The idea behind using antibiotics for acne is that they can help reduce the number of p. acnes on the skin and relieve an acute case of severe acne. After the person stops taking the antibiotics, the hope is that the reduced numbers of p. acnes will prevent the pimples or cysts from getting out of hand again. However, in reality, most people simply end up taking the antibiotics much longer than they should, and the acne almost always comes back. That’s because, according to The Lancet: Infectious Diseases, over 50 percent of p. acnes strains are resistant to antibiotics7. If your doctor tries to prescribe you antibiotics for your acne, we recommend asking about other courses of action.
Most people either choose to live with acne, or out of frustration turn to medications or chemical treatments that often have side effects or simply don’t work at all. Dermatologists can prescribe medications to treat acne, including gels, lotions, cleansers and even antibiotics. The harsh chemicals used in over-the-counter and prescription acne products can cause further irritation to already-sensitive or inflamed skin, so using these is not always the best option, or safe for continued use.
You’ve probably heard of the benefits of retinoid creams for anti-aging, but vitamin A is also efficient at clearing up acne. “[Retinoids] cause skin cells to turn over at a faster rate, decrease oil production, and help skin exfoliate,” board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., tells SELF. Another benefit: Acne is inflammation, and retinoids are anti-inflammatory.

The Effaclar Medicated Cleanser from La Roche-Posay is made especially for users with oily skin. The 2% salicylic acid concentration slows down sebum production without completely stripping the skin of its natural oil. Therefore, it won’t dry out your face, but it does reduce shine. And the key ingredient, zinc pidolate, soaks up excess oil and removes impurities.
Some people use natural treatments like tea tree oil (works like benzoyl peroxide, but slower) or alpha hydroxy acids (remove dead skin and unclog pores) for their acne care. Not much is known about how well many of these treatments work and their long-term safety. Many natural ingredients are added to acne lotions and creams. Talk to your doctor to see if they’re right for you.
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Both salicylic acid and benzoyl acid are commonly found in the top acne treatments for getting rid of mild to severe acne. They work in tandem to getting rid of the dead skin and killing bacteria, which are two of the main contributors to the spread of acne. Salicylic acid breaks up the skin to clear pores from skin, oil and bacteria and benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria slowly over a 48-hour period.
While a few people suffer from acne that is so severe it requires a medical prescription from a doctor, most people with mild to medium acne problems can find decent over-the-counter treatments that really work. The first key to getting your acne cleanser right is to know what active ingredients combat your acne, and then finding an acne treatment that contains it. Here are a few of the ingredients you want to look for:
Sulfur – Not to be confused with irritating sulfates that can be found in some cleansers and treatments, sulfur is an element that can be quite good for your skin. It removes the dead skin cells and excess oils that clog your pores. But just like any chemical ingredient, too much of it can dry your skin out. You’ll likely find it coupled with other ingredients in your cleanser, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and resorcinol.
There are two big guns used to take down acne, and they're both great at doing entirely different things. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow bark and works primarily as an exfoliator, breaking down fatty acids like sebum so your pores don’t clog. (Glycolic acid works similarly but is less effective.) These acids do their thing on comedones — whiteheads, blackheads, and other non-red bumps.
If you have non-inflamed acne, it means you have a lot of blackheads and whiteheads, but not a lot of redness and swelling. Most common acne face washes can work well for you. If you have inflamed acne, you want to make sure you buy a facial cleanser that has the ingredients to reduce inflammation, swelling, and redness. But you also want to be careful not to buy or use anything that can cause irritation, dry skin and thus, more redness and swelling.
Cysts are another troublesome type of acne to treat successfully without the help of a doctor. A cyst forms similar to a nodule—way beneath your skin’s surface. However, cysts are thought to form from pustules because they contain pus. They are painful when touched resemble a boil. They appear to be a large, red, swollen lump on the skin surface. People who are prone to them may get one large cyst or a clump of cysts.
Considerations: Because tazarotene is a retinoid (vitamin A derivative), like Accutane, it should not be used by women who are pregnant because of potential harm to the fetus. Exposure to sunlight should be avoided. Wind or cold may be more irritating when taking tazarotene. Side effects occured in 10-30% of patients and included dry peeling skin, burning, stinging, dry skin, redness, and itchiness.

Skin type, tone, and condition vary from person to person. That explains why what worked for your best friend hasn’t helped you at all. If you are at the end of your rope with your acne and find that it is affecting your life, you really should see a dermatologist before struggling to find a new treatment. A dermatologist might still have to try a few different approaches, but they are trained to get through the process quicker. However, if your acne hasn’t caused you serious problems yet, visiting a dermatologist can be a time-consuming and expensive option. This is why many doctors say mild- to moderate- acne can be treated with over-the-counter products.

Acne is caused by what you eat. SOMEWHAT FALSE. This isn’t a complete lie, but studies are still being done. To date, there have only been small studies done on a few people that have shown a possible connection between acne and high carbohydrate foods like bread, pastries and sodas. There are also studies involving more people, but they relied on adults remembering their acne and eating habits when they were in high school. There just isn’t enough evidence to link any food with breakouts. Some people swear that certain foods make their acne worse. The best way to determine if a food is causing your pimples to appear is by keeping a food/skin diary. Keep track of everything you eat and assess your skin condition in the morning and evening of each day. If you find a pattern, it can’t hurt to avoid the foods that lead to more blackheads and whiteheads. Keep in mind that eating a balanced diet is always a good idea.
Considerations: Because tazarotene is a retinoid (vitamin A derivative), like Accutane, it should not be used by women who are pregnant because of potential harm to the fetus. Exposure to sunlight should be avoided. Wind or cold may be more irritating when taking tazarotene. Side effects occured in 10-30% of patients and included dry peeling skin, burning, stinging, dry skin, redness, and itchiness.

Retinoids: Retinoids are substances that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol, but also includes synthetic versions of retinol with activated retinoic acid which tends to be more effective in treating acne. Retinoic acid has been shown to reduce sebum production8 and regulate skin cell production9, which together can greatly reduce acne. These synthetic retinoids include adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and others. Although these synthetic options are more reliably effective, they also tend to have more side effects, like burning, itching, and dryness. Unlike retinol, which is available over-the-counter, nearly all synthetic retinoids are prescription-only. One of the main exceptions is Differin, which is a brand that sells a topical gel containing adapalene, a mild synthetic retinoid, over-the-counter.
What's Going On: Do you tend to get these at the same time every month — say, just before you get your period? Because these are the work of fluctuating hormones, says Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Hormones can put oil production into overdrive, and having an excess of it means that it’s more likely to settle in your pores and cause zits.
Although home remedies are generally convenient and popular, some have significant counterproductive effects on the skin. The famous Procter & Gamble product Ivory Soap is probably the world’s most frequently used acne face wash ingredient. It is also probably the world’s worst acne face wash ingredient. Often advertised as “so pure that it floats,” Ivory Soap is depicted with pictures of babies and fair-skinned blondes to imply that it is a good and inexpensive face wash for acne-affected skin. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The other downside to Proactiv+ is that the bottles are small — like, half the size of Paula’s Choice small. Combine that with its recommended two or three-times daily application, and you’re going to be going through a lot of kits, which ultimately means spending more money on your treatment. If Proactiv is the only thing that works for you, it may very well be worth the investment, but we recommend starting with Paula’s Choice to see if you can get the same results at a cheaper price.
The first thing you need to do to take care of your skin is to use sunscreen. The best acne treatment never includes sunbathing and staying out in the sun unprotected will not reduce the number of blackheads or whiteheads you have. It will, however, lead to more skin problems down the road and can cause a breakout or two right now. Wrinkles, age spots and even skin cancer are on the agenda of someone who decides they don’t need to protect their skin.
Another once-daily gel your dermatologist might prescribe for acne is Aczone 7.5 percent. The active ingredient, dapsone, is both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, and it’s proven to help with blackheads, whiteheads, and deeper painful pimples. Oftentimes, Aczone is used alongside other acne treatments. And like many of those other remedies, Aczone can cause skin to dry out.

Tretinoin: As we said above, tretinoin (common brand name: Retin-A) is a synthetic retinoid, but it is stronger than some of the other options, and its cousin, isotretinoin, is even stronger. Isotretinoin, better known as Accutane, is an oral synthetic retinoid typically only prescribed for very severe cases of cystic acne because it can cause intense side effects and is a powerful teratogen, meaning it causes birth defects. However, after taking isotretinoin for several months, many people never need to do any serious acne treatment again, so for some, it is well worth the side effects.


Oftentimes, our first instinct when we encounter bumps, pimples and other blemishes on our skin is to touch it. But if you’ve been dealing with acne for a while, you’ve probably learned by now that these practices only make acne and skin problems worse. For starters, our hands come into contact with more bacteria, pathogens and contaminants than any other part of our bodies. Even when we try to wash our hands often, there is only so much of that we can avoid putting on our faces every time we reach out to touch it. So, there’s the fact that we could be adding harmful bacteria our facial skin to begin with. But it doesn’t end there.
Spironolactone has relatively minor side effects, like low appetite, weakness, or cramping, but there’s one major exception: spironolactone comes with a black box warning about its cancer-causing effects. The FDA is required to include this label based on a study conducted in the 1950s that found carcinogenic properties in the spironolactone given to rats in an experiment. However, the dose of spironolactone used in this study was nearly 500 times higher than the dose currently prescribed, and no studies since have found anything carcinogenic about spironolactone. Because of this, most dermatologists feel comfortable prescribing spironolactone for acne. Still, it’s something to be aware of before you take it. Additionally, those with low blood pressure or kidney conditions are likely not good candidates for spironolactone and may want to explore other acne treatment options.
The side effects depend on the type of treatment you use. Generally, for topical, over-the-counter creams, you can watch out for stinging, redness, irritation and peeling — these side effects usually don’t go any deeper than the skin. Others, like oral antibiotics or hormonal medications, could come with new sets of complications, so we suggest talking to your doctor before pursuing the treatment.
If you have acne that's not responding to self-care and over-the-counter treatments, make an appointment with your doctor. Early, effective treatment of acne reduces the risk of scarring and of lasting damage to your self-esteem. After an initial examination, your doctor may refer you to a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist).
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