Does Salicylic Acid Help Cystic Acne?

What is Cystic Acne?

Cystic acne (acne vulgaris) presents as deep skin infections that look cyst-like or nodule-like.  Other types of skin lesions such as blackheads and whiteheads may also occur.  This condition affects the face, upper chest and back.  Cystic acne starts with an excessive production of sebum (oil) in the skin.  Dead skin cells and other debris stick to the sebum, causing a complete blockage of the hair follicle. Bacteria become trapped with the oil and dead skin inside the follicle and then multiply rapidly, causing infections, inflammation and abscesses.  These infections don’t rise readily to the surface of the skin, causing slow healing and possible scarring. 

Treatment for Cystic Acne

Treatment for cystic acne usually involves killing the bacteria on the skin’s surface.  Controlling bacteria is not as simple today as it was in the past. Overuse of antibiotics has made bacteria resistant to these drugs. Other types of medications such as Benzoyl Peroxide and glycolic acid are also used to treat cystic acne.  Glycolic acid is not very effective at killing cystic acne bacteria.  Benzoyl peroxide does kill bacteria, but has the side effect of drying out skin, and possibly promoting premature aging.

Salicylic Acid and Cystic Acne

  Salicylic acid is one of the more effective yet gentle treatments for milder cases of cystic acne.  It helps break down blackheads and whiteheads, as well as cuts down on the shedding of cells in the hair follicles and dissolves oil trapped in pores.  Patients may use over-the-counter or prescription strength preparations of salicylic acid depending on how severe their acne is.  Generally, more severe cases of cystic acne need the care of a dermatologist.  In most severe cases, dermatologists use other prescription drugs and treatments, because salicylic acid is not effective.

Salicylic Acid Combined with Other Ingredients

Some treatments for cystic acne combine salicylic acid with other ingredients.  Professionals recommend salicylic acid-based exfoliants for those with cystic acne.  In such preparations, the mildly abrasive ingredients in the exfoliant remove blockage materials so that the salicylic acid can penetrate the pore more effectively and heal the infection.  Salicylic acid with triclosan is another effective combination for treating cystic acne.  This combination is good for people with acne-prone yet sensitive skin. The salicylic acid gently cleans the pores while the triclosan gently yet powerfully kills acne bacteria.


Salicylic acid does help cystic acne.  Whether by itself or combined with other ingredients, it is effective for treating milder cases of cystic acne.  For more severe cases however, other drugs and treatments are necessary.

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