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Written by: Alex Bussey
Edited by: Mike Martin
Reviewed by the Your.MD medical team
Acne develops when tiny holes in your skin (your hair follicles) get blocked by oil and other debris (waste) — causing spots or pimples to form.
If these spots become infected by the bacteria that live on your skin, they may become red or inflamed.
Acne is often linked to changes in your hormones, often brought on by puberty, but you can develop acne at any time. It’s estimated that around 3% of adults have acne over the age of 35.
Treatment for acne depends on your symptoms.
If most of your spots are small and there’s no sign of inflammation, you may be able to treat the condition at home using topical gels and creams.
But if you have a lot of inflamed or red spots, you may need to take medications prescribed by a doctor.
Mild or moderate acne can often be treated using a topical gel or cream.
You can buy these treatments from a pharmacy or supermarket, and they’re normally applied to your skin once or twice a day. Speak to your pharmacist or doctor for further guidance on whether to use these medications and how to get and use them.
Gels and creams work by unblocking your pores, or killing some of the bacteria that cause red and swollen spots. Most gels and creams take several weeks or months to start working properly, but they can be effective if you’re patient and keep using them regularly.
Common examples are outlined below.
This is an antiseptic treatment that often comes in a gel or face wash that contains 5% benzoyl peroxide. It helps to kill some of the bacteria that cause red or pus-filled spots, but it can take up to 4 weeks to start working properly.
Some people find that benzoyl peroxide makes their skin very dry, so you may want to test the treatment on a small area of healthy skin before you apply it to an area that’s affected by acne.
You may also find that it helps to start using the treatment once every 1 or 2 days instead of twice a day. You can then increase it as your skin gets used to the ingredients.
Other side effects include skin that peels or stings, and in some cases blisters and swollen skin.
Treatments containing benzoyl peroxide can bleach your hair, clothes and bedding, so be careful when you apply them.
If you’re having trouble managing the side effects, speak to a pharmacist. They may be able to recommend a different product, or advise treatments that will help you to manage the dryness and irritation.
Acne normally develops when oil and other debris, such as dead skin, block your hair follicles. Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliator that helps to dissolve some of this debris — clearing your spots, and helping to stop new pimples from forming.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that salicylic acid helps to reduce the amount of oil that your skin produces, which may help to stop your acne from coming back.
But it can take at least 4 to 6 weeks to see results from this type of treatment.
Salicylic acid can also make your skin dry or irritated, so make sure that you test it on 1 or 2 small areas of skin before you start using it.
This also helps to unblock your pores by dissolving oil and dead skin. It normally comes as a gel, foam or cream containing 10% azelaic acid that you apply to your skin once or twice a day.
Like salicylic acid, it can cause redness and irritation so it’s best to start by applying it once every 2 to 3 days, and then use it more as you build up a tolerance.
Azelaic acid can also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight so make sure that you also use sunscreen on the affected area, or cover up and wear a hat when you go outside.
Azelaic acid treatments can take up to 12 weeks to make a difference. If you’re still not seeing results by then it might be time to go and see a doctor.
If your acne doesn't respond to the treatments from a pharmacy, you may need to see a doctor instead. They will examine your skin, and prescribe medications that can help to clear up your acne.
They may prescribe:
If these treatments don’t work, your doctor may go on to prescribe an oral antibiotic like oxytetracycline, lymecycline or doxycycline.
Acne medications can have a range of side effects, such as irritating your skin, making you more prone to sunburn, or making your skin red and dry.
Your doctor will explain the best way to use them safely.
If you have very severe acne, you should go straight to a doctor for treatment.
They may refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist) for stronger treatment options.
This may include hormonal treatments like co-cyprindiol or isotretinoin, which helps to reduce the amount of oil that your body produces. These treatments can be very effective, but they can also have severe side effects so you will need to go for regular checkups with the specialist.
Severe acne needs to be treated by a doctor, but if you have mild or moderate acne there are some things you can try at home.
Experts recommend washing spot-prone areas with lukewarm water and a mild soap, but try not to wash your face more than twice a day.
Many people think that acne is caused by bad hygiene but this isn’t true, and washing your face too much can actually irritate your skin and make your symptoms worse.
Try to avoid picking or popping your spots as well, because this can irritate your skin and make your acne worse.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.