Although pimples and blemishes are most commonly associated with the hormonal turbulence of adolescence, many adults also struggle with acne. About 50 percent of women and 25 percent of men are affected by adult acne at some point in their post-teenage years, according to Acne.org. Adult acne can be embarrassing, but most cases can be resolved if treated appropriately. Keep in mind that there is no surefire way to get rid of acne overnight; it can take as long as four to eight weeks for most over-the-counter and prescription acne treatments to produce results. In the meantime, using oil-free makeup or a concealer that contains acne medication can help temporarily mask acne while it heals.
Over-the-counter topical treatments can help eliminate mild-to-moderate acne using various mechanisms. Note that you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money on acne products to see a good result. In fact, expensive non-prescription acne treatment “systems” involving multiple acne products can over-dry your skin, triggering increased oil production which makes acne even worse. It’s best to just use one kind of topical acne treatment at a time.
Benzoyl peroxide is the most effective and the mildest of over-the-counter acne treatments, and it is also one of the cheapest. Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent, available in various forms and strengths, that helps reduce acne by killing the bacteria that causes it. With regular application, you may see small improvements quickly, but most people don’t see results until after a few months. OTC acne products containing peeling agents such as salicylic acid, sulfur, resorcinol and alpha hydroxy acids may also be useful in treating mild acne. Some makeup products contain acne treatments like salicylic acid, which can help treat acne while also concealing it. OTC acne medications may cause some skin drying, which often improves after the first month of therapy.
Prescription treatments, both oral and topical, may help treat more severe acne. However, as with OTC acne medicine, you probably won’t notice effects of prescription acne treatments for at least several weeks. Different prescription medicines attack acne in different ways. Prescription topical vitamin A derivatives — such as tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene — work by increasing skin cell turnover and preventing hair follicles from plugging. Prescription topical antibiotics treat acne by killing bacteria in the skin. While more effective than OTC products at treating stubborn acne, prescription acne creams may cause additional skin side effects, including severe dryness, burning, peeling and itching.
For acne that doesn’t respond to topical treatments, your doctor may also prescribe oral medications including antibiotics, oral contraceptives or isotretinoin (sold under the brand names Accutane and Claravis). Compared to topical prescription treatments, oral medications for acne may cause more serious side effects, such as nausea, headaches, depression and even liver damage (in the case of isotretinoin).
Cosmetic procedures for acne treatment include laser and light therapy, chemical peels, microdermabrasion and steroid injections. Laser- and light-based acne treatments penetrate the deeper layers of skin, targeting the oil glands or bacteria deep in the skin. Examples include blue light exposure, which is thought to kill acne-causing bacteria, and diode laser therapy, which destroys sebaceous glands in the skin. Steroid injections may also help resolve stubborn acne lesions such as nodules or cysts, but these are generally only used for occasional and severe skin problems. Finally, chemical peels and microdermabrasion can help treat acne by exfoliating the skin and unclogging pores. Compared to other types of acne treatments, cosmetic procedures are often more expensive and less likely to be covered by your health insurance. They may also require a series of sessions to be effective and cause pain during the procedure or short-term skin irritation after the procedure.
Since the appropriate treatment for acne depends, in part, on its cause (e.g, hormones, bad skin care habits, stress), you may need to try multiple anti-acne solutions before you find the one that will heal your acne. It’s a good idea, however, to start with milder treatments, such as lifestyle changes and over-the-counter treatments, before trying more aggressive treatments like prescription medicines and cosmetic procedures, which generally have harsher side effects and higher costs.