Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School



Acne can be treated with:

  • Salicylic acid washes. These washes help to empty comedones of sebum.

  • Benzoyl peroxide gels. These medications are applied to the skin as a thin film. They:

    • Dry and peel the skin

    • Fight the growth of bacteria

    • Help to clear blocked hair follicles

    Some are available in weaker over-the-counter lotions. If these don't work, stronger and more effective gel forms are available by prescription.

  • Tretinoin (Retin-A). This is applied to the skin as a cream, gel or liquid. It helps to clear the skin of plugged follicles by increasing the turnover of skin cells. It also increases the skin's sensitivity to sunlight. So tretinoin should be used with a sunscreen.

  • Antibiotics. Certain antibiotics can be applied directly to the skin to reduce the growth of acne-causing bacteria.

If these topical treatments fail, acne is treated next with oral antibiotics. However, these medications can have side effects. They are available only by prescription.

Some oral antibiotics can cause birth defects. Women on these antibiotics who are sexually active must use contraception. They need to make absolutely sure they do not become pregnant either during treatment or for one month after treatment.

In severe cases, oral isotretinoin may be considered. This medication can be very effective but can also cause serious side effects including severe birth defects. Strict protocols must be followed. Monthly appointments with the treating doctor must be kept throughout the treatment period to monitor for any side effects. In females of child-bearing age, protocol includes two forms of birth control. The treatment period is usually five months.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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