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Are over-the-counter acne products not cutting it? The good news is that there are highly effective medicines for tougher teen acne cases. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, virtually anyone’s acne, no matter how severe, can be treated.

But the prospect of taking a daily prescription medicine – especially as a teenager -- can raise some concerns for teens and their parents. Will it really work? How long will it be necessary? What are the side effects?

Understanding Teen Acne

Exactly what causes acne? Acne develops when cells and natural oils block tiny hair follicles in the skin. Bacteria work their way into the plugged up follicles and start multiplying. When the body’s immune cells move in to attack the bacteria, the results of the battle are the classic symptoms of acne -- swelling, redness, and pimples.

Acne medications help by interrupting this process in different ways. Some over-the-counter and prescription acne creams help by unplugging the follicles. Others, such as antibiotics, kill the bacteria that move into the follicles. The pill isotretinoin reduces oil production, unplugs the follicles, and targets inflammation and acne-causing bacteria.

There is no best acne treatment. Some people do fine using one acne product, although many need a combination to control their teen acne.

Teen Acne: Topical Medicines

For mild to severe acne, a doctor might recommend prescription treatments that are "topical," which means they go on your skin. These treatments might also be used for more severe acne in combination with other medicines. 

Topical treatments for teenage acne come in different forms, including creams, lotions, gels and pads. Some types include:

Topical antibiotics. These acne medicines can kill some of the bacteria on the skin and reduce redness and inflammation. Examples of antibiotics include clindamycin and erythromycin.

Topical retinoids. Retinoid creams are made from vitamin A. They work by unplugging the follicles, which also allows other medicines like topical antibiotics to work better. Examples include Avita, Differin, Retin-A, and Tazorac.

Other topical medicines. Some of the medicines that you can find over the counter are available in more potent forms by prescription. These include azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, dapsone, and sulfur-based treatments. They help by reducing swelling and blocking the growth of bacteria.