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.

Originally Published: March 08, 2022

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sam wood is GoodGlow's Chief Editor
Analyzed by Sam Wood

Hi, I’m Sam Wood, the chief editor, lead acne expert, and health coach at GoodGlow, as well as a best-selling author for one of the top acne books on Amazon. I struggled with acne for over 10 years, and began studying the effects of diet on skin quality while pursuing a degree in Nutrition Sciences at the University of Missouri. After shifting from mainstream skincare trends to in-depth research in medical journals, I experienced significant personal success in managing my acne. This inspired me to start GoodGlow, where I simplify complex scientific findings into easy-to-understand advice. With over 10 years in the field, I’ve helped more than 2,500 people achieve clearer skin through natural, holistic methods, and I’m dedicated to personally assisting those seeking guidance on their acne journey.

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