Acne Part II: How to Treat Acne

Find out the available medical options to treat acne.

Sanaz Majd, MD
5-minute read

Most Common Acne Treatments

There are numerous ways that doctors can treat acne. 

Remember:  No matter what treatments are selected, it can take a minimum of eight weeks to even start seeing a difference.  There are no miracles. Acne treatments are slow to respond and take daily effort and patience.

Non-Prescription Treatments and Tips

First, let’s discuss what you can do on your own before you even see your doctor:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide:  This is a common ingredient in over-the-counter cleansers, but can also be found solo.  It acts as an anti-bacterial and also breaks apart the components of a zit.  Be careful when applying it on the body, as it can bleach your clothing and sheets.

  • Salicylic Acid:  This is an ingredient found in many over-the-counter acne treatments. You can use it in conjunction with benzoyl peroxide.  If the combined regimen does not improve your acne after three months of use, it may be time to consider prescription treatments.

  • Cleansers:  When being treated for acne, it’s important to choose a gentle cleanser since many acne treatments can make the skin irritated. A gentle massage with Dove soap, Cetaphil, or a similar cleanser twice a day is recommended.

  • Makeup:  As I mentioned in Acne Part I, it’s important to choose makeup that will not clog your pores.  Look for the words “non-comedogenic” on the product labels.

  • Don’t be a picker:  Try to refrain from picking at your zits as this can exacerbate scarring.  In addition, it can spread the pus and bacteria contained within the zits and cause further acne.

  • Keep it off your face:  Hair and phones harbor their own set of bacteria that can trigger a zit fest, so try to keep them away from your skin.

Now for the prescription options:


Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that help the skin to regenerate and slough off faster, thereby making zits more difficult to form.  Tretinoin and adapalene are two of the most commonly prescribed retinoids.  These are once a day topical creams applied at night prior to bedtime.  An oral form of this medication, called isotretinoin, is reserved as a last resort for those with very severe cystic/nodular acne.  Side effects of this oral form are much riskier, and include birth defects in pregnant women. 

Retinoids tend to dry out the skin, and some people with very sensitive skin can even experience irritation and flaking.  Therefore it’s very important to use it sparingly and thinly over the areas that are affected.  And when treated with retinoids, it’s important to avoid other harsh acne treatments.  Only a very mild cleanser/soap should be used, followed by a non-comedogenic moisturizer to battle the flaking and dryness, if needed. 

Since retinoids are contraindicated in pregnancy, all sexually active females using it should use a birth control method or defer from using this group of acne treatment. 


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.