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Treatments for mild to moderate acne

There are many treatments that can help with acne, ranging from creams and gels that you can buy from the supermarket or pharmacy, through to antibiotics and the oral contraceptive pill. Some of these are only available through your doctor or a dermatologist.

Topical (rub on) treatments

Topical treatments are those that you put on your skin, rather than medicines that you swallow. There are lots of products available, but you need a doctor's prescription for some of them.

Benzoyl peroxide

Mild acne is treated with creams, gels, and cleansers that contain benzoyl peroxide. It helps to kill bacteria, reduce inflammation, and unplug blocked pores. Brands include Benzac AC, PanOxyl, Clearasil Ultra, Clean and Clear Cleanser.

You can buy treatments containing benzoyl peroxide from the supermarket and pharmacy without needing a prescription. They come in different strengths. To buy the strongest preparation, which is 10%, you need to go to a pharmacy. It's best to start with a lower strength, especially if you have pale skin.

It can have some side effects, which include dry and red skin and bleaching of your clothes, towels, and bedding.

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are creams or gels that reduce the number of new spots forming and prevent inflammatory (red, swollen) acne. Brands include Differin and ReTrieve. 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 of these are subsidised, which means they are cheaper.

Skin irritation is a common side effect of retinoids, so use small amounts and increase the amount slowly if you need to.

Other topical treatments for mild acne

You can buy some treatments from the pharmacy, without needing a prescription.

Topical antibiotics

Topical antibiotics cut down the amount of bacteria on your skin, and also act as an anti-inflammatory. You can't buy them from supermarkets or a pharmacy, but you can get them on prescription from your doctor. Your doctor will normally advise you to combine topical antibiotics with a benzoyl peroxide product or a topical retinoid.

The most commonly prescribed topical antibiotics are:

Pills or tablets

Antibiotic medicines

If you have been diagnosed with moderate or severe acne, your doctor might suggest you try a course of antibiotic tablets. The most common one is doxycycline.

Some side effects of doxycycline include sensitivity to sunlight and an upset stomach. You should not take doxycycline if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Combined oral contraceptive pill

The combined oral contraceptive pill (the Pill) is often used to treat women with moderate to serious acne. If you need contraception and you have problems with acne, the Pill can be a good choice. All combined oral contraceptives are effective for acne, but it may take up to six cycles for you to see an effect. (Combined contraceptives contain two hormones – estrogen and progesterone.)

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

On the next page: Isotretinoin for severe acne

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2017.


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Review key: HIACN-20774