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Acne Treatment

People with acne treat their skin condition with topical creams and ointments, prescription medications and alternative therapies. Many combine different treatments to amplify their effects and reduce the risk of skin scarring.

Last Modified: September 5, 2023
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Acne Treatment Types

You can treat acne in several ways, and it may take a trial-and-error approach to learn which treatment type works the best for you. The most prevalent and effective treatments for acne are topical medications, oral medications and a small group of specific therapies.

Many people use multiple treatments at the same time to clear up their skin without leaving scars.

Topical Acne Medications

Topical gels, cleansers and creams are some of the most popular forms of acne treatment. You can apply these products directly to affected areas, allowing them to work quickly with few side effects. You can buy some over-the-counter topical treatments, but others are only available with a prescription.

Topical acne medications rely on a variety of effective ingredients, including:
  • Retinoids: Retinoids loosen the hair follicles on your skin and prevent them from becoming clogged. They are available in lotion or gel form, and you can buy them over the counter or with a prescription.
  • Antibiotic ointments: Topical antibiotics may help to reduce the number of acne-causing bacteria on your skin. They are often used with retinoids to achieve greater effects.
  • Azelaic acid: Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring antibacterial acid derived from grains such as wheat and barley. It is available in creams, serums and cleansers, and you can apply it twice a day as needed.
  • Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is used to loosen the top layer of cells on your skin and prevent dirt and oils from clogging your pores. Use it sparingly to avoid irritating your skin.
  • Aczone: Aczone is an acne medication made with dapsone, a chemical compound with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. Doctors must prescribe it.

Not all topical treatments work for everyone. If the one you use doesn’t produce results, try a different one.

Oral Acne Medications

If your acne doesn’t clear up with topical treatments, certain oral medications might help.

Among the variety of oral acne medications are:
  • Antibiotics: Doctors sometimes prescribe oral antibiotics to treat acne. However, relying on these medications too much may cause antibiotic resistance, so some people only take them for a short time.
  • Oral contraceptives: Oral birth control pills that include progestin and estrogen can help women who want help with their acne. But the condition might take several months to respond to the contraceptive, so people often combine this with another treatment to promote healing.
  • Isotretinoin: Isotretinoin (also known as Accutane) treats severe acne that doesn’t respond to other medications and treatment. Because Accutane has several serious side effects, people who take it must participate in a risk-management program that includes regular health screenings.
  • Anti-androgen agents: Medications that block androgen hormones in your body from taking effect reduce the amount of oil your skin produces. Doctors usually prescribe them for women and girls whose acne does not respond to antibiotics.

You can only get oral acne medications through a prescription. If any of them interest you, contact your doctor or dermatologist.

Acne Therapies

Topical and oral medications are the two most popular treatments, but other acne therapies can also reduce the severity of breakouts. Among them are:

  • Light-based therapies: Research shows that lasers and light therapies reduce the severity of acne, though doctors usually use them with other treatments. They’re available at dermatologists' offices or through at-home devices.
  • Chemical peels: Chemical peels damage the top layer of your skin and cause that layer to peel away. These treatments may produce temporary improvements for mild cases of acne, but they typically don’t control the condition.
  • Steroid injections: Dermatologists sometimes treat deep acne nodules and cysts with steroid injections. Although shots are effective, they can cause skin discoloration and skin thinning.

At-Home Acne Treatments

In addition to the standard treatments, someone with acne can also investigate many simple natural acne remedies for home use. These work best on mild cases and often in combination with another traditional treatment.

At-home acne remedies include:
  • Ice. Applying ice to your acne may help reduce blood flow to the area and soothe inflammation. Wrap the ice in a towel or cloth and hold it against your acne blemishes for only 10 minutes at a time.
  • Honey. Honey is a natural antiseptic that can help kill some of the excess bacteria on your skin and reduce the severity of breakouts. Apply a thin coat of honey to your skin, then rinse it off after a few minutes.
  • Aloe. Aloe vera gel has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and wound-healing properties that make it perfect for helping to clear up mild acne. To use it, apply the gel to the affected areas of your skin and leave it in place for at least 15 to 30 minutes before washing it off.
  • Apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar contains moderately strong natural food acids that may help your skin recover from acne. Mix one part apple cider vinegar with three to four parts of water to create a natural toner that can exfoliate and disinfect your skin.
  • Cooked oatmeal or quinoa. Coarse cooked grains, such as oatmeal and quinoa, serve as natural exfoliants that loosen up clogged pores. Gently massage the grains against your face, then rinse and moisturize as usual.

Be careful when using these remedies. Even though they are completely natural, some may trigger an allergic reaction or irritate your skin.

You can also use over-the-counter treatments to treat your acne at home. These treatments may take up to four to six weeks to take effect, so be patient. If you don’t see results after six weeks from one treatment, you can add another to your skin care routine.

When to See a Doctor for Your Acne

If your acne doesn’t respond to natural remedies or over-the-counter treatments, it’s time to talk to your doctor or dermatologist. They can recommend stronger treatments or suggest other options.

You should also see a doctor if your blemishes hurt or if they appear extra irritated. These are signs that your acne is severe and likely needs professional care. A dermatologist can also help you treat acne scars if they develop.

Preventing Acne

Despite your best efforts — and those of doctors — you can’t always prevent acne. Many popular acne prevention methods are based on old myths not supported by science.

Adopting a sound and consistent skin care routine may help make future breakouts less common and less severe. Wash your face every day with a gentle cleanser and remove all makeup before you go to bed. Moisturize your skin after washing it to keep it from drying out.

When acne appears, apply your preferred treatment immediately to calm the breakout.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.