Topical Acne Medications

Most people who have experienced a breakout are familiar with topical acne medications. These creams, lotions, gels, and spot treatments are widely available, and most can be purchased without a prescription. However, the ways in which these products work vary by active ingredient, and their effectiveness will depend on the severity of the acne outbreak.

While most topical acne medications are available over the counter, some may require the help of a doctor to gain access. Similarly, some topical acne medications can cause side effects, or otherwise have little effect on the acne, and consulting a dermatologist may be helpful. If you have questions about how topical acne products can clear your skin, or if you are in need of a stronger medication, schedule an appointment at Zel Skin & Laser Specialists. One of our medical professionals can explain your options and make recommendations for your skin and lifestyle.


Types of Topical Acne Medications

Topical acne medications will typically fall into one of four categories: bacteria reducing, dead skin cell removing, pore unplugging, and oil reducing. The primary active ingredient in a product will change depending on the acne cause or catalyst it is targeting. Below, we’ve outlined four of the most common active ingredients used in topical acne medications. The amount of each ingredient in a given medication will often determine whether the product is available over the counter or as a prescription.

  • Retinoids – Retinoids are available as gels, lotions, and creams. Derived from vitamin A, retinoid drugs work by preventing the clogging of hair follicles. The active ingredient encourages new cell growth, forcing the skin on the surface to die faster and reducing the chances of this debris clogging a follicle. Because of this, retinoids are also commonly used as anti-ageing medications.
  • Acids – Acids used in topical acne medications, like salicylic, glycolic, hyaluronic, and lactic acid, have anti-inflammatory properties that can be useful for treating breakouts. These acids also promote new skin growth, which can reduce the chance of developing a clogged pore. Salicylic acid is the most commonly used for acne because it helps dissolve dead-skin buildup, which aids in unclogging pores. Azelaic acid is also helpful as a topical acne treatment because of its antibacterial properties.
  • Antibiotics – Antibiotics can help clear acne by killing excess skin bacteria and reducing redness. Often used in conjunction with retinoids, the most common topical antibiotics for acne are erythromycin and clindamycin. Both of these medications will require a prescription from a doctor. Topical antibiotics aren’t often a dermatologist’s first-choice medication, and most antibiotics for treating acne are taken orally.

Additionally, acne extraction is a form of topical treatment. In this quick and relatively painless procedure, a technician will manually remove the plug from a pore using specialized tools. While similar to popping a pimple, an acne extraction differs crucially in that it is designed to minimize damage, scarring, and the potential for bacterial infection.


What to Expect with Topical Acne Medications

The active ingredient in your topical acne medication will determine the experience you have. However, there are some side effects that most people will experience of the product they use. This includes:

  • Photosensitivity, or a sensitivity to sunlight
  • Redness
  • Dryness

In the days following a topical acne treatment, do your best to stay out of direct sunlight, and keep an eye on the treated area. If you notice severe redness or dryness after using a topical medication, stop using it and consult your dermatologist.

When to See a Doctor for Topical Acne Medications

Most over-the-counter products will safely and efficiently treat mild to moderate acne, especially whiteheads and blackheads. However, moderate to severe acne may require a stronger topical treatment. If your acne has not responded to over-the-counter topical treatments, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

When you visit Zel Skin & Laser Specialists for topical acne medications, one of our healthcare professionals will use a physical examination and oral history to better understand your acne’s severity. We may recommend a prescription product, which will be stronger than what is available from a drug store, or we may recommend a different form of treatment, such as an oral acne medication. In all cases, though, we will tailor treatment options to both your skin and lifestyle, resulting in a personalized treatment plan. If you’re having trouble clearing a breakout, contact us to schedule your appointment today.