupt the natural shedding of dead skin cells, creating the perfect environment for acne-causing bacteria to become trapped within the skin. So besties, don’t forget to look out for labels that say "non-comedogenic" or "oil-free" to ensure your skin’s traffic flows smoothly. 

The ‘purging’ process

So picture this: You decide to try out some fancy, new skincare products, and suddenly, your skin goes a bit crazy. That's what we call "purging." It's like your skin's way of saying, "Hey, let's slow things down for a sec". It may seem like your skin is freaking out, bringing all those hidden pimples to the surface, and sometimes, that includes cystic acne that was lurking below. 

Now, sometimes those beloved skincare products we use can actually play a role in what we fondly call the "purging process". Take retinol, for example. This superhero skincare ingredient is derived from Vitamin A and promotes skin renewal by increasing skin cell production and unclogging pores. Now, here's the thing: Retinol itself doesn't directly cause cystic acne, but it can shake things up a bit. When you start a new product like retinol, your skin’s cells start to turnover at a faster rate. This process can cause the skin to become congested by the rapid turnover of cells. This again, can form the breeding ground for bacteria, and in turn lead to breakouts of the cystic kind. 


When you exfoliate your skin too often or too aggressively, it's like giving your skin a heavy-duty scrub-down. You're getting rid of dead skin cells, but you're also taking away some of the good stuff - like the natural oils and protective barriers that your skin needs to stay in balance. So, what does your skin do in response? It goes into overdrive, producing more oil to compensate for what's been lost. This excess oil can clog up your hair follicles and pores, creating a perfect hideout for bacteria. When bacteria becomes trapped in your pores, it can trigger inflammation deep within the skin, resulting in those painful, cystic bumps.

Excessive exfoliation can also leave your skin vulnerable and more prone to irritation. It gets all irritated and red, which, you guessed it, can lead to more breakouts - including cystic ones. 

So, moral of the story, besties: exfoliation is great, but it's important to find the right balance in your routine to maintain that flawsome complexion!

What causes cystic acne in adults and why has it suddenly appeared?

Sudden cystic acne can feel like a total shocker, right? Especially when you’re an adult. Like, where did this come from? Well, it turns out there are a few party crashers behind these breakouts:


Hormonal changes can be the prime suspect behind those pesky flare-ups. Whether it's due to your monthly cycle, pregnancy, coming off hormonal contraception, falling pregnant or conditions like PCOS, your skin can react to these shifts.


When stress levels soar, your skin might go into oil production overdrive, creating the perfect breeding ground for cystic acne. 


Yes, what you eat matters too. Indulging in lots of sugary, high-glycemic foods or dairy products can sometimes trigger acne. 


Sometimes, it's simply in your genes. If your family has a history of acne, especially cystic acne, there's a higher likelihood that you might experience it too.

The important thing to remember here is that it is NOT YOUR FAULT! Too often, we are led to believe that acne has something to do with something we are doing wrong, or even worse, that it is linked to our own personal levels of hygiene. Bestie, this is simply NOT true. 

girl with space buns, glitter under eyes and red lipstick holding tbh thirst trap moisturiser to her face

How do I treat cystic acne?

Dealing with cystic acne can be a real pain, but there are ways to tackle it head-on. We recommend the following skincare routine:

Step 1: Cleanse

The first step in your routine is cleansing your face! If you are experiencing cystic acne, we recommend being gentle when washing your face and using a cleanser suited for acne-prone skin twice a day (morning and night). We highly recommend using our anti-bacterial cleanser, which helps to control breakout-causing bacteria and removes unwanted congestion without drying out the skin.

For more info on how to properly cleanse your skin, read here. 

Step 2: Spot treatment 

The next step in your routine is to apply a spot treatment to your cystic acne. Spot treatments can be effective in reducing inflammation, killing breakout-causing bacteria and speeding up the healing process. So after you cleanse at night, allow your skin to dry, and then apply the acne hack spot treatment to your active breakouts. Allow the product to rest on the skin for 5 minutes to ensure you don’t interfere with the formula, before layering any other products on top.

This step is only a part of your nighttime routine, so take it slow and steady. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, it's smart to introduce this product gradually. Start by applying it every second day, and then slowly increase your usage. Remember, the key is to find a balance that suits your skin, so take your time and pay attention to what your skin is telling you.

Step 3: Rebound Serum

Once the spot treatment has soaked into the skin, we recommend applying your thinnest products first, aka your serums. Serums are like your secret weapon in the battle against cystic acne. They're lightweight, powerful and packed with high levels of active ingredients like niacinamide that go deep into your skin to fight those stubborn breakouts. Of course, we suggest applying our rebound serum morning and night, a barrier support serum that works to reduce redness and calm damaged, angry skin. 

Step 4: Moisturise 

If you're dealing with cystic acne, you may think that using a moisturiser is a no-go and that it will make your acne worse. But that couldn't be further from the truth! The type of moisturiser you choose and how much you use really matters. Moisturising is crucial, even if you have cystic acne, so we suggest using a 10-cent piece-sized amount of a simple, lightweight moisturiser in the morning and night. Our thirst trap moisturiser effectively hydrates the skin and is packed with skin-loving ingredients like glycerin, pentavitin, sodium PCA, and genencare. It also offers barrier support through the inclusion of pentavitin, amino acids, squalane, apricot kernel oil, jojoba esters, olive oil, and vitamin E.

Step 5: SPF

Sun protection is a must for all, even if you have cystic acne. The UV rays can cause extreme damage to your skin, increasing inflammation and stimulating excess sebum production, which in turn can lead to or worsen your acne. When choosing an SPF for acne-prone skin, opt for a sunscreen that is oil-free and labelled ‘non-comedogenic’ to avoid clogging your pores. 

We suggest applying a minimum of a quarter of a teaspoon of sunscreen to your fingertips and gently massaging it onto your skin every morning as the final step of your skincare routine. Our skin shady SPF 50+ is an oil-free, non-greasy sunscreen that is super lightweight and breakout-friendly! 

For more info on why sunscreen is essential, read here.

So there you have it, besties! We've dug deep into the world of cystic acne and uncovered all of its tricky causes. Remember, even though it can be a tough nut to crack, understanding the causes and triggers is half the battle. Armed with the right knowledge, the right products, and maybe a little help from the pros, you've got the power to tackle these deep, pesky breakouts head on. Cystic acne might be a tough opponent, but with patience, care, and a dash of self-love, you're on your way to feeling more flawsome!