Modern Acne Treatments
Anti-acne drugs are medicines that help clear up pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and more severe forms of acne.
Benzoyl peroxide is found in many over-the-counter acne products that are applied to the skin, such as Benoxyl, Clear By Design, Neutrogena Acne, PanOxyl, and some formulations of Clean & Clear, Clearasil, and Oxy. Some benzoyl peroxide products are available without a physician’s prescription; others require a prescription. Tretinoin (Retin-A) is available only with a physician’s prescription and comes in liquid, cream, and gel forms, which are applied to the skin. Isotretinoin (Accutane), which is taken by mouth in capsule form, is available only with a physician’s prescription. Only physicians who have experience in diagnosing and treating severe acne, such as dermatologists, should prescribe isotretinoin.
Acne is a skin disorder that leads to an outbreak of lesions called pimples or “zits.” The most common form of the disease in adolescents is called acne vulgaris. Antiacne drugs are the medicines that help clear up the pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and more severe forms of lesions that occur when a teen has acne.
Different types of antiacne drugs are used for different treatment purposes, depending on the severity of the condition. For example, lotions, soaps, gels, and creams containing substances called benzoyl peroxide or tretinoin may be used to clear up mild to moderately severe acne. Isotretinoin (Accutane) is an oral drug that is prescribed only for very severe, disfiguring acne.
Acne is caused by the overproduction of sebum during puberty when high levels of the male hormone androgen cause excess sebum to form. Sebum is an oily substance that forms in glands just under the surface of the skin called sebaceous glands. Sebum normally flows out hair follicles onto the skin to act as a natural skin moisturizer. The glands are connected to hair follicles that allow the sebum, or oil, to empty onto the skin through a pore.
Sometimes the sebum combines with dead, sticky skin cells and bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) that normally live on the skin. The mixture of oil and cells allows the bacteria to grow in the follicles. When this happens, a hard plug called a comedo can form. A comedo is an enlarged hair follicle. It can appear on the skin as a blackhead, which is a comedo that reaches the skin’s surface and looks black, or as a whitehead, which is a comedo that is sealed by keratin, the fibrous protein produced by the skin cells and looks like a white bump.
In addition, pimples can form on the skin. Types of pimples include:
• papules, which are small, red bumps that may be tender to touch
• pustules, which are pus-filled lesions that are often red at the base
• nodules, which are large, painful lesions deep in the skin
• cysts, which are painful pus-filled lesions deep in the skin that can cause scarring
Pimples form when the follicle is invaded by the P. acnes bacteria. The damaged follicle weakens and bursts open, releasing sebum, bacteria, skin cells, and white blood cells into surrounding tissues. Scarring happens when new skin cells are created to replace the damaged cells. The most severe type of acne includes both nodules and cysts.
Acne cannot be cured, but antiacne drugs can help clear the skin and reduce the chance of scarring. The goal of treating moderate acne is to decrease inflammation and prevent new comedones from forming. Benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin work by mildly irritating the skin. This encourages skin cells to slough off, which helps open blocked pores. Benzoyl peroxide also kills bacteria, which helps prevent whiteheads and blackheads from turning into pimples. Isotretinoin shrinks the glands that produce sebum. It is used for severe acne lesions and must be carefully monitored because of its side effects. Antibiotics also may be prescribed to kill bacteria and reduce inflammation.