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Acne treatments: Skincare to prescriptions

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

If you have symptoms consistent with acne, or have previously been told by your doctor that you have acne, then there are many treatment options. These can start small at home with some self-treatment, increasing up to creams and tablet medications, and finally, a referral to a skin specialist if needed.

Prescribed vs cosmetic treatments

Within the past few years, the growth of the ‘cosmeceuticals' industry has increased rapidly. Whether you walk into a well-known high street pharmacy or shop at online beauty retailers, you cannot deny that many skincare products contain bioactive ingredients that claim to have medical benefits, such as fading acne scars. These claims hold some truth as the ingredients they use are present in prescribed treatments for skincare concerns.

Skincare products available to buy contain weaker forms of these active ingredients or are diluted in their strength. However, important to note that there are no requirements for skincare products to have their claims proven. That’s not to say that they are of no use. Some people benefit from these skincare products alone, whereas some may require stronger prescribed treatment from their doctor.

Doctor’s advice

Treatments available on prescription

Prescription treatments which are evidence-based may include the following active ingredients:

  • Oral and topical retinoids (adapalene, isotretinoin) - to speed skin cell renewal and fade acne scars
  • Acids (azelaic acid) - an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial
  • Benzyl peroxide targets bacteria that cause spots
  • Oral and topical antibiotics (metronidazole, clindamycin, tetracyclines) - target bacteria that cause spots
  • Combined hormonal contraception treats the hormonal cause of acne in women

Skincare treatments available

Skincare products that claim to treat acne and other skincare concerns may contain any of the following ingredients:

  • Niacinamide - shrinks pores and controls oil production
  • Acids (salicylic acid can clean deep into the pores, glycolic acid exfoliates the outer surface of the skin and helps reduce pigmentation, and azelaic acid has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties)
  • Benzyl peroxide - targets bacteria that cause spots
  • Retinol - speeds skin cell renewal and fades acne scars

Although many of these active ingredients are present in prescription treatments, they are found in smaller amounts or weaker forms over the counter.

If you want to try skincare products with these active ingredients, slowly add one of these ingredients into your routine and stick to the minimal number of active ingredients as possible. This will help reduce the sensitivity and irritation your skin may experience.

Other treatments

The comedones extraction method uses a small pencil-like instrument to extract white and blackheads trapped within pores. This is useful to treat cystic acne that forms deep within the skin layer or acne that is resistant to other treatments. This can be done in skincare clinics by a qualified professional.

Photodynamic therapy is the use of blue light to kill acne-causing bacteria. Some gadgets are on the market for this purpose, but you can also visit a private skin clinic if interested.

New developments in acne treatments

In recent years, the field of acne treatment has seen some exciting new developments that offer hope to individuals struggling with persistent acne. One such development is the emergence of laser therapy as a viable option for acne treatment. Laser therapy works by targeting the glands, which are responsible for producing excess oil that can clog pores and contribute to acne formation. The laser emits a specific wavelength of light that penetrates the skin and reduces the activity of these glands, leading to a decrease in oil production and subsequent improvement in acne symptoms. This treatment option has shown promising results, particularly for individuals with moderate to severe acne who have not responded well to traditional treatments.

Another area of research and development in the field of acne treatments is the use of probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help maintain a healthy balance in the gut microbiome. Emerging evidence suggests that certain strains of probiotics can also have a positive impact on skin health, including reducing inflammation and preventing acne breakouts. While more research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits of probiotics in acne treatment, early studies are encouraging, and probiotic skincare products are starting to gain popularity in the market.

Additionally, advancements in technology have paved the way for innovative acne treatments, such as the use of micro-needling and chemical peels. Micro-needling involves creating tiny punctures in the skin using a device equipped with fine needles. This process stimulates collagen production and promotes skin rejuvenation, which can help improve acne scarring and overall skin texture.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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