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Do I Need Strong Acne Medication to Clear My Skin?

Acne can be treated with and without prescription medication, though this does depend on the severity and the individual patient.

Tagged: Skin Rejuvenation

Author: Dr. Susan Mayou, BSc FRCP

Date: 22nd August 2023

Medically Reviewed by:  Dr. Susan Mayou (GMC: 2405092)

Last reviewed: 10th January 2024

Can acne be treated without medication?

Acne is a common skin condition that affects around 11% of the population. Although it is mostly associated with teenagers and young people, it can occur at any age and for a number of reasons. In some instances of chronic or persistent acne, a dermatologist may prescribe medication as part of your treatment, however this is often not the first solution to try.

Acne is a condition which arises when a combination of excess oil produced by the skin, and naturally occurring bacteria blocks the hair follicles in your skin, causing inflammation. For many people, this is mild or only occurs occasionally, so is treatable with over the counter skin care products. If this inflammation is persistent and does not calm down, you may need to speak to a dermatologist to discuss medication options.

The difference between chronic acne and hormonal breakouts

All of us will experience the occasional spot from time to time. This can happen because of stress, short term hormonal changes or infrequent face washing. On the other hand chronic acne is a medical condition which is much more severe and may need intervention from a dermatologist.

If your spots are infrequent or only occur at specific times such as around your period, they clear up quickly, usually on their own or with minimal treatment and they typically aren’t painful or cystic, then it is unlikely you have chronic acne. Chronic acne will appear consistently, may not respond to skincare and is typically painful, heavily inflamed and is likely to be cystic. Cystic spots are set deep into the skin and feel hard and painful, they don’t come up to a whitehead but will be red and sore, they are also more likely to leave scarring.

Adult acne outside of puberty and teenage years

Acne is most commonly associated with being a teenager and puberty. However it can occur at any time in life. It is thought that up to 85% of adults will experience some level of acne in their lifetimes.

Those who experience adult acne may find they have flare ups at different times depending on changes in environment and lifestyle. As well as hormonal changes, acne can also be triggered by certain cosmetic products, certain medications (including steroid medications, lithium - used to treat bipolar disorder and depression, and medicines used to treat epilepsy), smoking and a diet that is high in sugar. It is important to rule out any external factors that may be impacting your skin, before going down the acne medications route.

Signs you may need to consider acne medication

If you have chronic acne, which has not responded to skincare, leaves scars, is painful or throbbing or often has a purple, bruised appearance, you may wish to consider a consultation with a dermatologist to discuss medication options.

Your dermatologist may discuss a few options with you depending on your exact concerns and other aspects of your medical history, health and lifestyle.

Acne medication names in the UK

There are a number of prescription medications in the UK, that dermatologists can recommend and prescribe, a few examples are:

  • Adapelene is a topical retinoid (Vitamin A) treatment, which will encourage the turnover of your skin cells. 
  • Duac is a gel treatment which combines an antibiotic to target the overactive bacteria, with Benzoyl Peroxide, an anti inflammatory that calms down the spots and helps to break down the oil clogging your pores.
  • Zineryt is a liquid treatment containing an antibiotic to kill any bacteria on the skin. It also contains zinc, a commonly used anti inflammatory which also encourages healing to help prevent scarring.
  • Isotretinoin is a tablet containing high levels of Vitamin A which stops your oil glands from producing too much oil and prevents acne from forming.

Some medications have side effects, so it is important to discuss all of the available options with your dermatologist.You may experience extremely dry skin, including your mouth, nose and eyes which can be uncomfortable. 

Isotretinoin cannot be taken if you think you may be pregnant as it can cause serious deformities. If you are taking isotretinoin, your dermatologist will ask you to take regular pregnancy tests.

How to seek out prescription acne medication

If you think prescription medication is the right solution for your acne, it is best to contact a dermatologist who specialises in acne and will be able to offer you the most comprehensive advice. 

At Cadogan Clinic, we have a team of highly experienced consultant dermatologists who are here to help you with your acne concerns. They will offer you bespoke advice in a consultation as well as providing ongoing care and answering any questions you may have about your prescriptions. Our dedicated team of patient advisors are on hand to help you book an appointment and recommend the right dermatologist for you.

Will I always need medication for my acne?

Most people need medication short term, in order to calm their acne down and control any excess oil production or bacteria on the skin. However, it is important to remember that acne can flare up and managing any lifestyle factors that have an impact on your skin, such as a sugary diet or smoking will help to keep your skin clear long term. 

Although you will likely not need acne medication long term, if you are experiencing a severe flare up, you may need to return to your dermatologist for a follow up appointment, and they may suggest returning to medication or trying another medication for another period of time.

It is also unlikely that medication will stop you from ever experiencing a breakout again, but that you will find it easier to manage flare ups.


Treatments for chronic or persistent acne

Once you have completed your course of medication, your dermatologist may also suggest some professional skin treatments to help treat any scarring and to control any residual breakouts that may occur. Treatments that your dermatologist may suggest are:

  • Chemical peels - Salicylic acid, glycolic acid and lactic acid are all very effective for exfoliating the skin and unclogging blocked pores. Some chemical peels also include retinoids which will encourage cell turnover and skin renewal
  • Laser treatments - Lasers can be used to treat a range of concerns, but are especially effective for treating scarring and hyper pigmentation caused by breakouts.
  • LED light treatment - Different colours of LED light have different wave lengths and different effects on the skin. Red light and near infrared both calm inflammation and reduce redness. Blue light helps to kill bacteria on the skin and calm oil production, reducing breakouts and acne.

Your dermatologist may offer some of these treatments themselves, or they will refer you to a practitioner they work with and trust.

Signs you don't need prescription medication

Although breakouts can feel debilitating, and it can be very tempting to reach for the strongest option, this isn’t always necessary and you may do long term damage to your skin. You likely don’t need medication if you experience spots occasionally and they’re not ever-present. Also, if your breakouts don’t leave scarring, they’re manageable with skincare and they aren’t causing you constant pain medication probably isn’t the answer for you.

If you find your occasional breakouts hard to manage, a dermatologist will still be able to help by suggesting the right skincare and lifestyle changes that may help.

Skincare for mild acne breakouts

If your acne is not severe enough to require prescription medication there are a range of over the counter skincare treatments you can try. Ingredients to look for are:

  • Salicylic acid which can be found in face washes and spot treatment gels. This works as an anti inflammatory and helps to unblock your pores
  • Benzoyl Peroxide is an anti inflammatory and is found in over the counter gels. It helps to kill the bacteria on your skin and unclog your pores
  • Tea tree oil is a natural anti inflammatory and is also anti microbial and can help to treat minor breakouts

Acne is a skin condition that affects a huge number of people throughout their lives. It can be incredibly frustrating to manage and medication is one of many options that may work for you. A bespoke consultation with a dermatologist will allow you to talk through the options and figure out the best solution for you and your concerns. Book yours today with Cadogan Clinic in Chelsea, London.


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