If you have inflamed, painful pimples buried deep under your skin, you’re probably dealing with cystic acne. Certain skin care products can help clear it up, though — including the occasional face mask. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Laurel Naversen Geraghty, the best face masks for cystic acne contain ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, azelaic acid, tea tree oil, retinoids, and clay.
Since many of the ingredients found in products that are intended to treat acne have the potential to cause redness, irritation, and dryness — particularly when left on for too long — Dr. Geraghty suggests using masks weekly, or even just every other week. That said, she notes that “How often we use one may depend on our overall goals and our level of skin sensitivity," such as whether you’re trying to quell a current flareup, give skin a boost of hydration to counteract the drying effects of other acne medicines, or resurface your skin once your blemishes have healed.
Dr. Geraghty says that masks play a minor role in the treatment of acne, since medicated washes, creams, chemical peels, lasers, lights, and oral medicines tend to be more effective, but they are great for generally hydrating, calming, exfoliating, and brightening skin, as well as simply providing pampering and de-stressing benefits. However, if topical products aren’t giving you the results you want, talk to a board-certified dermatologist to find the best treatment plan for your skin.
Read on to shop the best treatments for cystic acne, including two recommendations from Dr. Geraghty.
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1. Doctor’s Pick: Best Purifying Mask For Cystic Acne
Dr. Geraghty is a "huge fan" of the fragrance-free Cetaphil PRO Dermacontrol Purifying Clay Mask, which she says can help calm blemishes without causing irritation. In here, clay offers purifying benefits, while glycerin, shea butter, and avocado oil help moisturize and soften your skin. Unlike many clay masks that tend to dry out on your face, this one stays creamy until you rinse it off, so your skin won’t feel tight afterwards, which is another reason the expert says this is a good choice for even sensitive skin types.
2. Doctor’s Pick: Best Soothing Mask For Cystic Acne
"By helping to restore the skin barrier and reduce irritation, a soothing, hydrating mask can help us tolerate our acne medicines better — and that means better, faster results," says Dr. Geraghty. "When my face feels dry, irritated, red or inflamed, I like a mask like Eau Thermale Avène Antirougeurs CALM Soothing Repair Mask. It leaves my skin feeling soft, hydrated and restored."
3. Best Sulfur Mask
AcneFree’s Sulfur Mask is made with doctor-approved ingredients, like sulfur and bentonite clay, to help control oil production and quell breakouts. This affordable mask also has a unique technology that turns the product from white to blue to show once it’s been fully absorbed by your skin.
If you have skin that’s on the oily side, this will likely be a great fit, but since it does really soak up oil, be aware that it may be too drying for people with drier skin. Or, do what some shoppers on Amazon suggest and apply it as a spot treatment instead of all over your face.
4. Best Tea Tree Mask
Community-trade tea tree oil from Kenya, along with clay, are the main ingredients in this mask from The Body Shop. Tea tree has lots of purported benefits for acne-prone skin, since it has natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, while clay helps further clean out clogged pores.
One Amazon shopper wrote this particularly illuminating review: "Pliable and smooth. Minty and refreshing, my cystic pimples and other zits wilt right after this mask. My face is smoother, my pores clearer, and I can use it either for the whole face or [as a] spot treatment without damaging my face. It’s effective but not stinky like a sulfur mask, and it is not so strong that it stings my face or leaves my face peeling. Great for any weather but feels so good in the summer!"
5. Best BHA & AHA Mask
There are a lot of pore-unclogging, skin-resurfacing ingredients in Follain’s Dual Detox Mask, including three types of clay to purify congested skin, exfoliating AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid, and the BHA salicylic acid, which is one of the most popular ingredients recommended by dermatologists to help treat acne. And it doesn’t end there: There are also plenty of vitamin- and antioxidant-rich botanicals in here, like papaya, mango, and ginger root, to give your skin an overall brightening boost.
Dr. Laurel Naversen Geraghty, board-certified dermatologist based in Oregon.
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