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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Treating acne

While there is no cure for acne, there are several treatments. Along with self-care, they can be very effective at stopping new spots from developing. They can also reduce scarring.

They work by cleaning your skin and drying up excess oil (sebum). They also reduce the germs (bacteria) and reduce inflammation. Try a treatment for three months or more to see if there is any improvement.

Before starting any acne treatment, talk to a medical professional such as your pharmacist or general practice team. They will check that the product is the right one for you.

Treatments include:

Topical (rub on) treatments

Topical treatments are ones you put on your skin, rather than medicines you swallow. They include creams and gels. There are lots available. You can buy some from the supermarket or pharmacy. But the stronger creams are prescription-only medications.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide works as an antiseptic to reduce germs on your skin. This can reduce inflammation and prevent pores from blocking. Brands include Benzac AC, PanOxyl, Clearasil Ultra, Clean and Clear Cleanser.

Treatments come in 3 strengths. You can buy 2.5% and 5% benzoyl peroxide from the supermarket or pharmacy without a prescription. To buy the strongest preparation (10%), you need to go to a pharmacy. It is best to start with a lower strength, especially if you have pale skin.

Read more about benzoyl peroxide.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid treatments are gentler on your skin than benzoyl peroxide. You can use them for more widespread acne. They work by getting rid of bacteria and dead skin.

You can buy some azelaic acid treatments from the pharmacy without a prescription. Brands include Skinoren and Azclear.

Topical antibiotics

Topical antibiotics cut down the bacteria on your skin that can infect blocked pores. The most prescribed is clindamycin cream (it is prescription-only). Sometimes it is combined with benzoyl peroxide. If not, your general practice team will tell you to take topical antibiotics with a benzoyl peroxide product or a topical retinoid.

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are creams or gels that work by removing the dead skin from the top of your skin. This is called exfoliating. It helps reduce the number of new spots forming. It also prevents inflammatory (red and swollen) acne.

You can buy many products containing low-dose topical retinoids at a supermarket or pharmacy. Some higher-dose retinoids are available on prescription. Some are subsidised, which means they are cheaper.

Prescription brands include ReTrieve cream and Differin cream. Differin also comes as a gel.

You should apply topical retinoids at night. It is particularly important to avoid sun exposure when using them.

You should not use topical retinoids if you are pregnant. If you are of child-bearing age, you should use effective contraception.

Pills or tablets

Antibiotic medicines

Oral antibiotic tablets called tetracyclines can be prescribed to treat acne. The most common is doxycycline.

The antibiotic erythromycin is used for children 12 years old and younger. It is also for pregnant women and other people who cannot take or do not respond to tetracyclines.

Combined oral contraceptive pill

The low-dose combined oral contraceptive pill (the pill) can be used to treat women with mild acne.

Combined contraceptives contain both estrogen and progesterone. All combined oral contraceptives are effective for acne. But it may take up to 6 periods (menstrual cycles) for you to see an effect.

Progesterone-only contraceptives (mini-pills) such Noriday and Cerazette do not help with acne. They may even make it worse.


The anti-androgen medication, spironolactone can improve acne in women. It can also help with unwanted hair growth.


Isotretinoin may be used to treat severe acne.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Treating severe acne with isotretinoin

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2021.


Page reference: 46977

Review key: HIACN-20774