Medicines can help manage the severity and frequency of acne outbreaks. A number of medicines are available. Your treatment will depend on the type of acne you have (pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, or cystic lesions). These medicines improve acne by:
- Unplugging skin pores and stopping them from getting plugged with oil (tretinoin, which is sold as Retin-A).
- Killing bacteria (antibiotics).
- Reducing the amount of skin oil (isotretinoin).
- Reducing the effects of hormones in producing acne (certain oral contraceptive pills for women).
The best medical treatment for acne often is a combination of medicines. These could include medicine that you put on your skin (topical) and medicine that you take by mouth (oral). Or you may take medicines such as clindamycin/benzoyl peroxide, a gel that contains two topical medicines.
Treatment of acne depends on whether inflammation or bacteria are present. Some acne consists only of red bumps on the skin with no open sores (comedonal acne). Topical creams and lotions work best for this type of acne. But if bacteria or inflammation is present with open sores, oral antibiotics or isotretinoin may work better.
The most common types of medicines that doctors use to treat acne include:
- Benzoyl peroxide, such as Brevoxyl or Triaz.
- Salicylic acid, such as Propa pH or Stridex.
- Topical and oral antibiotics, such as clindamycin, doxycycline, erythromycin, and tetracycline.
- Topical retinoid medicines, such as tretinoin (Retin-A), adapalene (Differin), and tazarotene (Tazorac).
- Azelaic acid, such as Azelex, a topical cream.
- Isotretinoin, an oral retinoid.
- Low-dose birth control pills that contain estrogen (such as Estrostep, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, or Yaz), which work well on moderate acne in women and for premenstrual flare-ups.
- Androgen blockers, such as spironolactone. Androgen blockers can be useful in treating acne. These medicines decrease the amount of sebum (oil) made in your pores.
What to think about
If you are pregnant, talk to your doctor about whether you should take antibiotics for acne. Some antibiotics aren't safe to take during pregnancy.
Over time, bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, which means that the antibiotics are no longer effective at killing or controlling the bacteria causing the acne. This is called drug resistance. When this occurs, a different antibiotic may be used.
After acne is under control, you often need ongoing treatment to keep it from returning. This is the maintenance phase of treatment. Your doctor may suggest treatments other than antibiotics for long-term use, to avoid the risk of drug resistance.
Topical medicines usually have fewer and less serious side effects than oral medicines. But topical medicines may not work as well as oral medicines for severe acne.
Isotretinoin (such as Sotret) and tazarotene (Tazorac) can have serious side effects. Women who take isotretinoin or tazarotene need to use an effective birth control method, to avoid having a baby with serious birth defects.