Common Medications and Treatments for Acne

Acne treatment varies depending on whether the acne is mild, moderate, or severe. Some treatments are used only for certain types of acne and others are used for more than one type. In many cases, a combination of treatments is needed to clear up acne or pimples.

Listed below in this acne patient education guide are general self-care rules to help treat acne. These apply to acne of any severity. Medications and minor surgical procedures used to treat acne are described in the tables farther down.

General Rules for Acne Treatment

  • Never pop, squeeze, or pick acne.
  • Don’t use harsh soaps, scrubs, toner, astringent, or masks. These irritate the skin and make breakouts more likely.
  • Gently wash the affected skin with warm water and a mild soap twice a day to remove dead skin cells and excess oil. Washing more than twice a day can cause irritation and dryness.
  • Don’t wash with washcloths or puffs because they can be too abrasive.
  • Gently wash skin after sweating.
  • Apply acne medication 5-15 minutes after washing.
  • Use oil-free skin care and hair care products that won’t block pores.
  • Apply acne medication before make-up so that the make-up doesn’t block absorption of the medication.
  • Limit sun exposure by covering skin when possible and generously applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF of 30 or more to exposed skin. Many acne medications make skin more prone to sunburn.
  • Use your acne medication exactly as prescribed by the doctor and stop using acne medications not prescribed by the doctor.
  • Keep taking the medication as directed even when skin clears.
  • Give acne medication 6-8 weeks to clear your skin.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions about treatment and speak up if something doesn’t seem to be working.

 

Drug Category

How it works

Non-Prescription Medications
Benzoyl peroxide
  • A topical, over-the-counter medication often used for mild acne
  • May also be included in treatment regimens for moderate or moderately severe acne
  • Works by reducing the bacteria that contributes to acne and removing dead cells from the skin
Salicylic acid
  • Topical, over-the-counter medication often used for mild acne
  • May also be included in treatment regimens for moderate or moderately severe acne
  • Works by helping correct the abnormal shedding of skin cells and unclogging pores to clear and prevent lesions
Resorcinol
  • An ingredient in some topical acne medications
  • Works by controlling small acne lesions and is frequently combined with sulfur in over-the-counter medications
Sulfur
  • An ingredient in many topical acne medications
  • Used in acne treatment for many years but the way that it works is not known
Prescription Medications
Topical antimicrobials
  • Prescription medications applied to the skin
  • Used for mild, moderate, or moderately severe acne
  • Work by reducing the bacteria that contribute to acne, which, in turn, decreases inflammation
Topical retinoids
  • Prescription medications applied to the skin
  • Used for mild, moderate, or moderately severe acne
  • Work by unclogging pores and preventing whiteheads and blackheads from forming
Oral antibiotics
  • Antibiotic medications taken in pill form to treat moderate or moderately severe acne
  • Work by reducing the bacteria that contribute to acne, which, in turn, decreases inflammation
Oral contraceptives
  • Birth control pills often used to treat women with moderate, moderately severe, or severe acne
  • By reducing the hormone levels that contribute to acne, which, in turn, reduces the amount of oil produced by the skin glands
Isotretinoin
  • A synthetic form of vitamin A taken in pill form
  • Used to treat severe cystic acne and acne that has not cleared up with other medications
  • A very effective acne medication but cannot be taken by pregnant women or women intending to become pregnant because it can cause severe birth defects in a developing fetus
Spironolactone
  • A synthetic steroid sometimes used in combination with oral contraceptives to treat acne in adult women
  • Works by reducing production of the hormone androgen

 

Procedure

How it works

Comedo extraction
  • A dermatologist or other medical professional removes whiteheads and blackheads using a sterile pen-sized device
Drainage and extraction
  • Sometimes performed on large cysts that have not responded to medication
  • Involves draining and/or removing cysts
  • Reduces pain associated with large cysts and decreases the likelihood of scarring
Interlesional corticosteroid injection
  • Used for severe acne with severely inflamed cysts
  • Injection of a diluted corticosteroid solution into severely inflamed cysts
  • Used to reduce the inflammation, promote healing, and prevent scarring
Phototherapy (laser and light therapy)
  • Less commonly used to treat acne
  • Most work by killing the bacteria that contribute to acne
  • Also used for treatment of acne scars