The Educated Patient: Clearing Up Acne

OTC GuideJune 2014
Volume 18
Issue 1

Individuals with acne may be embarrassed and frustrated by it, but the good news is that it can be effectively managed with early and consistent treatment. In the United States, acne affects an estimated 40 to 50 million individuals and is considered to be the most common dermatologic condition seen by dermatologists.1 Although acne typically affects teenagers, it can also affect adults, especially women.1

Acne involves the presence of whiteheads, blackheads, and blemishes that appear most often on the face, neck, back, and shoulders. Although most cases of acne can be easily managed and treated, some individuals may experience severe acne, which may cause permanent scarring of the skin, especially if left untreated. If you have severe acne, it is important to seek medical care as soon as possible to determine the best treatment for your type of acne and to reduce scarring and skin damage.

Causes of Acne

Although the exact cause of acne is unknown, research has identified several factors that may contribute to or worsen acne. These factors can be classified as genetic, hormonal, or environmental/physical (Table 11-4). There are many myths about the causes of acne. It is not caused by poor hygiene, diet, or stress, according to the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Dermatology.1-4

Treating Acne

Several options are available for preventing and/or treating acne. To treat your acne, your health care provider may suggest the use of an OTC topical acne medication or may prescribe an oral or topical prescription medication. The selection of therapy depends on the type and severity of the acne.

Typically, the goals of treating acne are to heal existing pimples, prevent or minimize the occurrence of pimples, and prevent scarring. Getting treatment early is the best means of avoiding scarring.

Because acne affects everyone differently, your primary health care provider will propose an individualized treatment for you after reviewing your allergy, medication, and medical histories. If you have mild to moderate acne, your health care provider may recommend the use of a topical OTC acne product. These products are available as medicated cleansing bars, liquids, lotions, creams, gels, and pads/wipes, and they typically contain 1 or more of the following ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, sulfur with or without resorcinol, and sulfur with sodium sulfacetamide. It is important that you use acne products as directed, including following the recommended duration of treatment. If you experience any adverse reactions while using any of these products, you should stop using them immediately and contact your primary health care provider. In addition, you should contact your dermatologist about other treatment options if your acne shows no signs of improvement or worsens after regular use of these products.

If your acne is moderate to severe, you should seek medical care for evaluation to avoid further complications. Your doctor may prescribe an oral or topical prescription medication to treat your acne. In some cases, your doctor may suggest a combination of treatments. Because some medications should not be used during pregnancy, it is important to inform your doctor if you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to become pregnant. Prior to prescribing any medications for acne treatment, your doctor will obtain full medical, allergy, and medication histories to prevent any possible drug interactions. For treatment to be effective, it is important to follow the recommended use instructions, especially because it may take several weeks to see any signs of improvement. Your dermatologist may recommend several preventive measures to incorporate into your daily routine (Table 21-5).

Closing Thoughts

You should always discuss any concerns about your acne treatment with your doctor and/or pharmacist. Be sure that you clearly understand how to use your medication and are aware of the associated side effects. It is essential to follow the recommended treatment to control and prevent acne flare-ups and to decrease scarring. With proper and consistent treatment, you can take control of your acne and the health of your skin.

Ms. Terrie is a clinical pharmacist and medical writer based in Haymarket, Virginia.


  • Acne. American Academy of Dermatology website. Accessed May 16, 2014.
  • Acne myths. American Academy of Dermatology website. Accessed May 16, 2014.
  • What is acne? National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Accessed May 16, 2014.
  • Acne fact sheet. website. Accessed May 16, 2014.
  • Acne. Medline Plus website. Accessed May 16, 2014.

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