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Cystic acne, otherwise known as severe acne, is typically a result of blockage of the sebaceous glands (oil glands) and the presence of Cutibacterium acnes (formerly P. acnes).

This article discusses eight face washes a person can add to their skin care regimen for cystic acne. It explains how face wash can help with cystic acne and how to choose a face wash. It also answers some frequently asked questions.

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Cystic acne is more common in people with oily skin. Its usual causes include hormones, excess sebum (oil), clogged pores or follicles, the presence of Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes), and inflammation. Genetics can also play a role in whether a person will get cystic acne.

Although having a dirty face does not cause this type of acne, a face wash may help reduce symptoms by keeping the face clean.

Experts recommend a person wash their face twice a day, even if they do not have acne. This can decrease the development of acne and inflammation. However, a person should not wash their face more than twice a day, as this may worsen acne.

It may take several months before a person sees results from using a face wash, particularly with cystic acne.

It is important to note that cystic acne typically needs to be treated with the help of a specialist. A person should speak with a dermatologist who can create a suitable regimen for their acne and skin type.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, people often treat severe acne with:

Before purchasing a face wash for cystic acne, people may consider speaking to a healthcare professional. If they are already using one of the treatments above, there may be a risk of drug interaction with active ingredients in a face wash.

A doctor or specialist should be able to advise if a particular face wash or certain ingredients are suitable for an individual’s skin.

A person should look at the ingredients in a face wash if they intend to use it to manage cystic acne.

People should aim to avoid fragrances, as these can irritate the skin. They should also avoid products that contain:

  • parabens
  • silicones
  • alcohol
  • lanolin

One ingredient to look for is benzoyl peroxide. A 2016 study suggests that benzoyl peroxide may be safe and effective for acne treatment. Furthermore, a 2017 study found that lower strengths of benzoyl peroxide, around 2.5%, are best for the face.

Salicylic acid is another ingredient to look for as it helps exfoliate the skin. A 2016 study of teenage participants found that salicylic acid was effective in reducing acne.

However, the researchers also found that LED-laser phototherapy using combined red and blue lights to treat acne was more effective than salicylic acid.

An older study suggests that other effective ingredients include:

People should always search for products that are noncomedogenic (do not clog pores) and wear sunscreen to protect the skin from further damage.

A person should speak to a doctor before choosing a face wash for cystic acne, as a prescription treatment may be more suitable. Alternatively, a doctor may be able to suggest a suitable face wash.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information presented is purely research-based and correct at the time of publication.

Panoxyl Acne Foaming Wash

For high strength benzoyl peroxide

This foaming face wash uses benzoyl peroxide as its active ingredient at the maximum strength of 10%. The company claims this is the highest over-the-counter strength available. However, this does mean the product may not be suitable for those with dry or sensitive skin.

A person can apply this wash to their chest and back, as well as to the face. A higher strength product may be more suitable for the chest and back, as it may irritate the face.

The company claims the wash clears existing acne and prevents new blemishes from appearing.

This product costs $11.99.

La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Acne Face Wash

For an allergy-tested face wash

This product contains 2% salicylic acid. It also contains lipo-hydroxy acid for exfoliation and glycerin for hydrating the skin.

It is most suitable for oily skin, but the company also recommends it for sensitive skin. It is free from parabens, oils, and fragrances. It is also allergy-tested.

The company claims the product is clinically tested to reduce excess surface oil by 47%.

The price is $14.99.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Face Wash

For a 2-in-1 product

The active ingredient in this product is 2% salicylic acid. It also features aloe and chamomile for moisturizing and soothing.

The product is a face wash and cleanser in one. Neutrogena claims it is a dermatologist-recommended product. It is free from oil and residue.

However, it is important to note that this product does contain fragrance.

It costs $8.49.

Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser

For lower budgets

This product is suitable for those with dry or sensitive skin. It contains 0.5% salicylic acid as well as soy extracts to even skin tone and texture.

It does not contain oil or soap and does not clog pores. It is also hypoallergenic.

The price is $6.97.

CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser

For a cream-to-foam formula

CeraVe claims it is the top dermatologist-recommended moisturizer brand for acne treatment.

This cleanser contains 4% benzoyl peroxide. It also features hyaluronic acid to moisturize and niacinamide to soothe the skin. It contains three essential ceramides to help lock in moisture.

The product is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin. It is also noncomedogenic, so it will not clog pores.

It costs around $14.99 on Amazon.

Starface Space Wash

For a vegan face wash

This plant-based product is vegan-friendly. The company claims the product is also approved by dermatologists.

It contains white willow bark to exfoliate, sage leaf to reduce irritation, and holy basil leaf to protect from infection. It also contains chamomilla flower to block bacteria and calendula flower to reduce dryness.

It does not contain:

  • oil
  • parabens
  • fragrances
  • dyes
  • gluten

The price is $10.99.

The Humane Company Maximum Strength 10% Acne Wash

For a dermatologist-tested face wash

This face wash contains a maximum 10% of benzoyl peroxide. It is also available in a regular strength of 5%.

The company claims this product is not suitable for sensitive skin.

It is suitable for vegans and is cruelty-free. The company also claims the product is dermatologist-tested in a third-party laboratory.

It does not contain:

  • parabens
  • sulfates
  • mineral oil
  • fragrance
  • genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

It is nonfoaming, and a person can use it on their body in addition to their face.

It costs around $24.95 on Amazon.

Murad Acne Control Clarifying Cleanser

For a gel cleanser

This is a gel cleanser that contains two types of salicylic acid. According to the company, one of the acids treats acne immediately and the other continues after the wash is off the face.

The product also contains green tea extract for soothing. It is suitable for oily, combination, and sensitive skin.

This company claims it conducted a 3-day clinical study. According to the company:

  • 97% of the study participants claimed the product dissolved excess oil
  • 94% reported it deeply cleansed the skin
  • 88% stated it improved skin appearance
  • 85% claimed it left pores feeling clean

Prices start at $32.

Below are some of the most common questions and answers about cystic acne.

How do I know if my acne is cystic?

Cystic acne usually involves multiple breakouts of large, painful, red or white pus-filled cysts deep in the skin. These are typically larger than 1–2 centimeters and tender.

A person should consult their doctor about their acne for diagnosis.

What foods cause cystic acne?

Food does not cause cystic acne, but a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates may worsen symptoms. Dairy products and highly processed foods may also make cystic acne worse.

A person should discuss dietary changes with their doctor.

What should I avoid if I have cystic acne?

A person should avoid touching or picking at their cysts. They also should not scrub their skin or use exfoliating products.

People should try to protect their skin from the sun and speak with a doctor about how their diet may affect their acne.

Cystic acne involves large painful cysts that are deep under the skin. These can often leave scars when they heal.

Ingredients that may be useful for clearing cystic acne include salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Many face washes contain these products in varying strengths.

A person should speak to their doctor or a specialist before choosing a product to manage their cystic acne. Some people may find prescription treatments more effective than over-the-counter products.