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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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“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”
Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”
Do a Google search for "how to get rid of acne fast" and you'll see plenty of websites telling you to eat better for clear skin. But are there really foods that cause acne, or is that an old wives' tale? Dermatologist Hilary Baldwin, MD, of the Acne Treatment and Research Centre in Morristown, New Jersey, says the answer isn't really simple at all. "The simple answer is, we don't know. So far studies have suggested that high-glycemic index diets (those with lots of white foods like potatoes, pasta, bread, rice and sweets), as well as diets high in skim-milk dairy products and whey protein supplements might be associated with worsening of existing acne but are less likely to cause acne," Baldwin says.
Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
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Warning: Sulfur smells like rotten eggs. But it is an effective ingredient at drying up pus-filled pimples and whiteheads (you’ve gotta take the good with the bad). It works by sucking up the oil. Sulfur is typically mixed with other active ingredients to get the most efficacy and fragrances to mask the strong scent. You can often find it in masks and spot treatments.
Alternative and integrative medicine approaches used in the treatment of acne include fish oil, brewer's yeast, probiotics, oral zinc and topical tea tree oil. More research is needed to establish the potential effectiveness and long-term safety of these and other integrative approaches, such as biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of specific treatments before you try them.
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