Treatment options for acne 


Self-help techniques

Help prevent acne from getting worse by avoiding frequent face washing, using a mild cleanser or soap, limiting use of make-up and not squeezing blackheads, whiteheads and spots

  • No side effects
  • Unlikely to be effective by itself

Topical treatments – gel or cream to unblock pores and kill bacteria

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria, reduces inflammation and helps unplug blocked pores

  • Available in pharmacies
  • Effective in treating mild acne
  • Can stain clothes or bed sheets
  • Can make skin more sensitive to sunlight and cause mild burning, itchiness and redness of skin
Vitamin A gel or cream

Gels or creams known as topical (rub-on) retinoids are derived from vitamin A. They unblock pores, and reduce production of skin oil (sebum)

  • Effective at clearing whiteheads, blackheads and smaller spots
  • Not suitable in pregnancy
  • Possible side effects include increased sensitivity of skin to sunlight, and mild irritation and stinging of the skin
Antibiotic gel or cream

Topical (rub-on) antibiotics are used to kill bacteria

  • Effective in treating inflamed spots
  • Causes less irritation to the skin than other anti-acne creams or gels
  • May be less effective on blackheads and whiteheads
  • Can only be used for up to eight weeks because of the risk of antibiotic resistance
Azelaic acid gel or cream

Azelaic acid unblocks pores and kills bacteria

  • Effective for mild acne in people who have troublesome side effects with other treatments
  • Does not make skin sensitive to sunlight
  • Takes a month for symptoms to improve
  • Can cause mild burning, stinging, dryness and itchiness of the skin


Antibiotic medicines

Taken by mouth, these kill bacteria and are usually used in combination with a gel or cream

  • Effective in treating mild to severe acne
  • Takes six weeks for symptoms to improve
  • Makes contraceptive pill less effective, so alternative contraception should be used
  • Can only be used for six months because of the risk of antibiotic resistance
  • Can make skin more sensitive to sunlight, and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and mild stomach pains

A hormonal treatment that can be used in women when hormonal conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, are thought to be causing acne

  • Effective in treating severe acne that does not respond to antibiotics
  • Carries a very small risk of causing blood clots and breast cancer later in life
  • Not suitable if you're pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Side effects include bleeding between periods, headaches, sore breasts, mood changes, loss of interest in sex, weight gain or weight loss

Isotretinoin, taken as capsules or tablets, is derived from vitamin A. It works in the same way as retinoid gel or cream, but is more powerful

  • Effective in treating severe acne
  • Can only be prescribed by a dermatologist, not by a GP
  • High risk of causing serious birth defects in pregnant women, so reliable contraception must be used
  • Can cause inflammation and dryness of lips, nosebleeds, headaches, inflammation of the eyelids or eyes, skin rashes, muscle, joint and bone pain, blood in urine
  • Causes a person to bruise and bleed more easily