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If your fight against acne has just begun, you should know what your options are and when to talk to a dermatologist for more help.

You could start with benzoyl peroxide.

"It works beautifully," says Latanya Benjamin, MD, a dermatologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University. Benzoyl peroxide "works against the bacterial component of acne and against clogging of the pores."

Available in washes, creams, gels, and other forms, benzoyl peroxide comes in several strengths. Try a mild type first. It may work perfectly well and cause less irritation than a stronger concentration.

Salicylic acid also comes in many forms and is available without a doctor's prescription. It helps to unblock pores and break down both whiteheads and blackheads.

How long will these medications take to work?

"It usually takes 4- 8 weeks to notice a substantial improvement," says Julie Danna, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Ochsner Health Center in Metairie, La.

Next Step

If your acne has not improved after a couple of months on nonprescription products, it's time to talk to a doctor.

Make an appointment with your family doctor or a dermatologist. Both can prescribe a stronger treatment based on the type of acne you have. For examples:

  • Retinoids help to unclog pores and help prevent both whiteheads and blackheads.
  • Antibiotics fight p. acnes, an acne-causing bacteria. Your doctor may prescribe pills or medicine you put on your skin.
  • Prescription-strength benzoyl peroxide.

Sometimes using two medicines at once clears up your skin. Some treatments are combined into a once-a-day treatment.

For More Severe or Stubborn Acne

If your breakouts leave scars, you need to see a dermatologist, Benjamin says.

Creams, gels, and washes alone may not work well, but antibiotic pills may help. Some girls may also benefit from some types of birth control pills, because they can help control the hormone that may trigger acne. Hormone blockers like spironolactone are also very effective.

By far, the best treatment for acne is isotretinoin. Danna says it is "the closest thing we have to a cure for acne." A pill taken once or twice a day for about 6 months, isotretinoin shrinks your oil glands. That means less oily skin, fewer clogged pores, and less bacteria.

Isotretinoin is only for severe acne or breakouts that don't clear up with other medications. That's because of the side effects. For example, isotretinoin can put you at risk of depression. It can also cause birth defects if taken when pregnant.

Many other less-serious side effects may also happen when you take isotretinoin. Pay close attention to any warnings your doctor gives you when taking this medication.

5 Tips to Help Yourself

  1. Be patient. "Treatment may be a slow process, but it has nice results," Benjamin says.
  2. Follow instructions. Your skin won't clear more quickly if you slather on more medication than you should. Doing so will irritate your skin and leave you worse off than before.
  3. Stick to your treatment plan. To see positive changes, use your medications on a regular schedule. "If you need a reminder, put your medication next to your toothbrush so that you see it," Danna says.
  4. Use non-oily skin care products. "When you buy makeup, sunscreen, moisturizers, or other skin products, make sure the label says it's noncomedogenic," Benjamin says. Such products won't clog your pores.
  5. Go easy on your skin. If you wash your face several times a day, stop. Twice should be enough. "Washing 4, 5, or 6 times a day encourages oil production and can make acne worse," Danna says. Of course, you should not pick or pop your pimples. That can make your acne worse and may cause scarring.