Using Creams for Acne Treatment

Acne creams are a mainstay treatment for teenage acne. Topical acne creams with benzoyl peroxide or trentinoin ingredients are typically the first-line treatment for all types of acne.

But some teens dislike using them—they don't give quick results, they often have to be used every day for long periods of time, and they have some side effects. Finding the right acne cream can improve consistent use—which will usually improve skin complexion.

Mature woman applying moisturizer to hand
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OTC Acne Creams

Most acne creams are only available with a prescription, but a few non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) acne creams can be useful for mild acne.

Over the counter creams include:

  • Benzoyl peroxide: It's available in a number of forms and brands, such as Persa-Gel, Clearasil, Neutrogena, and OXY.
  • Salicylic acid: This is usually used for treating mild comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads), especially if other medications are too harsh on the skin. Options include Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Cream Cleanser and ZAPZYT Pore Treatment Gel.
  • Differin (adapalene): This is one of the ingredients in prescription cream Epiduo, and a low potency formulation is available OTC.

Prescription Acne Creams

In general, OTC acne creams are usually effective for treating mild teen acne. If you have moderate to severe acne, you will likely need a prescription acne cream, either by itself or with an oral antibiotic or other acne treatment.

Acne creams are usually less irritating than acne gels.

Commonly used prescription acne creams include:

  • Retin-A (tretinoin)
  • Retin-A Micro (tretinoin)
  • Differin (adapalene)
  • Tazorac (tazarotene)
  • Azelex (azelaic acid)
  • Epiduo (adapalene-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Benzaclin (clindamycin-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Duac (clindamycin-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Acanya (clindamycin-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Benzamycin (erythromycin-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Ziana (tretinoin-benzoyl peroxide)
  • Sulfur-sulfacetamide sodium
  • Aczone (dapsone)
  • Clindamycin
  • Erythromycin

In general, retinoid acne creams, such as Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Differin, or Tazorac, are considered the first-line prescription acne creams for most teens with mild acne. An oral antibiotic might also be added to a teen's acne cream regimen for the treatment of moderate acne.

If the initial treatment doesn't work in a few months, a combination acne cream, which combines two ingredients, might be the next step.

Other considerations:

  • Cost can be a big factor, especially as some of the newer acne creams are expensive and not always well covered by insurance. That might lead you to a prescription for the older versions of Retin-A and Benzamycin, both of which are now generic.
  • Side effects are the other big factor, as some acne creams cause more skin irritation than others.

Acne Creams - What You Need to Know

The best acne creams are often the ones that work well and cause the least amount of skin irritation. Unfortunately, there is typically some trial and error involved in finding the best acne cream, so don't be surprised if your pediatrician starts with one medication and then has to change it to a milder or stronger medicine, depending on your skin's response.

Tips for Use

For teens with sensitive skin, using an acne cream every other day or every other night may prevent the initial burning and irritation that many teens have. Using too much acne cream—more than a pea-sized amount for the whole face—can also cause more irritation, and won't make the medicine work any better.

It may even be helpful to wash the acne creams off after a certain amount of time (15 to 30 minutes) during the first few weeks of use.

It's best not to use other medications that may irritate the skin when starting a new acne cream, such as an astringent or scrub for acne.

  • Other acne treatment options include oral isotretinoin (Accutane) for severe acne and hormonal therapy such as spironolactone with oral contraceptives for girls with moderate acne.

A Word From Verywell

Acne is very common during the teen years, but it can be stressful. For some parents and teens, it can be a topic of conflict, as parental reminders may be viewed as "nagging." Parents need to realize that teens do care about their appearance—even when they act like they don't care. And teens need to communicate with parents and acknowledge the problem, while also explaining how often they are comfortable talking about it. Most teen acne will clear up with simple medication, but it is caused by the physical changes of teen years—so for most teens, acne is not completely avoidable.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Whitney KM, Ditre CM. Management strategies for acne vulgarisClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2011;4:41–53. doi:10.2147/CCID.S10817

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.