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Does Hydrocortisone Cream Help Cystic Acne?

Cystic acne can be one of the most difficult forms of acne to treat – not just because it’s often more severe in appearance than your typical whiteheads or blackheads, but because some skincare products only work to exacerbate the problem. Today, I’m going to be talking about a skincare product commonly used to soothe inflammatory skin conditions: hydrocortisone cream. Used on skin conditions such as eczema, this treatment appears to work in soothing the skin and reducing inflammation in the body. So, the question remains: does hydrocortisone cream help cystic acne? 

Cystic acne can be categorized by its large, red, angry pimples: cystic acne is largely caused by an overproduction of sebum and bacteria, leading to clogged pores and large, often painful pimples all over the face. Notoriously difficult to treat with skincare products, cystic acne might benefit from the anti-inflammation properties in hydrocortisone – but can it actually help treat the problem? Let’s take a look. 

What Is Hydrocortisone?

Hydrocortisone is a topical steroid, used typically to treat skin conditions such as eczema and skin inflammation. It can be bought in cream or ointment form, although those looking to treat cystic acne with this product should always opt for hydrocortisone cream over ointment (as ointments can be comedogenic and can clog the pores.)

Can I Use Hydrocortisone For Pimples?

If you’re suffering from cystic acne (which means your pimples are larger than typical whiteheads and tend to be angry, red, and irritated) you should be able to use hydrocortisone to soothe the skin and reduce inflammation. By reducing the inflammation, you’ll help reduce redness and might even be able to shrink the size of your spots.

However, hydrocortisone cream is not an anti-acne remedy on its own: it’s not anti-bacterial, and it’s not capable of controlling your sebum production. Put simply, it can help improve the appearance of acne and soothe the skin, but it won’t get to the root cause of your acne, nor can it help clear up breakouts or prevent new ones. The best way to get the best out of this treatment is to combine it with an antibacterial skincare product and eat a diet that reduces inflammation (more on that further on).

Can I Use Hydrocortisone For Acne Scars? 

Hydrocortisone cream has no known effect on acne scars, although hydrocortisone injections have shown promising results when it comes to preventing acne scarring during treatments. However, if injective therapy is out of your budget range and you’re looking to reduce the appearance of acne scarring, you’d be better off opting for using topical retinol. My colleague Stephanie has talked a lot about the benefits of retinol, and I personally find it to be one of the only over-the-counter skincare products that really shows visible results when it comes to treating old scarring.

I’d also recommend looking into using a combination of both retinol and collagen to provide deep treatment for acne scarring – the combination of these two powerhouse ingredients can really work wonders for even the deepest of acne scars.

How To Use Hydrocortisone for Cystic Acne

If you’re looking to use hydrocortisone cream to soothe and relieve the symptoms of cystic acne, it’s important to apply it correctly. As it’s a topical steroid, you should employ a method of targeted application; this means applying the hydrocortisone cream to the areas affected by the acne, but not all over the face, as this can dry out the skin and provoke unwanted side effects.

To use hydrocortisone cream correctly, take a small amount and apply it once or twice on the same day to any red or inflamed areas of the face. After a few days, you should see an improvement in your skin’s redness and irritation, and you shouldn’t need to reapply or use it again. Heavy use of this cream is discouraged, as it can lead to some undesirable side effects, which I’ll explain further on.

Hydrocortisone Side Effects

While hydrocortisone cream can be an effective way to reduce skin inflammation and get some quick relief from the pains of cystic acne, there are a number of side effects to be aware of before beginning using this product. Some hydrocortisone side effects can include:

  • Worsening of the skin inflammation; redness, skin tightness, and dry skin
  • Hair growth on the face
  • Skin color changes
  • Skin irritation (itchiness, redness, a developing rash)

While it’s important to note that these side effects won’t affect you, and that most people are able to use hydrocortisone cream without any adverse reactions, I’d nonetheless advise you to do a simple patch test on an area of the skin (for example the jawline) to see if your skin has a sensitive reaction. 

Hydrocortisone Alternatives for Acne

If your skin has a negative reaction to hydrocortisone cream, or you simply don’t notice any visible results from using the product, you might find better results from using a skincare product with more potent anti-acne properties, such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Hydrocortisone vs Salicylic Acid For Acne

Salicylic acid has long been a staple in the anti-acne skincare world, most notably due to its potent anti-bacterial properties and potential for unclogging pores. Salicylic acid is a BHA, making it a chemical exfoliant that works to rid the skin of old, dead cells and help create fresh, glowing skin. If you deal frequently with breakouts, you might want to try salicylic acid alongside hydrocortisone for a dual improvement of both irritation and clogged pores.

The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution is gentle enough for sensitive skin while accessible for all budgets: if you’re looking to test out individual skincare ingredients on a budget, I’d always recommend The Ordinary. NOTE: If you’re allergic to aspirin, you should not use salicylic acid. 

Hydrocortisone vs Benzoyl Peroxide For Acne

Benzoyl Peroxide is another key anti-acne ingredient, potent due to its ability to clear and kill bacteria off the skin. Benzoyl Peroxide is more effective at treating acne than hydrocortisone, as it contains active anti-acne properties which remove bacteria from the surface of the skin, preventing breakouts altogether. 

Best Hydrocortisone Products For Acne

If you want to give hydrocortisone a shot at calming cystic acne and soothing the skin, I’d recommend using a gentle product with all-rounder benefits. I really like First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Cream, which is suitable for all skin types and really gives almost instant relief to redness and acne discomfort. It also comes in a handy travel-size tube, so you can pop it on alongside your other skincare products without much 
Don’t forget that skincare products are just one side of the story when it comes to treating cystic acne. While certain ingredients can help minimize breakouts or soothe symptoms, the best method for treating cystic acne is to revolutionize your diet and lifestyle and eliminate any underlying causes behind your breakouts. You can take a look at my eBook, Unmasking Acne, for information dedicated to improving and treating cystic acne.

Need more help? Ask our team!

I’ve helped over 2,500 people clear their acne naturally. If you cannot easily find an answer to your question on the website, please reach out to me by email ([email protected]) or send me a message on Instagram or Twitter. I will reply within 24 hours.

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sam wood is GoodGlow's Chief Editor
Analyzed by Sam Wood
Hi I’m Sam Wood. I’m the chief editor, lead acne expert, and health coach behind GoodGlow. I’m also an author of one of the top selling acne books on Amazon, a husband, father of two, and a pretty good cook! I’m so glad you found GoodGlow and hope the information I have spent the last 10 years cultivating will help you clear your skin and improve your overall health. I began experiencing acne breakotus as a sophomore in high school, but unlike most of my friends, my acne actually got worse as I got into my 20s. I exercised regularly, ate healthy (or so I thought) and spent hundreds of dollars a month on high end skincare products and supplements to help clear my skin. Despite these measures my acne breakouts and scarring only got worse as the years wore on. This greatly wore on my self confidence and mental health. Simple things like taking pictures or going out with a large group made me feel self conscious. So I avoided these situations whenever I could help it. As a last ditch effort I decided to try an extremely restrictive diet recommended by a close friend with an autoimmune disease. After following this diet for about two months my skin started to clear for the first time in over 8 years. The good news is that this restrictive diet is not actually necessary for 99% of people to permanently clear their skin, and over the course of a few months I was able to add back about 90% of my “normal diet”. After clearing my skin I spent the next 4 years self experimenting on myself with different diets, supplements, skincare products to try and find a pattern for what was triggering my acne breakouts. I even tried different meditation, ice baths, and accupuncture to try and isolate the root cause of the breakouts. In the end I realized that an extremely restrictive diet was not necessary for clear skin. The most important thing to do is to avoid inflammatory foods in your diet. Some common examples of this are fried foods, alcohol, sugar, and dairy. Most impoirtantly I stopped reading trendy websites for skincare advice and began reading medical journals authored by dermatologists and nutritionists. Although the information in the articles was great the information was not easily understandable to most readers (including me). I spent hours dissecting individual posts and looking up terms I did not understand. Over the next 6 months I gradually began to understand these journals and started self experiemting some of the research on myself. After experiencing quite a bit of success personally, I started sharing my research on forums and with close friends struggling with acne. When I shared the research it was in easy to understand, plain English. Everyone I talked to loved what I had to say and kept asking more and more questions. So I decided to start a blog so I could just send someone a link when they asked a question instead of rewriting something I had sent 100 times before 😅 While the same directional principles apply to everyone, acne is very personal and should be treated on an individual basis. That’s ultimately why I created GoodGlow. To help everyone reverse engineer the root cause of their acne and clear their skin permanently. To date I’ve helped over 2,500 people clear their skin using a natural, holistic approach. If you are unable to find an answer to your question in any of the articles my team has written please reach out and I will do my best to guide you to the proper information and resources so you can make a thoughtful, informed decision. Read more of Sam's articles.

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