Acne treatments fall into three categories.
Cleansing and Exfoliating
It’s a myth that people get acne because they don’t wash enough. Gentle washing is important, but too much washing can irritate whiteheads and blackheads, causing them to become more infected and make more pimples.
To wash acne-prone areas, use a mild cleanser, such as Cetaphil, or an acne cleanser, such as Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser, Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash or a cleanser with 5% benzoyl peroxide.
Exfoliating, which removes dead skin cells, is also important for healthy skin. After washing your face with a mild cleanser, exfoliate with a facial scrub one to two times a week. This helps reduce the dirt that clogs pores.
To further avoid clogging pores, use oil-free cosmetics, lotions and sunscreens. For dry skin, use an oil-free lotion, such as Complex 15 Daily Face Cream. To avoid sunburn, choose oil-free products such as Neutrogena Hydroboost. Beware of hair products and gels because they tend to be very oily.
Look for products labeled “noncomedogenic,” meaning they won’t clog pores.
For stubborn acne, these medications may help:
- Benzoyl peroxide – Found in many over-the-counter acne medications, benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria, unplugs oil ducts and helps heal acne scars. Start conservatively, with a 5% gel or lotion once a day, such as after washing your face before going to bed. After one week, increase to twice a day (if you’re not using another medication).
If your acne isn’t better after four to six weeks, try a 10% solution. Some products that contain benzoyl peroxide require a prescription.
- Retin-A – This is available with a doctor’s prescription and in over-the-counter solutions. If you’re female, your doctor may prescribe birth control pills prior to starting you on Retin-A because it can be extremely harmful to fetal development.
Retin-A may cause your skin to dry, peel and become very red. Newer medications have milder side effects. Use Retin-A only at night because it makes your skin susceptible to sunburn. Use extra sunscreen and sun protection when outdoors.
It may take two to three months to see your acne improve. Acne may get worse before it gets better. Be patient, follow your doctor’s instructions and stick to your routine.
- Antibiotics – Available only with a doctor’s prescription. Antibiotics can alleviate acne that’s swollen and red or not improving with other medications. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and take the antibiotics with plenty of water.
Some antibiotics may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Wear sunscreen when outdoors.
- Accutane – Available only with a doctor’s prescription, Accutane is a powerful medication intended for people with severe scarring or acne that other medications can’t control. Some doctors won’t prescribe Accutane. It requires frequent blood testing because it can affect blood cell count. If you’re female, your doctor may require you to prove that you’re using two forms of birth control because Accutane can be extremely harmful to fetal development.
Last reviewed: August 2019