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Treating mild to moderate acne

Teenage boy looking at skin in mirrorWhile there's no cure for acne, there are several treatments which, along with self-care, can be very effective at stopping new spots from developing as well as reducing scarring.

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

Before starting any acne treatment, talk to a medical professional such as your pharmacist or GP to check 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 three strengths. You can buy 2.5% and 5% benzoyl peroxide from the supermarket or pharmacy without needing a prescription. To buy the strongest preparation (10%), you need to go to a pharmacy. It's 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 and can be used 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 needing a prescription. Brands include Skinoren and Azclear.

Topical antibiotics

Topical antibiotics cut down the number of bacteria on your skin that can infect blocked pores. The most commonly prescribed is clindamycin cream (it's prescription-only). Sometimes it's combined with benzoyl peroxide – if not, your GP will normally advise you to take topical antibiotics with a benzoyl peroxide product or a topical retinoid. Retinoid must be used at night, while the clindamycin can be used in the morning.

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 and prevents inflammatory (red, 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 and some are subsidised, which means they're cheaper.

Prescription brands include Differin which comes in a cream and gel, and ReTrieve, a cream.

Topical retinoids should be applied at night – it's particularly important to avoid sun exposure when using them.

You shouldn't use topical retinoids if you're pregnant. If you're of child-bearing age you should use effective contraception if using topical retinoids.

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; pregnant women and other people who can't take or don't 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 two hormones – estrogen and progesterone. All combined oral contraceptives are effective for acne but it may take up to six periods (menstrual cycles) for you to see an effect.

Progesterone-only contraceptives

Progesterone-only contraceptives ("mini-pills") such Noriday and Cerazette don't help with acne and may make it worse.

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On the next page: Treating severe acne

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2021.

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Review key: HIACN-20774