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Topical Acne Treatments

Topical treatments are sometimes used to treat acne or other skin imperfections and can help prevent scarring. While over-the-counter lotions and creams may work in more mild cases, often prescription medications are recommended. Over-the-counter topical treatments are not considered effective in treating scars themselves, so the real benefit of topical treatment is found in treating and controlling skin conditions like acne that can leave scars. Topical treatments typically work in two ways: they help unclog blocked pores and they help reduce bacteria and inflammation.

Detailed Description
Topical retinoids are treatments that work to unclog pores and help clear up the blackheads and whiteheads of mild to moderate acne. Retinoids are a derivative of Vitamin A that may also help diminish signs of aging and skin spots. They may increase irritation and sensitivity to the sun, so it is important for patients to consult with their physician about appropriate sunscreen use.

Common prescription topical retinoids include:


Synthetic anti-inflammatory gel or cream that usually improves skin in 8 to 12 weeks. It may cause minor skin dryness.


Synthetic gel or cream that helps keep pores clean. It should not be used by pregnant women.


Naturally-derived retinoid that works to clear pores and keep them unblocked. While many patients find it is too harsh for their skin, newer versions of it do not produce as many side effects. Patients who experience burning, itching or scaling should consult with physicians; often, adjusting the dosage can help.

Topical antimicrobials treat the bacteria and inflammation of mild to moderately severe acne. Physicians can determine if a patient is a good candidate for prescription antimicrobials and if so, which type is the best option.

Common prescription topical antimicrobials include:

Azelaic acid

Naturally-occurring acid that reduces bacteria and inflammation and may also treat the dark spots acne can cause in patients with darker complexions. It isn’t as harsh as other topical treatments and may be safely tolerated for several years.

Benzoyl peroxide

Gel, cleanser, lotion or cream that kills bacteria but does not reduce inflammation. It is often used in combination with oral or topical antibiotics. It may produce minor skin irritation and can bleach fabrics or hair.

Topical antibiotics like clindamycin and erythromycin decrease bacteria and may also help reduce the likelihood of bacterial resistance, especially if used as part of a combination therapy.

Last updated: 05-Dec-08

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