Antibiotics Used to Treat Acne

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Antibiotics are frequently used to treat acne since they help decrease the number of bacteria in and around the pilosebaceous unit, consisting of a hair follicle, sebaceous gland, and a hair. Acne is caused by the effects of hormones on this unit.

Specifically, the follicle becomes obstructed and an overgrowth of normal skin bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes, causes the destruction of the lining of the follicle. This process allows the follicular material to enter the dermis, causing an inflammatory response.

A girl touching the acne on her face
Bunlue Nantaprom / EyeEm/Getty Images

How They Work 

Antibiotics work by several mechanisms. The most important mechanism is the decrease in the number of bacteria in and around the follicle. Antibiotics also work by reducing the irritating chemicals produced by white blood cells. Finally, antibiotics reduce the concentration of free fatty acids in the sebum, also reducing the inflammatory response.


The most frequently used antibiotics for acne are summarized here.


Tetracyclines are the most widely prescribed class of antibiotic for acne. There are several antibiotics within the class, including tetracycline, in both 500-milligram (mg) and 250-mg formulations.

The usual starting dose is 500 mg twice a day continued until a significant decrease in acne lesions is seen. The dose can then be decreased to 250 mg twice a day or discontinued.

Tetracycline should not be given to people who are pregnant or children under 9 years of age.

Tetracycline may cause stomach upset. Eating it with non-dairy foods is often advised, as dairy products decrease absorbtion and render it less effective.


Minocin (minocycline) is a tetracycline derivative that has been used effectively for decades as a treatment for acne. It is especially useful for pustular type acne. A pustule is a pus-containing vesicle such as a whitehead surrounded by redness.

While the absorption of minocycline is decreased with food, it is not as significant as the decrease seen with tetracycline. The usual starting dose is 50 to 100 mg twice a day.

Major side effects of minocycline include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, skin pigmentation changes, and tooth discoloration. The skin and tooth changes are seen more often in people who have taken minocycline for a long time.

Minocycline (and theoretically any tetracycline derivative) should be avoided in those who are using Accutane (isotretinoin) as the combination of these may result in a condition in which there is increased pressure within the skull (pseudotumor cerebri).


Doxycycline is often used for people who do not respond to or cannot tolerate erythromycin or tetracycline, or for those who will likely have difficulty with the "no food" guidelines of tetracycline (such as teenage boys.)

The dosage of doxycycline is started at 50 to 100 mg twice a day. It should be taken with food; otherwise, it can cause significant nausea.

Doxycycline is more likely than tetracycline to increase sensitivity to the sun or cause sunburns, a phenomenon known as photosensitivity. There are other acne medications that may cause photosensitivity as well, such as benzoyl peroxide, alpha-hydroxy acids, and topical retinoids.

Doxycycline is available under these brand names: Doryx, Oracea, Monodox, Atridox, Morgidox, Vibra-Tabs, Alodox, Ocudox, Doxy, Acticlate, and Vibramycin.


Click Play to Learn More About Doxycycline Acne Treatments

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

Septra/Bactrim and Macrolides

Septra or Bactrim (sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim) and Zithromax (azithromycin) a macrolide, have often been used to treat moderate to severe inflammatory acne.

Studies do not seem to favor one antibiotic over another with this condition, but treatment appears to work much better when combined with topical therapy.

Allergic reactions (sulfa allergy) are fairly common with sulfanomides, and significant resistance has been seen with both of these categories of antibiotics.

Topical Antibiotics

Clindamycin is most widely prescribed as a topical antibiotic. The starting dose is 75 to 150 mg twice a day.

The major side effect of oral clindamycin therapy (which is rarely used anymore) is a serious intestinal infection called pseudomembranous colitis caused by the bacteria, Clostridium difficile. A Clostridium difficile infection is much more common with oral clindamycin but has been reported with the topical product as well.

Topical clindamycin is available as Cleocin-T, Clinda-Derm, Clindagel, Clindets, C/T/S, and Evoclin.

Side Effects

All antibiotics can cause vaginal yeast infections in women. Tetracycline seems to be the antibiotic that most frequently has this side effect.

All oral antibiotics can also lessen the effectiveness of birth control pills, so those who are taking these antibiotics should use a backup birth control method. Nausea is fairly common with erythromycin and doxycycline.

It's important to talk to your dermatologist about any potential side effects as well as when you should call with any symptoms.

Antibiotic Resistance 

In recent years we have been seeing increasing resistance of the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes against the oral antibiotics used.

Current strategies to reduce resistance (and hence, the lack of an effect of the antibiotics upon acne) recommend using antibiotics in combination with topical treatments and limiting the duration of use when possible.

A Word From Verywell

Antibiotics can be very helpful for some people with acne and work by a combination of mechanisms. Some antibiotics work better for particular types of acne and your dermatologist can make the best choice by understanding your history of acne as well as your lifestyle.

As with any medications, side effects may occur. Fortunately, there are several different choices available if one of the above is not helpful. Antibiotics are usually used in combination with topical treatments and good daily skin care for acne-prone skin.

10 Sources
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.
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Additional Reading
  • Weller, Richard P. J. B., Hamish J.A. Hunter, and Margaret W. Mann. Clinical Dermatology. Chichester (West Sussex): John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015. Print.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.