All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.
The best acne medication differs from person to person based on their skin care needs. For some, a gentle over-the-counter option is the best way to reduce acne, while for others, stronger prescription medication is necessary. Regardless of your acne needs, there is an acne medication available for you. The best way to find the right acne treatment is with patience, and sometimes with the assistance of a dermatologist. This guide will cover the basics of acne medication, from benzoyl peroxide to Accutane.
Dapsone is a topical gel medicine sold under the brand name Aczone for treating severe acne, and it’s perfect for people who want a low-maintenance acne treatment plan. Unlike many of the best acne medications, dapsone only needs to be applied once daily, and it is the only medications most people will need, though it’s always good to include a face wash and moisturizer in your skin care routine if possible. Dapsone can function on its own because it is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory10, effectively taking care of two of the biggest causes of acne.
Acne is caused when the sebaceous glands in your skin get infected or inflamed. Blemishes and pimples are most commonly found on your face, chest and back. You have a system of oil glands under your skin, and this is where sebum is produced. Sebum is supposed to keep your skin healthily moisturized, but too much production of this oil can cause blackheads and whiteheads. When the oil is pushed out through your hair follicles, it can clog your pores if it attaches to bacteria or dead skin cells. If this happens, sebum will build up behind the plug and form a pimple. And we all know what that is.
Acne usually improves around the age of 20, but may persist into adulthood.[75] Permanent physical scarring may occur.[19] There is good evidence to support the idea that acne and associated scarring negatively affect a person's psychological state, worsen mood, lower self-esteem, and are associated with a higher risk of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts.[3][30][50] Another psychological complication of acne vulgaris is acne excoriée, which occurs when a person persistently picks and scratches pimples, irrespective of the severity of their acne.[61][155] This can lead to significant scarring, changes in the affected person's skin pigmentation, and a cyclic worsening of the affected person's anxiety about their appearance.[61] Rare complications from acne or its treatment include the formation of pyogenic granulomas, osteoma cutis, and solid facial edema.[156] Early and aggressive treatment of acne is advocated by some in the medical community to reduce the chances of these poor outcomes.[4]
Considerations: Side effects are generally mild and short lived. Most common, in 1-5% of people are itching, burning, stinging, and tingling. Other side effects were reported in less than 1% of people. There have been a few reports from darker skinned people of lightening of the skin. Azelaic acid has not been well studied in people with dark complexions.1

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I get asked all the time about my favorite organic skin care products. It seems everyone is worried about putting toxins in and on their bodies. So for cleansers, I recommend Dr. Hauschka's Cleansing Cream. Organic and void of chemicals, the Dr. Hauschka line is super popular among those concerned with healthy skin. So what's in this magic cleanser? Sweet almond meal and extracts of anthyllis, calendula, chamomile and St. John's wort. This cleanser gently exfoliates while adding moisture to skin, which makes it great for aging skin, dry skin and combination skin.
One of the most gentle face cleansers we selected is this one from Paula’s Choice. It won’t dehydrate sensitive skin because it has just 0.5% salicylic acid. But it still contains enough to unclog pores and exfoliate dead skin. You’ll hardly know that it’s working because it’s so pleasant to use. The silky texture glides on and lathers away oil and grime. Furthermore, there are no parabens or artificial fragrances in the formula.
Pimples are raised red spots with a white center that develop when blocked hair follicles become inflamed or infected with bacteria. Blockages and inflammation that develop deep inside hair follicles produce cystlike lumps beneath the surface of your skin. Other pores in your skin, which are the openings of the sweat glands, aren't usually involved in acne.
Sometimes birth control alone isn’t enough to really make a difference in hormonal acne. That’s when your doctor might recommend adding in an androgen blocker such as Spironalactone. Spiro (as it’s called) minimizes the amount of androgen hormones in circulation by blocking the receptors that bind with testosterone. When these pills are taken at the same time as an oral contraceptive, 90 percent of women see an improvement in breakouts, according to Linkner. The drug is sometimes prescribed to women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) to relieve androgen-related symptoms like excessive hair growth, hypertension, oily skin, and acne.
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Tretinoin: As we said above, tretinoin (common brand name: Retin-A) is a synthetic retinoid, but it is stronger than some of the other options, and its cousin, isotretinoin, is even stronger. Isotretinoin, better known as Accutane, is an oral synthetic retinoid typically only prescribed for very severe cases of cystic acne because it can cause intense side effects and is a powerful teratogen, meaning it causes birth defects. However, after taking isotretinoin for several months, many people never need to do any serious acne treatment again, so for some, it is well worth the side effects.
Retinoids are medications which reduce inflammation, normalize the follicle cell life cycle, and reduce sebum production.[44][83] They are structurally related to vitamin A.[83] The retinoids appear to influence the cell life cycle in the follicle lining. This helps prevent the accumulation of skin cells within the hair follicle that can create a blockage. They are a first-line acne treatment,[1] especially for people with dark-colored skin, and are known to lead to faster improvement of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[35]
Warning: Sulfur smells like rotten eggs. But it is an effective ingredient at drying up pus-filled pimples and whiteheads (you’ve gotta take the good with the bad). It works by sucking up the oil. Sulfur is typically mixed with other active ingredients to get the most efficacy and fragrances to mask the strong scent. You can often find it in masks and spot treatments.
What's Going On: You might be all too familiar with these, which tend to make their debut when you’re in high school. "Blackheads, like whiteheads, are blocked pores," says Zeichner. What gives them their namesake color, though, is the oil. It's already dark, but blackheads also have a larger opening at the surface than whiteheads do, meaning air can enter and oxidize that oil sitting inside the pore, turning it even darker.
This foaming cleanser is a soap-free gel that will clear away clogged pores without drying skin out. Designed not to disturb the skin’s natural moisture balance, the formula is made with astringent lavender extract to minimize pores and balance PH, while the anti-inflammatory balm mint extract soothes inflammation, giving skin a visibly clearer appearance. It uses alpha hydroxy acids and quillaja saponaria to deep clean pores and fight acne-causing bacteria.
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is usually the result of nodular acne lesions. These lesions often leave behind an inflamed darkened mark after the original acne lesion has resolved. This inflammation stimulates specialized pigment-producing skin cells (known as melanocytes) to produce more melanin pigment which leads to the skin's darkened appearance.[34] People with darker skin color are more frequently affected by this condition.[35] Pigmented scar is a common term used for PIH, but is misleading as it suggests the color change is permanent. Often, PIH can be prevented by avoiding any aggravation of the nodule, and can fade with time. However, untreated PIH can last for months, years, or even be permanent if deeper layers of skin are affected.[36] Even minimal skin exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can sustain hyperpigmentation.[34] Daily use of SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can minimize such a risk.[36]
The side effects depend on the type of treatment you use. Generally, for topical, over-the-counter creams, you can watch out for stinging, redness, irritation and peeling — these side effects usually don’t go any deeper than the skin. Others, like oral antibiotics or hormonal medications, could come with new sets of complications, so we suggest talking to your doctor before pursuing the treatment.

Spot treatments are designed to give problem pimples a mega-dose of concentrated benzoyl peroxide — in a couple of regimens, like the Proactiv Teen Kit, the spot treatment had nearly three times the benzoyl peroxide as its all-over treatment. The logic: If benzoyl peroxide can be irritating to the skin in high concentrations, limiting its intensity to just the pimple itself could save the rest of your healthy skin.
This inflammatory cascade typically leads to the formation of inflammatory acne lesions, including papules, infected pustules, or nodules.[1] If the inflammatory reaction is severe, the follicle can break into the deeper layers of the dermis and subcutaneous tissue and cause the formation of deep nodules.[1][66][67] Involvement of AP-1 in the aforementioned inflammatory cascade leads to activation of matrix metalloproteinases, which contribute to local tissue destruction and scar formation.[44]

Although some people think they can get the best acne treatment by mixing and matching products, this is not the recommended method of treating blemishes. Aside from doctors, few people understand how different products can react with each other. In some cases, combining two products increases how well both work. For example, green tea extract and salicylic acid complement each other. Skin care system makers usually hire doctors to help improve the effectiveness of their systems.
The main hormonal driver of oily sebum production in the skin is dihydrotestosterone.[1] Another androgenic hormone responsible for increased sebaceous gland activity is DHEA-S. Higher amounts of DHEA-S are secreted during adrenarche (a stage of puberty), and this leads to an increase in sebum production. In a sebum-rich skin environment, the naturally occurring and largely commensal skin bacterium P. acnes readily grows and can cause inflammation within and around the follicle due to activation of the innate immune system.[10] P. acnes triggers skin inflammation in acne by increasing the production of several pro-inflammatory chemical signals (such as IL-1α, IL-8, TNF-α, and LTB4); IL-1α is known to be essential to comedo formation.[44]

This foaming cleanser is a soap-free gel that will clear away clogged pores without drying skin out. Designed not to disturb the skin’s natural moisture balance, the formula is made with astringent lavender extract to minimize pores and balance PH, while the anti-inflammatory balm mint extract soothes inflammation, giving skin a visibly clearer appearance. It uses alpha hydroxy acids and quillaja saponaria to deep clean pores and fight acne-causing bacteria.
Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin.[46] They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night.[1] Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more.[1][84] Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated.[1][84] Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
Antibiotics for acne, both topical and oral, used to be the top prescriptions for getting clear skin, but research has revealed that they aren’t the best option for most people today due to something called antibacterial resistance. This is where bacteria mutate, become immune to certain antibiotics, then reproduce offspring that are also immune, creating entire colonies of bacteria that can’t be killed by certain antibiotics.
Having a specific type of skin now doesn’t mean you will be stuck with it the rest of your life. As you get older, your skin can change. It may be oily when you are younger but become dry as you age. Plus, skin can become more or less sensitive over time. It’s always a good idea to retest for your skin type if you notice any changes. We’ve included a guide above to help you recognize what kind of acne you have, what the average causes are, and how to treat it (or at least not aggravate it).
Antiandrogens such as cyproterone acetate and spironolactone have been used successfully to treat acne, especially in women with signs of excessive androgen production such as increased hairiness or skin production of sebum, or baldness.[10][46] Spironolactone is an effective treatment for acne in adult women, but unlike combined birth control pills, is not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for this purpose.[1][35][100] The medication is primarily used as an aldosterone antagonist and is thought to be a useful acne treatment due to its ability to additionally block the androgen receptor at higher doses.[35] Alone or in combination with a birth control pill, spironolactone has shown a 33 to 85% reduction in acne lesions in women.[91] The effectiveness of spironolactone for acne appears to be dose-dependent.[91] High-dose cyproterone acetate alone has been found to decrease symptoms of acne in women by 75 to 90% within 3 months.[101] It is usually combined with an estrogen to avoid menstrual irregularities and estrogen deficiency.[102] The medication has also been found to be effective in the treatment of acne in males, with one study finding that a high dosage reduced inflammatory acne lesions by 73%.[103][104] However, the side effects of cyproterone acetate in males, such as gynecomastia, sexual dysfunction, and decreased bone mineral density, make its use for acne in this sex impractical in most cases.[103][104][105] Hormonal therapies should not be used to treat acne during pregnancy or lactation as they have been associated with birth disorders such as hypospadias, and feminization of the male babies.[46] In addition, women who are sexually active and who can or may become pregnant should use an effective method of contraception to prevent pregnancy while taking an antiandrogen.[106] Antiandrogens are often combined with birth control pills for this reason, which can result in additive efficacy.[35][107]
I get asked all the time about my favorite organic skin care products. It seems everyone is worried about putting toxins in and on their bodies. So for cleansers, I recommend Dr. Hauschka's Cleansing Cream. Organic and void of chemicals, the Dr. Hauschka line is super popular among those concerned with healthy skin. So what's in this magic cleanser? Sweet almond meal and extracts of anthyllis, calendula, chamomile and St. John's wort. This cleanser gently exfoliates while adding moisture to skin, which makes it great for aging skin, dry skin and combination skin.
First, it’s a cleansing oil, not the typical gel wash or liquid. Next, it has a potent blend of salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid for superior exfoliation. Third, it contains natural ingredients that repair damage to the skin and get rid of acne. For example, soapwort extract dissolves oil without the need for drying sulfates. Then, vitamin B and lavender combine to reduce oil secretion and inflammation. Finally, watercress is full of antioxidant vitamins that heal damage caused by the sun.
Acrokeratosis paraneoplastica of Bazex Acroosteolysis Bubble hair deformity Disseminate and recurrent infundibulofolliculitis Erosive pustular dermatitis of the scalp Erythromelanosis follicularis faciei et colli Hair casts Hair follicle nevus Intermittent hair–follicle dystrophy Keratosis pilaris atropicans Kinking hair Koenen's tumor Lichen planopilaris Lichen spinulosus Loose anagen syndrome Menkes kinky hair syndrome Monilethrix Parakeratosis pustulosa Pili (Pili annulati Pili bifurcati Pili multigemini Pili pseudoannulati Pili torti) Pityriasis amiantacea Plica neuropathica Poliosis Rubinstein–Taybi syndrome Setleis syndrome Traumatic anserine folliculosis Trichomegaly Trichomycosis axillaris Trichorrhexis (Trichorrhexis invaginata Trichorrhexis nodosa) Trichostasis spinulosa Uncombable hair syndrome Wooly hair Wooly hair nevus
If you have oily, tight skin and tend to get age spots or sun spots, try an exfoliant made with glycolic acid right after you cleanse your skin, no more than 4 or 5 times a week. Aveeno Positively Radiant Cleansing Pads provides just a “dab” of exfoliant that will help lighten the spots without irritating your skin (which over the long run would create new brown spots).
Ask any dermatologist for advice on how you can reduce the chances of breakouts, and they’re most likely going to mention taking probiotics as one of their top tips. This facial cleanser, infused with tea tree oil, willow bark and yogurt, targets irritation-causing bacteria while controlling oil production. It also features a biocomplex of vitamins A, C and E, coenzyme Q10 and antioxidants that diminish wrinkles and other visible signs of aging.

Exposed Skin Care: Exposed Skin Care products include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and azelaic acid (see below for more details), all at low concentrations that are safe for all skin types. Plus they also incorporate powerful natural ingredients, like tea tree oil, vitamin E, and green tea extract. Before jumping straight to the strongest (and harshest) prescription treatment available, we highly recommend giving this gentle but effective brand a try for a few weeks. If it doesn’t work, you can always send your empty product bottles back to the company and they will reimburse you in full.
Considerations: Despite the frequent referencing of an initial flare of acne when starting is tretinoin, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. You should not expect an initial worsening of acne.3-4 Exposure to sunlight should be minimized as you may be more sensitive to its rays. Ask your doctor before using other medication on the skin, especially anything containing sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid, as the combination may be too irritating. Abrasive soaps and cleansers should be used with caution for the same reason. Side effects can include skin irritation, swelling, lightening or darkening of the skin, an increase in acne sores, excessive redness, and crusted or blistered skin.
P. acnes also provokes skin inflammation by altering the fatty composition of oily sebum.[44] Oxidation of the lipid squalene by P. acnes is of particular importance. Squalene oxidation activates NF-κB (a protein complex) and consequently increases IL-1α levels.[44] Additionally, squalene oxidation leads to increased activity of the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme responsible for conversion of arachidonic acid to leukotriene B4 (LTB4).[44] LTB4 promotes skin inflammation by acting on the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα) protein.[44] PPARα increases activity of activator protein 1 (AP-1) and NF-κB, thereby leading to the recruitment of inflammatory T cells.[44] The inflammatory properties of P. acnes can be further explained by the bacterium's ability to convert sebum triglycerides to pro-inflammatory free fatty acids via secretion of the enzyme lipase.[44] These free fatty acids spur production of cathelicidin, HBD1, and HBD2, thus leading to further inflammation.[44]
Antibiotics are frequently applied to the skin or taken orally to treat acne and are thought to work due to their antimicrobial activity against P. acnes and their ability to reduce inflammation.[19][81][87] With the widespread use of antibiotics for acne and an increased frequency of antibiotic-resistant P. acnes worldwide, antibiotics are becoming less effective,[81] especially macrolide antibiotics such as topical erythromycin.[15][87] Commonly used antibiotics, either applied to the skin or taken orally, include clindamycin, erythromycin, metronidazole, sulfacetamide, and tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline.[46] When antibiotics are applied to the skin, they are typically used for mild to moderately severe acne.[19] Antibiotics taken orally are generally considered to be more effective than topical antibiotics, and produce faster resolution of inflammatory acne lesions than topical applications.[1] Topical and oral antibiotics are not recommended for use together.[87]
Acne inversa (L. invertō, "upside down") and acne rosacea (rosa, "rose-colored" + -āceus, "forming") are not true forms of acne and respectively refer to the skin conditions hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) and rosacea.[25][26][27] Although HS shares certain common features with acne vulgaris, such as a tendency to clog skin follicles with skin cell debris, the condition otherwise lacks the defining features of acne and is therefore considered a distinct skin disorder.[25]
Antiandrogens such as cyproterone acetate and spironolactone have been used successfully to treat acne, especially in women with signs of excessive androgen production such as increased hairiness or skin production of sebum, or baldness.[10][46] Spironolactone is an effective treatment for acne in adult women, but unlike combined birth control pills, is not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for this purpose.[1][35][100] The medication is primarily used as an aldosterone antagonist and is thought to be a useful acne treatment due to its ability to additionally block the androgen receptor at higher doses.[35] Alone or in combination with a birth control pill, spironolactone has shown a 33 to 85% reduction in acne lesions in women.[91] The effectiveness of spironolactone for acne appears to be dose-dependent.[91] High-dose cyproterone acetate alone has been found to decrease symptoms of acne in women by 75 to 90% within 3 months.[101] It is usually combined with an estrogen to avoid menstrual irregularities and estrogen deficiency.[102] The medication has also been found to be effective in the treatment of acne in males, with one study finding that a high dosage reduced inflammatory acne lesions by 73%.[103][104] However, the side effects of cyproterone acetate in males, such as gynecomastia, sexual dysfunction, and decreased bone mineral density, make its use for acne in this sex impractical in most cases.[103][104][105] Hormonal therapies should not be used to treat acne during pregnancy or lactation as they have been associated with birth disorders such as hypospadias, and feminization of the male babies.[46] In addition, women who are sexually active and who can or may become pregnant should use an effective method of contraception to prevent pregnancy while taking an antiandrogen.[106] Antiandrogens are often combined with birth control pills for this reason, which can result in additive efficacy.[35][107]

Having a specific type of skin now doesn’t mean you will be stuck with it the rest of your life. As you get older, your skin can change. It may be oily when you are younger but become dry as you age. Plus, skin can become more or less sensitive over time. It’s always a good idea to retest for your skin type if you notice any changes. We’ve included a guide above to help you recognize what kind of acne you have, what the average causes are, and how to treat it (or at least not aggravate it).
Ideally, you want to find an acne face wash and care system that utilizes a number of these ingredients, for best results. It can be a full system by a single brand, like Exposed Skin Care, or it can be a combination of products that you’ve tried and tested for yourself. The important thing to take away here is that there are several ways to treat your acne and knowing what each ingredient does will help you tailor the perfect solution for you.
“Sometimes I see people try over-the-counter products just for a couple of weeks, they get frustrated, they say it’s not working, and they discontinue them,” Arthur says. “But it really does take a while to see the effectiveness. So unless you’re having a problem with the medication, like it’s causing severe irritation or dryness, it’s recommended to give it at least 2-3 months before switching to something else.”
Hormonal activity, such as occurs during menstrual cycles and puberty, may contribute to the formation of acne. During puberty, an increase in sex hormones called androgens causes the skin follicle glands to grow larger and make more oily sebum.[12] Several hormones have been linked to acne, including the androgens testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA); high levels of growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) have also been associated with worsened acne.[41] Both androgens and IGF-1 seem to be essential for acne to occur, as acne does not develop in individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) or Laron syndrome (insensitivity to GH, resulting in very low IGF-1 levels).[42][43]
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