Acne | Treatment


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How can acne be treated?

Many treatments are available for acne, including over-the-counter and prescription medicines.

What over-the-counter treatments are there?

Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are the most common and most effective over-the-counter medicines for acne. These medicines kill bacteria, dry up skin oil, and make your skin peel off. They are available in many forms, such as gels, lotions, creams, soaps, or pads. Keep in mind that it can take up to 8 weeks before you notice an improvement in the appearance of your skin. If an over-the-counter acne product doesn't seem to help after 2 months, talk to your doctor.

In some people, over-the-counter acne medications may cause side effects such as skin irritation, burning, or redness. Tell your doctor if you have side effects that are severe or that don't go away over time.

What about prescription medicines?

If over-the-counter medicines are not effective, your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medicines:

  • A retinoid cream or gel: Retinoids, such as tretinoin and adapalene, are usually applied to the skin once a day. Be sure not to get them near your eyes, mouth, and the area under your nose. If you use a retinoid, you must avoid the sun or use a strong sunscreen because this medicine increases your risk of sunburn. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not use a retinoid called tazarotene because it can cause birth defects.
  • Antibiotics: If your acne is severe, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to treat it. Antibiotics such as minocycline, doxycycline, and tetracycline reduce bacteria and inflammation, and can be used in combination with other treatments for acne, such as benzoyl peroxide. Antibiotics can be taken by mouth or used on the skin as a lotion, cream, or gel. Erythromycin and clindamycin are 2 antibiotics used in topical lotions and gels for acne.
  • Isotretinoin: Isotretinoin is a strong medicine used to treat very bad acne. This medicine can cause serious side effects. You will need to carefully follow your doctor’s instructions for taking the medicine, and your doctor will monitor you closely. Learn more about isotretinoin.
  • Birth control pills: Birth control pills can help treat acne in women. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of taking birth control pills for acne.

Are there other treatments?

In addition to or in combination with medicines, cosmetic procedures such as peels, skin abrasion (dermabrasion or microderm abrasion), and laser or light treatments may help treat acne. These treatments may also help reduce acne scars. Individual large acne cysts often respond dramatically to small injections of steroid medication by your family doctor or a dermatologist.

Lifestyle changes such as healthy diet and regular exercise may also help treat or prevent acne.

Written by editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 03/14
Created: 01/96

Learn More About Acne Treatment