Oral Acne Medication Options

There is no doubt that acne can be tough to treat. If you've tried several topical medications without success, or your acne is severe, oral medications are generally the next step in the treatment process. There are several options available, each of which carries its own risks and benefits.

Doctor writing prescription for medication with pill bottle in hand
Hero Images/Getty Images

Oral Medications for Severe Acne

Not all acne clears up with topical medications (the creams, lotions, and gels that you apply to your skin). Oral medications, taken by mouth and sometimes called systemic medications, work internally to improve the skin. Some medications you'll take just once a day and others you'll take more often, ideally at the same time every day. 

Persistent or severe cases of acne are difficult to control, and in the majority of cases require oral medications. Severe acne (sometimes called cystic acne or nodular acne) creates large, deep, inflamed breakouts. Topical medications can't get deep enough to effectively treat these types of blemishes.

Another obstacle: Acne often occurs on other areas of the body, like your back or shoulders. It can be tough to reach those areas to effectively apply topical treatments. Oral acne medications, on the other hand, can work on deeply inflamed blemishes no matter their location.

Even if your acne isn't necessarily severe, it might simply be stubborn. If you've tried topical treatments and your skin still isn't clearing up, oral medications can give your treatment the boost it needs so you can see actual results.

In any case, if you're having trouble getting your acne under control, see a dermatologist. All oral acne medications are prescription-only. There are no over-the-counter alternatives. 

Oral Antibiotics

Oral antibiotics have been used to treat acne for many years. Like topical antibiotics, oral antibiotics work by reducing Propionibacteria acnes (the bacteria responsible for acne breakouts). They also help decrease inflammation of the skin.

Most people are started on a high dosage and moved to lower dosages as acne improves. Oral antibiotics are used to treat moderate to severe acne, or persistent acne.

The most common oral antibiotics prescribed for acne treatments are:

Due to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, oral antibiotics should only be used to treat acne when combined with topical therapy, and they should be prescribed for no longer than three to six months, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Monotherapy should be avoided.

Oral antibiotics work best when paired with topical acne treatments, so expect to be prescribed topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, or another topical treatment to use as well.

Oral Contraceptives for Acne in Women

Oral contraceptives, also known as birth control pills, are frequently used to treat acne in women. The drugs are able to reduce oil gland secretions by suppressing androgen hormones.

Oral contraceptives may be an ideal choice for women with acne that comes and goes with their monthly cycle and for those who need a form of birth control anyway.

A handful of birth control pills have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of acne in women, including Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Beyaz, and Yaz.

But you don't necessarily need these specific brands. Birth control pills have been prescribed off-label to treat acne for many years. Most doctors agree nearly any formulation will give the same effect.

You'll also likely need a topical acne medication to use alongside oral contraceptives.

Other Common Oral Acne Medications

Aside from the oral antibiotics mentioned above, the following are commonly prescribed oral acne meds.


Spironolactone (Aldactone) is another medication that is for adult women only. It's not specifically an acne treatment but can be used in certain circumstances to treat hormonal fluctuations that contribute to breakouts.

Spironolactone isn't very commonly used, and it's not a first-line acne treatment choice, but for some women, it's helpful in treating acne that isn't getting better with more conventional treatments.


Isotretinoin, formerly sold under the brand name Accutane, is a super powerful acne medication. It works when all other acne treatments have failed and is considered the best treatment for severe acne.

Isotretinoin works by shrinking the sebaceous glands, reducing the amount of oil found on the skin. This, in turn, reduces the number of comedones (or pore blockages) produced. No pore blockages means lesser or no pimples.

Isotretinoin is contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to the extremely high risk of birth defects and should not be used if breastfeeding. If you become pregnant while taking isotretinon, the drug must be stopped immediately.

If treatment is prescribed, you would be enrolled in the iPledge program, an FDA-approved initiative designed to reduce the number of birth defects caused by isotretinoin. Everyone has to enroll, even men, although the requirements for men and women who can't get pregnant are different than those for women who can get pregnant.

You'll also be monitored for side effects during the course of your treatment. But, the good news is most people only need one or two courses before acne is gone for good. Your dermatologist will help you decide if this is the right option for you.

A Word From Verywell

Acne, no matter how severe, can be frustrating. If topical treatments alone aren't improving your acne, or if your acne is quite severe or widespread, an oral medication is the best option.

In some cases, you'll only need to take oral medications short term, to get acne under control, and then maintain your skin with topical medications. Other times, though, you may need to take them for longer periods of time.

If you're at all worried about taking an oral acne medication, or if you have questions or concerns about your treatment, talk to your dermatologist.

Was this page helpful?
4 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.
  1. Tan AU, Schlosser BJ, Paller AS. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2018;4(2):56-71. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2017.10.006

  2. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

  3. Trivedi MK, Shinkai K, Murase JE. A review of hormone-based therapies to treat adult acne vulgaris in women. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2017;3(1):44-52. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2017.02.018

  4. Zouboulis CC, Bettoli V. Management of severe acne. Br J Dermatol. 2015;172 Suppl 1:27-36. doi:10.1111/bjd.13639