How a Comedolytic Treats Acne

Comedolytic is the term used to describe a product or medication that inhibits the formation of comedones, blemishes that form when oil and skin cells become trapped in the pore.

Woman in the bathroom washing her face

The first part, comedo-, means pore blockage or breakout. The second part, -lytic, in a nutshell, means "destruction." So, the word comedolytic literally means the destruction of pore blockages.

How Comedolytic Products Work

Comedolytic products work by helping the skin to shed more effectively. For those prone to acne, comedolytic products are exactly what the skin needs. Acne is, in part, caused by an abnormal shedding of skin cells. The technical term is retention hyperkeratosis, but all it really means is the skin cells are hanging around longer than they should, getting trapped in the pore.

Comedolytic medications get those skin cells to slough away, keeping the pores from becoming plugged and preventing comedones. Comedolytics stop blemishes before they even start.

Comedolytic products also help get rid of comedones that have already formed. They loosen the plug of cells and oil, allowing it to break down and be expelled from the pore.

Available OTC and by Prescription

For acne-prone skin, a comedolytic medication is a good treatment choice. You can find them both over-the-counter and by prescription.

Salicylic acid is one option. You can find this comedolytic ingredient in over-the-counter acne washes and toners. Stronger salicylic acid peels are available at the day spa, medi-spa, and at your dermatologist's office.

Benzoyl peroxide is another acne treatment that you can purchase over-the-counter. It has mild comedolytic effects, especially when compared to salicylic acid. But don't think that makes it a bad choice. Benzoyl peroxide is actually the most effective OTC acne treatment available. While it's a mild comedolytic, it has other acne-fighting qualities that make it a good treatment choice.

OTC salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are best for mild acne, minor blackheads, and blemishes.

Topical retinoids are the strongest and most effective comedolytic acne medications, used for mild to moderately severe inflammatory acne, as well as for comedonal breakouts. Topical retinoid is a term for the group of medications that are derived from vitamin A. They include:

  • Retin-A (tretinoin).
  • Retin-A Micro (tretinoin)
  • Tazorac (tazarotene)

With the exception of Differin (adapalene), topical retinoids are prescription-only medications, so you'll need to see your dermatologist.

Side Effects

Just like any medication, comedolytics can cause some side effects. What you'll notice most often when using a comedolytic medication is probably dry, flaky, or peeling skin. This is because comedolytics work by speeding up cell turnover rates. Using an oil-free moisturizer can help reduce that dry feel and flaky look.

Your dermatologist will go over the possible side effects of your specific acne medication, plus give you tips on how to manage them.

6 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. Bikowski JB. Mechanisms of the comedolytic and anti-inflammatory properties of topical retinoids. J Drugs Dermatol. 2005 Jan-Feb;4(1):41-7.

  2. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive reviewClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-461. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765

  3. Mayo Clinic. Over-the-counter acne products: What works and why.

  4. Whitney KM, Ditre CM. Management strategies for acne vulgarisClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2011;4:41-53. doi:10.2147/CCID.S10817

  5. Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for AcneDermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(3):293-304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2

Additional Reading

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