Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/14/2022
The truth is, all acne is annoying. But it’s also true that it’s not all the same. So when it comes to a pimples vs. cyst, what gives?
Pimples, which live on the surface of your skin, are wildly different from cystic acne, which forms deep underneath your skin.
Not only do these types of breakouts look different, they feel different and may require different treatment methods. Interestingly, what causes pimples and cysts is pretty much the same.
Read on to learn more about how to tell the difference between a pimple vs. cyst — and what you can do to swiftly eradicate them and clear up your complexion.
Comedonal acne and cystic acne are two relatively common forms of acne that many women experience. The first encompasses what people refer to as pimples. This type of acne forms on the surface layer of your skin and may appear as red bumps or as whiteheads.
Both types of acne are caused by the same thing. Basically, a combination of sebum and dead skin cells combine to block pores and hair follicles.
Sebum is something naturally produced by your sebaceous glands. It is an oil-like substance that lubricates your skin and hair — which is a good thing.
Another benefit sebum provides: It can create a barrier and protect your skin from harmful bacteria and other environmental factors.
However, a variety of things can cause your body to produce too much sebum and that can lead to the blockage we mentioned above.
Wondering what can boost sebum production? The hormone imbalances you experience during your period can do it, as can genetics.
Finally, bad habits (like overwashing your face) can factor into excessive sebum production.
Along with sebum, dead skin cells are a big part of acne.
These dead skin cells can mix with sebum to block pores, causing either a deep cyst or surface level pimples.
From topical treatments to medication, there are a variety of ways to treat pimples. You can also deal with acne by adjusting some of your lifestyle habits.
To get a customized plan of attack, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional. They will be able to assess your pimples, learn about how you take care of your skin and make specific recommendations.
Until then, read up on some of the things a healthcare provider may suggest, such as the following:
Often called spot treatments, topical creams are a very popular way to address pimples and blemishes — and they’re easy to use, too. You just dab a little cream, lotion or gel on top of your zit and it penetrates the skin to clear up the infection.
But that’s not all. Salicylic acid can help reduce the swelling that makes pimples look rounded and red.
Retinoids also boost the rate your skin cells regenerate — much like an exfoliant.
These topical cream ingredients may also be combined into one product. For example, Hers has a prescription acne cream that contains acne-fighting clindamycin, tretinoin and azelaic acid to reduce blemishes and deal with bacteria.
Isotretinoin and birth control pills are both often prescribed to treat acne.
Yes, you read that right — birth control pills. The FDA has actually given the thumbs up to a few oral contraceptives for the use of treating acne. These work by lowering levels of hormones (think testosterone) that can cause pimples, and they may also reduce sebum production.
Isotretinoin works in a similar manner, reducing sebum while also preventing dead skin cells from building up to clog pores.
Sometimes, oral antibiotics are also given to stop bacteria from growing.
Another thing to look for when purchasing acne products is something labeled “non-comedogenic.” This means it will not clog pores. Hers offers a facial cleanser that follows all of these guidelines.
Beyond your beauty regimen, you should also avoid touching your skin. If you do, you risk transferring bacteria from your fingertips to your face.
Cystic acne can be a little tougher to treat — which is yet another difference between a cyst and pimple. Products purchased over-the-counter tend not to be the most effective in treating cystic acne.
In some instances, topicals with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid have been found helpful in treating cystic acne.
Another over-the-counter product that could help heal a cyst is tea tree oil. It has been found to reduce swelling around painful acne.
If over-the-counter products don’t work for you, don’t fret — there are other cystic acne treatment options out there.
We mentioned tretinoin and clindamycin above. Both are prescription topicals that can penetrate deeper into skin. One thing to be aware of is that these topicals may have side effects, including itching, dryness and burning. If these side effects occur, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional.
Like with pimples, you may also be prescribed birth control pills or isotretinoin. Oral antibiotics can also help clear up deep infections like cysts.
While this won’t get rid of an acne cyst, applying ice can reduce swelling and make it less painful. Just wrap an ice cube in a paper towel and apply it over the cyst for five minutes or so. Be careful not to hold the cube to your skin too long, so as not to freeze it.
Oh, and never try to pop cystic acne. You can spread the infection and make it even worse.
If you really want a cyst gone fast, a healthcare provider can drain a cyst or inject it with a corticosteroid to lower inflammation and ease pain.
Cystic acne is often painful. It forms underneath the skin’s surface and can be more difficult to treat. Pimples, on the other hand, live on the skin’s surface and often show up as red bumps.
Both types of acne are formed when a mix of sebum and dead skin cells combine to block pores.
Your treatment options for both cysts and pimples are similar. You can try a topical solution or move on to oral medication if the topical doesn’t work.
The best way to determine what type of acne you have and how to treat it is to consult with a healthcare provider.