The Best Acne Treatments: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
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Acne can be distressing but is generally manageable with daily skin care or the help of a dermatologist. The best treatment for you will depend on several factors. Different treatments may be needed depending on the type of acne and the severity of breakouts. For some people, basic daily skin care will clear up acne. Other people may need medications or in-office treatments.

Read on to learn more about the types of acne and their treatments. Also learn when it’s time to contact a dermatologist. 

Overview

A young woman with acne applying makeup
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Approximately 85% of people will experience acne. Acne is most common in teenagers and young adults but can occur in adulthood, too.

It generally appears on the face but can happen on other body parts. Sometimes acne can also lead to scarring. People with acne may experience depression and poor self-esteem. 

Treatment depends on the underlying cause and the type of blemishes. Most people will see improvement in their skin with a treatment regimen. A dermatologist can help you find the right plan for your skin.

Types of acne

Pores are small openings in the skin that contain hair follicles. Inside each follicle, sebaceous glands produce an oily substance called sebum. The follicle walls are lined with a type of skin cell called keratinocytes.

Acne occurs when the hair, sebum, and keratinocytes become clumped together inside the pore. This clog causes inflammation, leading to acne blemishes.

The size and appearance of the blemishes vary, and treatment differs accordingly. Types of acne blemishes include:

  • Whiteheads: These are closed lesions with a raised white bump at the center.
  • Blackheads: These have a small black spot at the center, caused when sebum turns black upon contact with air.
  • Papules: Papules are small, hard, red bumps.
  • Pustules: Also called pimples, pustules are lesions filled with pus.
  • Cysts or nodules: These are deep, painful lesions that can be very large.

Several factors can contribute to acne, including:

  • natural hormones that increase sebum production
  • an overgrowth of the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes
  • genetic factors or family history
  • medications that treat autoimmune disorders, depression, and seizures 
  • hormone treatments such as contraceptives and testosterone
  • environmental factors such as cosmetics, smoking, and diet

Best treatments for different acne severity

While acne sometimes goes away on its own, treating it may reduce the risk of scarring, infection, and spread. Treatment depends on the severity of your acne and the underlying cause.

Mild acne

Mild acne can take 6 weeks or longer to treat. Sometimes a person may need to continue a maintenance treatment to prevent recurrences.

Treatment may include topical application of the following medications:

  • tretinoin
  • adapalene gel
  • tazarotene cream or gel
  • azelaic acid cream
  • glycolic acid
  • salicylic acid

Sometimes dual therapy with a topical or oral antibiotic helps the acne clear up and prevents spreading. Some cases may require physical extraction of the acne when the acne does not respond to treatment. 

Moderate acne

It may take 12 weeks or longer to see full benefits from treatment for moderate acne. Typically, prescription oral antibiotics and topical treatment are the best first line of treatment.  

People assigned female at birth whose acne does not respond to this treatment may benefit from taking oral contraceptives or spironolactone.

Severe acne

People experiencing severe inflammatory acne that does not respond to other topical or oral treatments may require prescription isotretinoin.

Isotretinoin is typically effective but comes with the risk of several serious side effects and requires lab monitoring. It is also dangerous to a developing fetus. 

Learn more about commonly prescribed medications for acne.

How to choose the best treatment for you

Choosing treatment for your acne depends on your type of acne, its severity, and how it affects your psychological and emotional well-being.

It is also important to consider factors such as other medications you take, whether you are pregnant or have the potential to become pregnant, and your skin type.

Some acne treatments can cause side effects, including:

  • dry skin
  • sun sensitivity
  • flakiness or itching
  • redness and irritation
  • stinging

Oral antibiotics may cause gastrointestinal irritation and antibiotic resistance. Tell your dermatologist about any reactions you’ve had to medications in the past.

Oral isotretinoin can have many side effects, some of which are serious. These may include:

Your dermatologist can explain the treatment options and the risks and benefits.

Other acne best practices

Daily skin care may help reduce acne and prevent new acne lesions. You can try the following:

  • Use oil-free makeup, sunscreens, and moisturizers labeled “noncomedogenic.”
  • Wash your face twice a day with a gentle cleanser. Avoid scrubbing and rinse with lukewarm water.
  • Shampoo your hair regularly.
  • Avoid sun exposure and tanning beds.
  • Protect your skin with a good sunscreen while outside.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Avoid popping or squeezing lesions.

When to see a dermatologist

See a dermatologist if you notice:

  • Your acne is not responding to at-home treatments.
  • It is causing you serious psychological distress.
  • If you notice scarring or dark spots.

Learn how to get rid of acne scars.

Your dermatologist may offer you prescription medications or direct extraction techniques to remove debris from the lesions. In-office procedures — such as laser therapy, light therapy, or corticosteroid injections — may also be useful.

Learn about laser and light treatment for acne.

Summary

Acne is a condition that occurs most commonly in teenagers and young adults. The best treatment for your acne depends on the severity and type.

Establishing a daily skin care regimen that includes cleaning, moisturizing, and sun protection may help prevent acne or decrease its spread.

Contact a medical professional if your acne does not respond to home treatments, is leaving scars, or is causing you mental distress.

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Medical Reviewer: Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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