Cannabidiol (CBD) has surged in popularity in recent years. Millions of people are using CBD oil and other CBD products to help with a wide range of other health issues, including skin disorders such as eczema and acne.
Early research suggests that CBD may help with acne by reducing inflammation and sebum production, and possibly other effects.
As such, CBD may be able to help with cystic acne as well — the most severe form of this common condition. Here’s how CBD can help with cystic acne and the best way to use it.
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What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is a natural cannabinoid compound found in the cannabis plant. Unlike its close cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is non-intoxicating so it won’t get you high.
CBD has a long list of potential health benefits backed by a growing volume of scientific research.
Most CBD products are derived from hemp, a variety of cannabis with very low (<0.3%) THC levels. CBD oil is the most popular form of CBD, but there are many other products, including capsules, edibles, vape juice, and topicals.
What is Cystic Acne?
Cystic acne is the most severe form of acne vulgaris — the condition that causes pus-filled pimples to form on the skin. It usually affects people with oily skin, teens, and adults (mostly women) with hormonal imbalances.
The key things that separate cystic acne from regular acne are its larger size, the fact that it forms deeper in the skin, and is usually painful or tender to the touch.
Health experts aren’t exactly sure what causes cystic acne, but factors like elevated androgen (male sex hormone) levels, oily skin, and stress seem to play a role.
Cystic acne usually develops on the face, but like regular acne, can also affect the chest, back, and other parts of the body.
How Can CBD Help With Cystic Acne?
Early research indicates that CBD can help fight some of the root causes of acne, namely:
- Overproduction of sebum, the oily substance produced by skin cells called sebocytes
- Increase in sebocyte proliferation (number of cells)
- Overgrowth of Cutibacterium acnes and other common skin bacteria that may contribute to acne (1)
This was demonstrated by a 2014 study where researchers applied CBD to human sebocytes, the skin cells that produce sebum.
The treatment reduced inflammation, resulting in lowered production of sebum and new sebocyte cells (2). The researchers concluded that “CBD has potential as a promising therapeutic agent for the treatment of acne vulgaris.”
CBD and Acne: The Research Evidence
So far, only a few human studies have been done to see whether CBD can help with acne.
One 2019 Italian study tested the effects of a CBD-infused gel on people with various skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and resulting scars. The study participants used the gel for 90 days.
The gel improved several markers of skin health, such as elasticity and hydration. It also reduced the appearance of acne scars (4). The researchers theorized that CBD helped by:
- Reducing elevated lipogenesis (the production of lipids that form sebum) caused by “pro-acne” agents
- Reducing sebocyte cell proliferation
- Preventing “pro-acne” agents from stimulating pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines
How to Use CBD for Cystic Acne
Here are some key tips to get the best results from using CBD for cystic acne.
Choose Topicals over Other CBD Products
You should use a topical CBD product for acne instead of CBD oil, capsules, or something else.
Although CBD oil is the most popular and commonly used form, you can also apply CBD to your skin in the form of a topical product. This includes creams, lotions, salves, and balms, which are the ideal option for cystic acne and other skin conditions.
Aside from CBD, these products can contain topical ingredients you might’ve already heard of, like beeswax, cocoa butter, coconut oil, tea tree oil, and many other plant-based oils, green tea, aloe vera, and much more. Many of these natural compounds may also have anti-acne properties (5).
Look for Full-Spectrum CBD Whenever Possible
Full-spectrum CBD is a type of extract that contains all of the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the hemp plant. It can also contain other beneficial hemp compounds, such as flavonoids, fatty acids, and minerals.
Full-spectrum is the most effective form of CBD thanks to what scientists call the “entourage effect” — the synergistic relationship between all of the active compounds in cannabis (6).
This means you’ll benefit not only from CBD’s synergy with these other compounds but also from their individual effects.
For example, one 2016 research study demonstrated that the minor cannabinoids CBC, CBDV, and THCV — which are present in full-spectrum CBD extracts — reduced the production of sebum in sebocyte cells, suggesting that they “show promise to become highly efficient, novel anti-acne agents” (7).
How much CBD you should take is one of the most common questions we encounter. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to suggest or prescribe a single CBD dosage for cystic acne or any other condition that will work for everyone.
The optimal CBD dosage depends on many factors, such as the severity of your symptoms and the type of product you’re using.
The best advice we can give you is to look for a topical product that contains at least 4 mg of CBD per ml. This will ensure that you’re getting enough CBD to produce the desired effect.
Choose High-Quality, Third-Party Tested CBD Brands
The CBD industry is notorious for its lack of regulation. That’s why it’s important to do some research before settling on a brand you can trust.
We highly recommend only buying from CBD companies that use third-party testing. Performed by an independent lab, third-party tests verify that a CBD product contains as much CBD as it should.
These tests can also check for the presence of pesticides and other potentially harmful substances. You should be able to easily view the results of these tests on the company’s website before making a purchase. The lack of third-party testing is a huge red flag.
Aside from that, it also helps to choose transparent companies that clearly state how their CBD is sourced. You want to look for brands that use organic American hemp cultivated in states such as Colorado, Kentucky, and Oregon. Hemp grown in Europe is also of high quality.
Can You Apply CBD Oil to Cystic Acne?
Yes, you can apply regular CBD oil directly to cystic acne on your skin, and there’s a good chance you’ll see some improvements. And if you’ve already purchased a CBD oil tincture for other benefits, that’s a great way to check whether CBD will help your cystic acne or not.
Having said that, CBD oil is designed to be put under the tongue — what’s called sublingual absorption.
That’s why we recommend using dedicated, CBD-infused topical products instead. As an added benefit, you’ll also be getting many other beneficial topical compounds that might help with cystic acne, such as tea tree oil.
CBD and Cystic Acne: Worth a Try
Although CBD seems to be remarkably effective for many people, especially for common issues such as anxiety, insomnia, and pain, it’s not a magical pill. The point being, not everyone with cystic or regular acne will see positive results from CBD for one reason or another.
Having said that, it’s certainly worth a try, especially if you’ve tried other products and either found them ineffective or undesirable due to significant side effects (hello Accutane).
We’ve put together a list of the best CBD topicals for acne if you’re interested in trying out effective and reliable products.
- Bhatia, Ajay, Jean-Francoise Maisonneuve, and David H. Persing. “Propionibacterium acnes and chronic diseases.” The Infectious Etiology of Chronic Diseases: Defining the Relationship, Enhancing the Research, and Mitigating the Effects: Workshop Summary., Knobler, SL et al.(eds.). 2004.
- Oláh, Attila, et al. “Cannabidiol exerts sebostatic and antiinflammatory effects on human sebocytes.” The Journal of clinical investigation 124.9 (2014): 3713-3724.
- Blaskovich, Mark AT, et al. “The antimicrobial potential of cannabidiol.” Communications Biology 4.1 (2021): 1-18.
- Palmieri, B., C. Laurino, and M. Vadalà. “A therapeutic effect of cbd-enriched ointment in inflammatory skin diseases and cutaneous scars.” Clin Ter 170.2 (2019): e93-e99.
- Fox, Lizelle, et al. “Treatment modalities for acne.” Molecules 21.8 (2016): 1063.
- Russo, Ethan B. “The case for the entourage effect and conventional breeding of clinical cannabis: no “strain,” no gain.” Frontiers in plant science 9 (2019): 1969.
- Oláh, Attila, et al. “Differential effectiveness of selected non‐psychotropic phytocannabinoids on human sebocyte functions implicates their introduction in dry/seborrhoeic skin and acne treatment.” Experimental dermatology 25.9 (2016): 701-707.
Gleb is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada specializing in CBD and cannabis. He’s read thousands of studies on CBD and other supplements, helping him translate complex science into plain language. Gleb has tried and reviewed dozens of CBD brands and products, written third-party testing reports, and knows the CBD industry inside and out. When not writing, he likes to kickbox, travel, and tell everyone how awesome intermittent fasting is.