Acne Home > Acne Medications

Medications are used to address several problems that play a role in causing acne. Doctors usually recommend topical (placed directly on the skin) drugs for people with mild signs of acne. Patients with moderate to severe inflammatory acne may be treated with prescription topical or oral medications, alone or in combination. The dermatologist may prescribe Accutane if other medications for acne have not successfully treated the condition.

Acne Medications: An Overview

Certain medications are used to address several problems that are possible causes of acne, such as:
  • Abnormal clumping of cells in the follicles
  • Increased oil production
  • Bacteria
  • Inflammation.
Depending on the extent of the person's acne, the doctor will recommend one of several over-the-counter (OTC) medications or prescription medicines. Prescription medications for acne may be topical (applied to the skin) or systemic (taken by mouth). The doctor may suggest using multiple topical medications or combining oral and topical medications.

OTC Topical Medications

Doctors usually recommend an OTC or prescription topical acne medication for people with mild signs of acne. Topical medications are applied directly to the acne lesions or to the entire area of affected skin.
Common topical OTC medications for acne include:
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Resorcinol
  • Salicylic acid
  • Sulfur.
Each of these drugs works a little differently. Benzoyl peroxide is best at killing Propionibacterium acnes bacteria and may also reduce oil production. Resorcinol, salicylic acid, and sulfur help break down blackheads and whiteheads (see Types of Acne). Salicylic acid also helps cut down the shedding of cells lining the follicles of the oil glands. Topical OTC acne medicines are available in many forms, such as:
  • Gels
  • Lotions
  • Creams
  • Soaps
  • Pads.
In some patients, OTC medications for acne may cause side effects such as skin irritation, burning, or redness. Some people find that the side effects lessen or go away with continued use of the medicine. Severe or prolonged side effects should be reported to the doctor.
OTC topical medications are somewhat effective in treating acne when used regularly. Patients must keep in mind that it can take eight weeks or more before they notice their skin looks and feels better.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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