Do Generic Acne Treatments Work as Well as Name Brands?

Your dermatologist gave you a prescription for an acne medication. When you went to get your prescription filled, the pharmacist asked if you wanted the generic drug instead. He said it’s the same medication.

Still, you're unsure. Are generic acne medications the same as the name brands? Do they work the same? You want to make sure you're getting the most effective treatment for your acne.

A man holding a container of moisturizer
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Is There a Difference?

Think about all the name-brand/generic products you know: Q-Tips and cotton swabs; Kleenex and facial tissue; Tylenol and acetaminophen. Acne medications have both name-brand and generic versions, too. For example:

Isotretinoin is no longer available under the brand Accutane, but you can still get the generic version.

So, do the generic drugs work like the branded versions? Yes. Are the generic drugs and the branded drugs exactly the same? No.

Generic Medications vs. Name Brands

All medications are made up of two parts: the active ingredients (the ingredients that make the medication work) and the inactive ingredients (all the other "stuff" that is needed in the product). Generic medications have the same active ingredients as their name-brand counterparts. These ingredients will work in the same way in both branded and generic drugs.

While the active ingredients are the same, the inactive ingredients can be widely different. So if you have a reaction to a name-brand medication, you may possibly be able to use the generic version, or vice-versa without a problem.

With topical acne medications, there is another thing to consider—the vehicle. In topical acne medications, the vehicle is essentially the base into which the active ingredient is added.

Think of it like this: The vehicle is the "stuff" you spread on your face that delivers the active, working ingredient into your skin. Even though the branded acne medication and its generic counterpart will both contain the same active ingredient, the vehicle (or base) will be different. This means it will have a different feel on your skin. You may prefer the feel of one medication over the other, even if the active ingredient is the same.

Name brands and generics aren't exactly identical. In theory, because each medication contains the same active ingredient, they will work basically the same.

Here's where it gets a bit tricky, though. The vehicle can affect how the medication works, too. Because of the differences in the vehicle, your dermatologist may prefer you to use one brand over the other, even if the active ingredient is the same.

Besides the inactive ingredients, another difference you'll see between generic and name-brand drugs is the price. All in all, generic medications are less expensive.

But this might not make much of a difference to your wallet. Depending on your insurance, your co-pay may be the same for both. And in some cases, the branded medication may actually be less than the generic drug (if your insurance has negotiated a lower price with the manufacturer). Obviously, if you're paying for your acne medications out-of-pocket, the price issue is one you'll want to pay attention to.

Is a Generic Version a Good Substitute?

The best place to get information about generic versus branded drugs is from your healthcare provider. During your appointment, ask if the generic version is OK.

Not every medication has a generic equivalent, though. Your dermatologist may have a specific reason for wanting you on a branded drug. Then, if your pharmacist suggests a generic option you and your practitioner will be on the same page.

If you need to keep the cost of the prescription low, let your healthcare provider know up-front. Keeping this in mind, your practitioner can prescribe a medication that will work for you and fit within your budget, whether this is a name brand or generic option.

A Word From Verywell

Diving into the world of acne treatment medications can be overwhelming. Not only are there so many options, but so many have odd names that are tough to pronounce or names that are so similar sounding you're left wondering if they're the same medication (like Retin-A and Retin-A Micro, or tretinoin and isotretinoin). Add in generic versus name brands and it's enough to make your head spin.

Just remember that your dermatologist is there to guide you. If you have questions about your acne medication, ask. The more you know about your medication (how to use it, side effects, etc.) the better results you will ultimately get.

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. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: A reviewJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.