It is widely suspected that the anaerobic bacterial species Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium. acnes) contributes to the development of acne, but its exact role is not well understood.[2] There are specific sub-strains of C. acnes associated with normal skin, and moderate or severe inflammatory acne.[50] It is unclear whether these undesirable strains evolve on-site or are acquired, or possibly both depending on the person. These strains have the capability of changing, perpetuating, or adapting to the abnormal cycle of inflammation, oil production, and inadequate sloughing of dead skin cells from acne pores. Infection with the parasitic mite Demodex is associated with the development of acne.[30][51] It is unclear whether eradication of the mite improves acne.[51]

“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”
Oh, hello old friend. Salicylic acid is the go-to fix for pimply preteens. And cruising through the aisles at the drugstore, you’ll find it as the active ingredient on the majority of products labeled “acne wash” or “spot treatment.” Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating away dead skin cells. Salicylic also has anti-inflammatory properties to help with inflamed cystic breakouts that can occur when blockages deep in the hair follicles rupture beneath the skin. It’s best to apply this ingredient as a toner, moisturizer, or leave-on spot treatment instead of a face wash to give it time to do its work. And keep in mind, salicylic acid can dry out the skin if over-applied, so maybe choose only one product with the ingredient to use every day.
Clascoterone is a topical antiandrogen which has demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of acne in both males and females and is currently in the late stages of clinical development.[120][121][122][123] It has shown no systemic absorption or associated antiandrogenic side effects.[122][123][124] In a direct head-to-head comparison, clascoterone showed greater effectiveness than topical isotretinoin.[122][123][124] 5α-Reductase inhibitors such as finasteride and dutasteride may be useful for the treatment of acne in both males and females, but have not been thoroughly evaluated for this purpose.[1][125][126][127] In addition, the high risk of birth defects with 5α-reductase inhibitors limits their use in women.[1][126] However, 5α-reductase inhibitors can be combined with birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, and are frequently used to treat excessive hair in women.[125] There is no evidence as of 2010 to support the use of cimetidine or ketoconazole in the treatment of acne.[128]
Sometimes birth control alone isn’t enough to really make a difference in hormonal acne. That’s when your doctor might recommend adding in an androgen blocker such as Spironalactone. Spiro (as it’s called) minimizes the amount of androgen hormones in circulation by blocking the receptors that bind with testosterone. When these pills are taken at the same time as an oral contraceptive, 90 percent of women see an improvement in breakouts, according to Linkner. The drug is sometimes prescribed to women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) to relieve androgen-related symptoms like excessive hair growth, hypertension, oily skin, and acne.
A major mechanism of acne-related skin inflammation is mediated by C. acnes's ability to bind and activate a class of immune system receptors known as toll-like receptors (TLRs), especially TLR2 and TLR4.[45][64][65] Activation of TLR2 and TLR4 by C. acnes leads to increased secretion of IL-1α, IL-8, and TNF-α.[45] Release of these inflammatory signals attracts various immune cells to the hair follicle including neutrophils, macrophages, and Th1 cells.[45] IL-1α stimulates increased skin cell activity and reproduction, which in turn fuels comedo development.[45] Furthermore, sebaceous gland cells produce more antimicrobial peptides, such as HBD1 and HBD2, in response to binding of TLR2 and TLR4.[45]
Baby acne almost always goes away on its own with no intervention. But bring it to your pediatrician's attention if the bumps look like they might be infected (for example, skin appears extra red, you notice swelling or discharge, or your child spikes a fever or has other symptoms) or if you suspect an allergic reaction or eczema (which may require a cream to keep the rash from spreading).
Sometimes birth control alone isn’t enough to really make a difference in hormonal acne. That’s when your doctor might recommend adding in an androgen blocker such as Spironalactone. Spiro (as it’s called) minimizes the amount of androgen hormones in circulation by blocking the receptors that bind with testosterone. When these pills are taken at the same time as an oral contraceptive, 90 percent of women see an improvement in breakouts, according to Linkner. The drug is sometimes prescribed to women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) to relieve androgen-related symptoms like excessive hair growth, hypertension, oily skin, and acne.
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Our favorite for banishing blemishes on the fly, Glossier's zit stick is not only effective, but it's portable. Just stash it in your purse for any unexpected breakouts! Packed with acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide, this convenient roll-on works extremely quickly. In a clinical trial, 83% of test subjects said that it lessened the appearance of pimples in just 3 hours. We've tried it ourselves and can confirm the 3-hour claim is true.
Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin.[47] They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night.[1] Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more.[1][84] Most formulations of tretinoin cannot be applied at the same time as benzoyl peroxide.[15] Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated.[1][84] Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
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Accutane (isotretinoin) has a mixed reputation, but among dermatologists it’s the finisher for patients with severe acne. “If you have an acne patient that doesn’t respond to anything, [Accutane] can really be a game changer,” board-certified dermatologist Adam Friedman tells SELF. Accutane is an oral retinoid, and it has all the same benefits of a topical retinol but is even more effective.

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.
Retinoids are medications which reduce inflammation, normalize the follicle cell life cycle, and reduce sebum production.[45][83] They are structurally related to vitamin A.[83] Studies show they are underprescribed by primary care doctors and dermatologists.[15] The retinoids appear to influence the cell life cycle in the follicle lining. This helps prevent the accumulation of skin cells within the hair follicle that can create a blockage. They are a first-line acne treatment,[1] especially for people with dark-colored skin, and are known to lead to faster improvement of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[36]

Side effects include increased skin photosensitivity, dryness, redness and occasional peeling.[81] Sunscreen use is often advised during treatment, to prevent sunburn. Lower concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are just as effective as higher concentrations in treating acne but are associated with fewer side effects.[80][82] Unlike antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide does not appear to generate bacterial antibiotic resistance.[81]

Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is usually the result of nodular acne lesions. These lesions often leave behind an inflamed darkened mark after the original acne lesion has resolved. This inflammation stimulates specialized pigment-producing skin cells (known as melanocytes) to produce more melanin pigment which leads to the skin's darkened appearance.[35] People with darker skin color are more frequently affected by this condition.[36] Pigmented scar is a common term used for PIH, but is misleading as it suggests the color change is permanent. Often, PIH can be prevented by avoiding any aggravation of the nodule, and can fade with time. However, untreated PIH can last for months, years, or even be permanent if deeper layers of skin are affected.[37] Even minimal skin exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can sustain hyperpigmentation.[35] Daily use of SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can minimize such a risk.[37]


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Retinoids are medications which reduce inflammation, normalize the follicle cell life cycle, and reduce sebum production.[45][83] They are structurally related to vitamin A.[83] Studies show they are underprescribed by primary care doctors and dermatologists.[15] The retinoids appear to influence the cell life cycle in the follicle lining. This helps prevent the accumulation of skin cells within the hair follicle that can create a blockage. They are a first-line acne treatment,[1] especially for people with dark-colored skin, and are known to lead to faster improvement of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[36]
Although the late stages of pregnancy are associated with an increase in sebaceous gland activity in the skin, pregnancy has not been reliably associated with worsened acne severity.[137] In general, topically applied medications are considered the first-line approach to acne treatment during pregnancy, as they have little systemic absorption and are therefore unlikely to harm a developing fetus.[137] Highly recommended therapies include topically applied benzoyl peroxide (category C) and azelaic acid (category B).[137] Salicylic acid carries a category C safety rating due to higher systemic absorption (9–25%), and an association between the use of anti-inflammatory medications in the third trimester and adverse effects to the developing fetus including too little amniotic fluid in the uterus and early closure of the babies' ductus arteriosus blood vessel.[47][137] Prolonged use of salicylic acid over significant areas of the skin or under occlusive dressings is not recommended as these methods increase systemic absorption and the potential for fetal harm.[137] Tretinoin (category C) and adapalene (category C) are very poorly absorbed, but certain studies have suggested teratogenic effects in the first trimester.[137] Due to persistent safety concerns, topical retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy.[138] In studies examining the effects of topical retinoids during pregnancy, fetal harm has not been seen in the second and third trimesters.[137] Retinoids contraindicated for use during pregnancy include the topical retinoid tazarotene, and oral retinoids isotretinoin and acitretin (all category X).[137] Spironolactone is relatively contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to its antiandrogen effects.[1] Finasteride is not recommended as it is highly teratogenic.[1]
Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).
The earliest pathologic change is the formation of a plug (a microcomedone), which is driven primarily by excessive growth, reproduction, and accumulation of skin cells in the hair follicle.[1] In normal skin, the skin cells that have died come up to the surface and exit the pore of the hair follicle.[10] However, increased production of oily sebum in those with acne causes the dead skin cells to stick together.[10] The accumulation of dead skin cell debris and oily sebum blocks the pore of the hair follicle, thus forming the microcomedone.[10] This is further exacerbated by the biofilm created by C. acnes within the hair follicle.[45] If the microcomedone is superficial within the hair follicle, the skin pigment melanin is exposed to air, resulting in its oxidation and dark appearance (known as a blackhead or open comedo).[1][10][20] In contrast, if the microcomedone occurs deep within the hair follicle, this causes the formation of a whitehead (known as a closed comedo).[1][10]
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.
In 2015, acne was estimated to affect 633 million people globally, making it the 8th most common disease worldwide.[9][18] Acne commonly occurs in adolescence and affects an estimated 80–90% of teenagers in the Western world.[19][20][21] Lower rates are reported in some rural societies.[21][22] Children and adults may also be affected before and after puberty.[23] Although acne becomes less common in adulthood, it persists in nearly half of affected people into their twenties and thirties and a smaller group continue to have difficulties into their forties.[2]
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