An Overview of Acne Treatment

Acne can't be cured. That doesn't mean you can't get rid of it, though. There are so many acne treatment options available today to get your acne breakouts under control.

But all of those choices can be overwhelming. Do you need a prescription acne medication or can you use an acne treatment off the shelf? Should you see a dermatologist, or is an esthetician OK?  

Acne treatments can be divided into three categories: topical (medications you put on your skin, either over-the-counter products or prescription), systemic (oral medications by prescription), and procedural (treatments done at the salon or dermatology office). The course of treatment is determined by the type and stage of your acne.

Over-the-Counter Treatments

Over-the-counter acne treatments are those products you can get at the drug store, grocery store, skin spa, or cosmetic store. 

Many OTC products say they're good for breakout-prone skin. The trick to  finding an OTC acne product that actually works is by taking a look at the active ingredients.

The most effective OTC acne treatment products contain at least one of these ingredients:

It doesn't matter much what type of product you use, whether it be cleansers, toners, cleansing pads, or lotions, so long as it contains a proven acne treatment ingredient. You can also choose several OTC products and put them together to create your own blemish-fighting skin care routine.

Are over-the-counter acne treatments right for you? They're a good choice for mild acne and blackheads, but rarely effective for anything more.

Prescription Topical Medications

For acne that isn't getting better with over-the-counter products, prescription topical medications are a great option. These medications can be used to treat mild breakouts to severe acne, and everything in between.

Topical acne treatments come in many different forms, from light water-based gels and creamy lotions to toner-like solutions and medicated pads.

Topical treatments available by prescription include:

Do you need a prescription medication, rather than an OTC product? If you've been using OTC products for more than three months and still have acne, it's time to move on to a stronger prescription medication.

Oral Medications

Oral acne medications work internally. These medications are typically prescribed for severe breakouts or cystic acne. They're also used for less severe types of acne when topical treatments aren't giving good enough results.

Oral acne treatments are available by prescription only and include:

With the exception of isotretinoin, you'll probably use an oral medication in conjunction with another topical acne treatment.

Professional Procedures

Procedural treatments are therapies performed by a dermatologist, healthcare practitioner, or esthetician in the office or salon. They can be used to treat mild to severe acne, depending on the procedure.

Some professional acne treatment procedures you may want to try:

Procedural therapies aren't meant to be used as the sole acne treatment. Instead, consider these add-ons to help boost your current acne treatment medication.

Seeing a Dermatologist

A dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the science of the skin, its treatment, and diseases. And if you're having trouble clearing your skin on your own, it's time to see a dermatologist.

Don't discount the idea of seeing a dermatologist! Having a professional's help is a great asset in the fight against acne. Your dermatologist can offer many acne treatment options, as well as advice and support.

To find the right dermatologist to treat your acne, ask your primary care doctor who they recommend. At your first dermatology appointment, you'll go over all your skin care concerns with the doctor and leave with a plan to get your acne clearing up.

Seeing an Esthetician

An esthetician, or skin care therapist, specializes in the treatment and beautification of the skin. Estheticians are not medical doctors; rather they perform cosmetic treatments of the skin, such as facials and waxing.

If you have mild acne, you may want to see an esthetician. They can recommend skin care products for acne-prone skin, and offer advice on daily skin care. Estheticians can also perform deep cleansing treatments to help ward off comedones.

Estheticians work at day spas or skin spas. Many dermatology offices and medi-spas also employ estheticians to offer supportive therapy under the supervision of the doctor.

Seeing an esthetician isn't a necessity (like seeing a dermatologist is), so don't feel like you must make a trip to your local skin spa. But if you feel like you need a bit of help navigating the sea of skin care products, or you have a few stubborn blackheads you'd like extracted, an esthetician may be the skin care professional for you.

Just remember there are things an esthetician can't do, like prescribe acne medications or treat severe acne.

Alternative Acne Treatments

Natural treatments are attractive to many people, so you may be drawn to natural treatments or home remedies to try to clear your skin. The reality is, though, that the vast majority of alternative or natural acne treatments just don't work.

There's no scientific evidence to show that things like garlic, apple cider vinegar, milk of magnesia and other home remedies work to clear acne. In some cases, they can actually cause contact dermatitis and make your skin look and feel worse.

There are a few alternative treatments that may hold some promise, although more research needs to be done. Tea tree oil and green tea extract may help fight breakouts when used topically. Making certain dietary changes, like cutting out carbohydrates and dairy, might lessen acne severity for some people.

But simply doing these things won't completely clear up a case of acne, especially if your acne is more severe. Your best bet is still an acne treatment medication with a proven track record.

Customizing Treatment for Your Acne Type

With all of these options, choosing one can seem downright overwhelming. Knowing the type of acne you have and its severity will narrow down your treatment options quickly and help you get the right acne treatment.

For minor pimples and blemishes, over-the-counter products often do the trick. Choose products with a proven acne-fighting ingredient and use them consistently for at least 10 to 12 weeks. A regular skin care routine also goes a long way in clearing mild breakouts.

Although some rare cases of moderate acne may clear up with OTC products, most people with moderate breakouts will need a prescription topical medication. Already tried over-the-counter products with no luck? Ditch the drugstore products and get a prescription medication for better results.

Severe acne always needs to be treated by a dermatologist. You'll most likely be prescribed an oral medication along with topical treatments to get these serious breakouts under control. See a dermatologist ASAP. The sooner you begin treatment the faster you'll see results. You'll also minimize acne scarring.

Not all types of acne cause your typical pimples. Bumpy skin and blackheads are a specific type of acne called comedonal acneWhile mild comedonal acne can be treated with over-the-counter products, prescription topical retinoids are the supreme treatments for this type of acne. Extractions are also helpful to get rid of blackheads.

Acne doesn't only happen on the face; the shoulders, back, chest and neck are also prime spots for breakouts. Body acne, especially when it's widespread and inflamed, can be stubborn and difficult to treat. An oral medication is often the answer, but body breakouts may also be treated with topical medications.

Pimples on the booty aren't always because of acne vulgaris. Although butt acne often has a different cause than other body breakouts, the treatment is often the same. Tight fitting clothes and sweat can make booty breakouts worse, so switching to cotton undergarments and showering immediately after sweating can go a long way in clearing the pimples on your buttocks.

Customizing Treatment for Different Life Stages

Although we think of acne as mainly a teenage skin problem, it can happen at (nearly) any age from birth to adulthood. Acne, and how to treat it, changes depending on your life stage.

Nearly all teens will get acne, it's a given. Treatments can run the gamut from OTC products for mild acne to oral medications for more severe breakouts.

There's no reason to just let teen acne run its course with so many effective acne treatments available. Parents can help their teens manage acne, while older teens can take the lead in treating their skin. 

Acne often makes its first appearance during the preteen years (ages 8 to 12). Preteen acne tends to be milder than teenage acne, so getting a jump on breakouts now helps prevent acne from worsening.

Many cases can be kept in check with just over-the-counter acne products. Kids of this age will need their parents' help treating acne. Now is a great time for tweens to learn how to care for their skin.

Adult acne is an extremely common skin problem. Unless your breakouts are very minor, most cases of adult acne are best treated with prescription medications.

Topical retinoids are very often prescribed for adult breakouts. They have the added benefit of being anti-agers, reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

Some women may need specific treatments for hormonal acne. To get these breakouts under control oral contraceptives or hormonal regulators like spironolactone might be needed.

Ladies, if you're pregnant acne must be treated carefully. Certain medications, like isotretinoin and Retin-A (tretinoin) for example, should never be used while pregnant.

The best thing to do for the health of your baby is to work with your obstetrician and dermatologist to devise a safe and effective acne treatment plan.

Acne can persist (or pop up for the first time) after you've given birth. Your postpartum acne treatment plan can change and depends a lot on how severe your acne is and whether or not you're breastfeeding. Again, a dermatologist can help guide you in an appropriate treatment plan.

Treating Baby Acne

Acne can (surprisingly) even occur at birth. Newborn baby acne is super common and in general isn't anything to be worried about.

Newborn baby acne, also called neonatal acne, happens during the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. As mother's hormones leave baby's body, the breakouts clear up on their own. No treatment is needed.

Infantile acne happens in babies older than 2 months of age. It isn't nearly as common as neonatal acne.

In the vast majority of cases, infantile acne clears up all on its own in time. Rarely, if acne is very severe, your pediatrician may prescribe a topical acne treatment medication. 

One Treatment (Usually) Doesn't Cut It

Here's the thing: acne is caused by several different factors all occurring at once. So, to really get good results you'll often need to use more than one treatment. Each treatment should address one (or more) causes of acne.

For example, your doctor may prescribe a topical retinoid to help keep pores from becoming clogged and an antibiotic to reduce acne-causing bacteria. If you're treating acne with over-the-counter products, you might consider using a cleanser that contains salicylic acid (a good pore-unclogger) as well as a benzoyl peroxide lotion (to reduce bacteria).

Of course, using more than one treatment at a time can increase your chances of getting dry, peeling skin. So, just start off slowly to allow your skin to adjust. But combining treatments this way is hugely effective.

It Will Take Time to Build an Effective Treatment Plan

There is no one-size-fits-all acne treatment, and no one knows exactly how a treatment is going to work for them until they've actually tried it. Everyone's skin is a little different, and everyone's acne is a little different.

What works wonders for some people may not have much of an effect on others. Because of this, it can take a while to find a treatment that works for your skin.

This can be a hard thing to cope with, especially when you're spending time and money to see a dermatologist and seeing disappointing results. But try to be patient, use the treatments you've been prescribed as directed, and keep your dermatologist in the loop.

If you're not getting results you want, don't immediately dump your dermatologist for a new one or, even worse, stop seeing a dermatologist for your acne altogether. Let your dermatologist know you aren't seeing results, and let them adjust your treatment plan accordingly. It can take a few tries to get an effective treatment plan in place.

Give Your Treatment Plenty of Time to Work

Once you start your new treatment, it will take at least 10 to 12 weeks to start seeing any sort of improvement in your skin. Pimples won't immediately stop forming.

In fact, during the initial weeks of treatment you will continue to get pimples, sometimes even massive breakouts. This doesn't mean your treatment isn't working. It just means you need to give it a bit more time.

If you've been using your treatments for several weeks without seeing any improvement, you may want to troubleshoot your treatment to make sure you're using them correctly. Sometimes we're unknowingly making acne treatment mistakes and end up sabotaging our treatments.

Sometimes you'll try a new product with promising early results, only to find it stops working a few weeks later. You switch to a new product or treatment and get the same results.

What you may not realize is that it's natural and normal for acne to get better and worse, all on its own, regardless of treatments.

Often, there is no rhyme or reason to a bad breakout. They can happen for apparently no reason at all. But it's normal.

That's why it's important to keep using your treatments, even if it looks like acne is getting worse. It can take a few of these normal "acne cycles" for you to notice a real difference.

Effective Treatment Doesn't Mean Acne Is Gone for Good

Whatever treatment you use you'll have to stick with it, even after acne gets better. If you stop using your acne treatment, acne will come back. This is normal, too, and doesn't mean your treatment didn't work.

Effectively treating acne is about controlling breakouts, so it's unrealistic to think that you'll never get another pimple again. In fact, you'll probably get breakouts occasionally.

It is reasonable to expect relatively clear skin most of the time. So, keep working with your dermatologist to find a treatment that works for you, and don't give up.

A Word From Verywell

Acne is a complicated problem and one that is still not fully understood. It can be hard to treat and is not a condition that goes away overnight. On the contrary, many people will go through several treatments and regimens before they find one that works for them. 

Try not to get discouraged. Also, remember with any acne treatment or therapy, consistency is key to a successful outcome.

If you're feeling self-conscious or down because of your acne, that's normal too. Acne can affect how you feel about yourself, so it's important to pay special attention to preserving your self-esteem. Just starting treatment can help you feel more in control of your skin.

Your dermatologist can help you devise a treatment plan that will work for you. So, take that first step!

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