Contrary to popular belief, acne isn't caused by a harmful diet, poor hygiene, or an uncontrolled sex drive. The simple truth is that heredity and hormones are behind most forms of acne. Swearing off chocolate or scrubbing your face 10 times a day won't change your predisposition to this unsightly, sometimes painful, and often embarrassing skin problem.
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But the milder cases can benefit from some topical over-the-counter treatments, too: “OTC options should be limited to when you have only one or two cysts,” though, says dermatologist Noelani Gonzalez, the director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West. “Otherwise you should go see your dermatologist sooner than later to avoid any scarring.” Here, we spoke with three dermatologists to hear more about the most effective cystic-acne treatments to use at home.


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Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial ingredient, and it’s very effective at killing the P. acnes bacteria that causes breakouts. But benzoyl isn’t without its downsides. The leave-on creams and cleansing treatments can dry out sensitive skin types and bleach clothing if you aren’t careful. Board-certified dermatologist Eric Meinhardt, M.D., previously told SELF that it's best to stick to formulations that have no more than 2 percent of benzoyl peroxide listed on the active ingredients chart; stronger concentrations are harder on your skin without being any tougher on bacteria.
Systemic therapy refers to acne medication that is taken by mouth. Antibiotics like tetracycline, minocycline, doxycycline, or erythromycin may treat moderate to severe acne by targeting bacteria and reducing inflammation. Other systemic therapies include oral contraceptives, which can reduce acne in some women, spironolactone, an anti-androgen hormone pill, and isotretinoin (high-dose prescription vitamin A). Isotretinoin is used only in certain severe, cystic acne cases, or in cases where other treatments don't work. A course of isotretinoin treatment requires regular appointments with your dermatologist.
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Antibiotics. These work by killing excess skin bacteria and reducing redness. For the first few months of treatment, you may use both a retinoid and an antibiotic, with the antibiotic applied in the morning and the retinoid in the evening. The antibiotics are often combined with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistance. Examples include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac, Acanya) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin). Topical antibiotics alone aren't recommended.
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