Acne treatments work by reducing oil production, speeding up skin cell turnover, fighting bacterial infection, reducing the inflammation or doing all four. With most prescription acne treatments, you may not see results for four to eight weeks, and your skin may get worse before it gets better.
Your doctor or dermatologist may recommend a prescription medication you apply to your skin (topical medication) or take by mouth (oral medication). Oral prescription medications for acne should not be used during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester.
Types of acne treatments include:
- Topical treatments. Acne lotions may dry up the oil, kill bacteria and promote sloughing of dead skin cells. Over-the-counter lotions are generally mild and contain benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol, salicylic acid or lactic acid as their active ingredient. These products can be helpful for very mild acne. If your acne doesn't respond to these treatments, you may want to see a doctor or dermatologist to get a stronger prescription lotion. Tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, Renova) and adapalene (Differin) are examples of topical prescription products derived from vitamin A. They work by promoting cell turnover and preventing plugging of the hair follicles. A number of topical antibiotics also are available. They work by killing excess skin bacteria. Often, a combination of such products is required to achieve optimal results.
- Antibiotics. For moderate to severe acne, prescription oral antibiotics may be needed to reduce bacteria and fight inflammation. You may need to take these antibiotics for months, and you may need to use them in combination with topical products.
- Isotretinoin. For deep cysts, antibiotics may not be enough. Isotretinoin (Accutane) is a powerful medication available for scarring cystic acne or acne that doesn't respond to other treatments. This medicine is reserved for the most severe forms of acne. It's very effective, but people who take it need close monitoring by a dermatologist because of the possibility of severe side effects. Isotretinoin is associated with severe birth defects, so it can't be taken by pregnant women or women who may become pregnant during the course of treatment or within several weeks of concluding treatment. In fact, the drug carries such serious potential side effects that women of reproductive age must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved monitoring program to receive a prescription for the drug. In addition, isotretinoin may increase the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood and may increase liver enzyme levels. Although cause and effect hasn't been proved, studies have reported the development of inflammatory bowel disease with isotretinoin use.
- Oral contraceptives. Oral contraceptives, including a combination of norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol (Ortho-Cyclen, Ortho Tri-Cyclen), have been shown to improve acne in women. However, oral contraceptives may cause other side effects that you'll want to discuss with your doctor.
- Laser and light therapy. Laser- and light-based therapies reach the deeper layers of skin without harming the skin's surface. Laser treatment is thought to damage the oil (sebaceous) glands, causing them to produce less oil. Light therapy targets the bacterium that causes acne inflammation. These therapies can also improve skin texture and lessen the appearance of scars, so they may be good treatment choices for people with both active acne and acne scars.
- Cosmetic procedures. Chemical peels and microdermabrasion may be helpful in controlling acne. These cosmetic procedures — which have traditionally been used to lessen the appearance of fine lines, sun damage and minor facial scars — are most effective when used in combination with other acne treatments.