What are the treatment options for acne?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Acne treatments depend on each person's individual case. For mild acne, over-the-counter products like soaps, gels, and creams usually work well. For moderate or severe acne, prescription medications are the next step. Topical medications-medicines that are applied to the skin-usually help either by killing bacteria or by unclogging pores. If those don't work, stronger oral antibiotics can be prescribed. For very severe cases, doctors sometimes inject abscesses with a steroid to shrink them, or may even cut the abscess open to drain any fluids.

Patricia Farris, MD

There are many treatment options for acne. The best regimen includes medications that keep pores open, fight bacteria and reduce oil production. Lotions and cleansers with salicylic or glycolic acid are helpful for keeping pores open. Prescription retinoids like tretinoin, tazarotene and adapalene are highly effective medications designed to stop dead skin cells from clogging the opening of the pore. Benzoyl peroxide, topical and systemic antibiotics are used to fight bacteria that cause acne and to reduce inflammation.

Since sebaceous glands are under androgen control we use medications that block the production and activity of androgen hormones. In female patients, oral contraceptives are used to reduce ovarian hormone production. Oral contraceptives also increase proteins in the blood that bind up circulating androgens rendering them inactive.

For the most severe forms of acne your dermatologist may recommend treatment with the systemic retinoid isotretinoin. This is a powerful and highly effective medication that regulates cell turnover and decreases oil production. Blood work and close follow up are required while on this medication. 

Treatments for acne can include topical or oral antibiotics and creams to remove plugs at the opening of the oil glands. Birth control pills can sometimes improve acne. When washing, you should use a mild soap and avoid scrubbing. Topical benzoyl peroxide can help reduce bacteria, and retinoic acid can help unblock pores. Acne washes and nonprescription preparations may also be helpful. Isotretinoin (Accutane), a prescription medication, can provide long-term remission of severe acne in some people.

Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD

Dermatologists prescribe a four-step process to treat acne: Apply reinoid creams, moisturize, use an antibacterial and exfoliate. In this video, Ellen Marmur, MD, a dermatologist at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, breaks down the process.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.