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Acne Treatment

Medications and Procedures For Acne Treatment


Updated November 05, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Acne is a common skin disorder that affects almost 80% of teens and young adults up to age 30, but it can start at any age. Acne is caused by the interaction of 4 different factors:

  • The production of sebum by the sebaceous gland
  • The presence of the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes inside the pore
  • The corneocytes, or skin cells, become more "sticky" and build up in the pore
  • The release of chemicals in the pore that cause inflammation
Acne treatment is aimed at reversing one or more of those factors. Sometimes it takes a combination of acne treatments to reverse more severe acne. There are many different options for treating acne, but you can get the full range of options if you see your healthcare provider.

Acne Treatment with OTC Medications

Over-the-counter medications can be used to treat mild acne, and, in combination with other medications or procedures, can also be used to treat moderate to severe acne. Some of the main OTC medications used as acne treatments include:
  • Benzoyl peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide works by killing the P. acnes bacteria in the pores.
  • Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid works by making the sides of the pores "slicker" so skin cells don't get stuck and build up in the pore.
  • Sulfur: Sulfur is another OTC medication that's used in acne treatment, but because it smells bad it's often combined with other medications.

Acne Treatment with Prescription Medications

There are many different prescription medications used for treating mild to severe acne.
  • Oral Antibiotics: Oral antibiotics have been the mainstay of acne treatment for years.
  • Retinoids: The most popular retinoid is Retin-A, but there are other, similar medications that may have fewer side effects.
  • Topical Antibiotics: Topical antibiotics are a common acne treatment, but P. acnes may become resistant to a topical antibiotic if it is used too long.
  • Accutane: Accutane is similar to Vitamin A and is a very effective acne treatment, but it also has some serious side effects.
  • Oral Contraceptives: Oral contraceptives can be an effective acne treatment for some women, but not all women can take them.

Acne Treatment with Procedures

Dermatologists sometimes use procedures to treat acne. In some cases a procedure alone will work, but often procedures are used in combination with medication to get the best results. It's very important to note that these procedures must be performed by someone qualified to do them. Don't try to do something similar at home thinking it might help. It will likely make the situation much worse. Some more common acne treatment procedures include:
  • Comedone Extraction: A special instrument called a comedone extractor can be used on blackheads and whiteheads (also known as comedones) to clean out each pore.
  • Interlesional Corticosteroid Injection: If an acne cyst becomes severely inflamed, a dermatologist may inject a very diluted corticosteroid into the cyst to reduce the inflammation. This is not the same as applying a topical steroid to the skin.
  • Chemical Peels: Mild chemical peels may be used to loosen blackheads and treat mild acne.
  • Laser and Light Therapy: Recently, several different types of laser and light treatments have been shown to be effective at treating acne, but they are more effective when used on the right patient and as a part of a comprehensive acne treatment plan that usually includes medication.


Shamban, AT, and VA Narurkar. “Multimodal treatment of acne, acne scars and pigmentation.” Dermatologic Clinics. 27(2009): 459-71, vi.

Strauss, JS et al. “Guidelines of care for acne vulgaris management.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 56(2007): 651-63.

Thiboutot, D et al. “New insights into the management of acne: an update from the Global Alliance to Improve Outcomes in Acne group.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 60(2009): S1-50.

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