Acne medication – What are the most common treatments?

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How do they work and what are their possible side effects?

There is a wide range of acne medication options available, from topical treatments for mild symptoms through to drugs of varying strengths to treat more severe cases. The right medicine, when used according to prescription, will help to reduce blemishes and decrease the risk of permanent damage to skin.

This article outlines the most common acne medications. It also identifies the possible side effects for each treatment, looks at what you can do to help alleviate some of those side effects and makes suggestions on other steps you can take to give your medication the best chance of working.

How do I know if medical treatment is the right option for my skin?

If you have acne, and your blemishes are bothering you, then you might want to consult your doctor

Acne treatment follows strict national and international guidelines1 and, after a close examination of your skin, your doctor or dermatologist (a doctor specialising in skin) will be able to advise on which treatment is best for you and most likely to address the causes and symptoms of your acne. You can read more about what causes acne in causes and triggers of acne.

Medical professionals generally agree that, in moderate to severe cases of acne, the timely use of drugs can help to prevent symptoms from worsening and reduce the risk of scarring. Your doctor will be able to advise on, and prescribe, the most appropriate acne treatment for you and your skin

1 - Nast, A., Dréno, B., Degitz, K. et al. (2012), European Evidence-based (S3) Guidelines for the Treatment of Acne, Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 26, S. 1–29.

What acne medication options are there?

The following list outlines the most common acne medications, including how they work and the possible side effects of each treatment.

Benzoyl Peroxide

If your acne is mild to moderate your doctor may well recommend Benzoyl Peroxide in the first instance. It comes as a cream or a gel which you apply to your affected skin and, in many countries, is available without a prescription. 

Topical retinoids

As an alternative to Benzoyl Peroxide, your doctor may prescribe a topical retinoid. A topical product is a cream or gel that you apply to your affected skin. A retinoid is a retinol, or Vitamin A, derivative. 

Azelaic acid

Recommended when Benzoyl Peroxide and topical retinoids have not delivered results or if someone has experienced negative side effects using them. Also recommended for skin that is particularly sensitive to sunlight as does not exacerbate the condition).

Topical and oral antibiotics

These are only prescribed for use in combination with another medical acne treatment to prevent bacterial resistance, reduce the growth of P.acnes bacteria and help to prevent skin infections.  Topical antibiotics are applied externally to the affected area, oral antibiotics come in tablet or liquid form. You can find out more about P.acnes in the development of acne.

Combined oral contraceptive pill

Acne is directly related to fluctuations in our hormones and for women who experience hormone-related flare-ups, dermatologists may recommend certain oral contraceptives proven to be effective against acne.

Isotretinoin

For severe, stubborn and persistent acne, the most common and effective medication is a drug called Isotretinoin. It is only prescribed when other medications have not worked. 

These are only prescribed for use in combination with another medical acne treatment to prevent bacterial resistance, reduce the growth of P.acnes bacteria and help to prevent skin infections.  Topical antibiotics are applied externally to the affected area, oral antibiotics come in tablet or liquid form. . You can find out more about P.acnes in the development of acne.

When should I expect to see results?

Sadly, no acne medicine promises instant results and treatment needs to be applied or taken consistently for the recommended period of time. Most people start to notice results between four to eight weeks after starting treatment, but it can sometimes take up to three months.

Dermatologists say that one of the main reasons for medication not working is that patients do not follow the correct prescription or stop taking the drug before the end of the course.

“Acne treatment - whether medical or not - takes time to have a noticeable effect. Don’t give up!” - Dr med. Markus Reinholz, Dermatologist

What can I do to help alleviate the possible side effects?

A regular skincare routine, using non-comedogenic cleansing and care products specially formulated for blemish-prone skin, will help to keep your skin healthy and complement your medication.

Occasionally, symptoms can worsen in the short term as your body adapts to the treatment.  It’s important to be as patient as possible and stick with your treatment as prescribed to give it the best chance of working.

Some patients find the side effects of the medication (such as the extremely dry skin caused by Isotretinoin) difficult to cope with and stop taking their acne treatment before the end of the course.

Woman applying cream to her chin
Acne treatment can make skin more sensitive to light so adequate sun protection is essential

In my experience, it’s the side-effects of medication that cause many acne patients to terminate their therapy prematurely.

Dr med. Markus Reinholz, Dermatologist

How to treat potential side effects

If you experience dry skin try a soothing moisturiser such as Eucerin DermoPurifyer Oil Control Adjunctive Soothing Cream. This intensely moisturising, non-greasy cream has been specially formulated to soothe skin undergoing medical acne treatment and to leave it feeling smooth and supple after the first application.

Many medical acne treatments make skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is especially important to use appropriate sun protection such as Eucerin Sun Gel-Creme Oil Control Dry Touch SPF50+.

If you experience any side effects consult your doctor or dermatologist for advice.

What else can I do to help my blemish-prone skin?

The following suggestions won’t necessarily alleviate side effects, but they will help you to care for your acne-prone skin:

Keep skin as clean as possible
In addition to regular, thorough yet gentle cleansing try to keep your hands away from your face and clean your mobile phone, pillow cases and towels regularly to keep bacteria to a minimum.

Look after yourself
Exercise and a healthy, balanced diet will help you to keep your spirits, and your skin, in good shape. Find out more in acne and exercise or acne and diet.

Try not to get stressed
Easier said than done we know, but stress can trigger hormones and exacerbate acne. Find out more in acne and stress.

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