How to beat acne

Published in Medicinewise Living

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The right acne treatment will help reduce your chance of long-term scarring and distress. (CandyBox Images /


Acne often strikes when body image matters to you most — and can make you feel so embarrassed and down about yourself that you avoid social activities.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Acne is the most common skin problem in Australia, and can cause more stress and anxiety than other skin conditions.

The good news is there are treatments that can help and ways to manage acne yourself.

What causes acne?

Acne mainly occurs during puberty because girls and boys have more of the hormone testosterone in their blood. Genetics may also play a part, as acne tends to run in families.

Testosterone can trigger acne by causing sebaceous (oil) glands in the skin to generate excess oil, which clogs the pores. Bacteria can then grow in the trapped oil and irritate or inflame the skin. This results in whiteheads, blackheads, red lumps, pus-filled spots, or deep cysts with possible scarring, blotchy or pitted skin.

You might only get acne as a teenager but it can continue into adulthood. It can be triggered throughout life by hormonal conditions (e.g. polycystic ovarian syndrome) and can be aggravated by hot, humid environments or working with oil and grease, and from using thick or oily moisturisers, cosmetics or sunscreens.

Some medicines can worsen acne too, including lithium, corticosteroids, some oral contraceptives and some epilepsy medicines. Anabolic steroids can also cause severe acne that is very difficult to treat, especially when these medicines are abused by athletes and body builders.

4 tips to beat acne

Adhere to your acne treatment plan

  • Acne is treatable but can take time, trial and error. Follow the directions given by your doctor, pharmacist or on the medicine label to get the most out of your treatment.  

Chat with someone about your acne

  • Get support from your health professional, family or friends if acne is getting you down, making you feel self-conscious or affecting your social or other activities.

Never expose your skin to excess sun

  • While some people’s acne improves during summer, using sunlight or solariums to treat acne is not a good idea. Ultraviolet light ages the skin and increases your risk of skin cancer. Some acne treatments also make the skin more prone to sunburn.

Eat a healthy diet

  • The jury is still out on whether certain foods in the diet can worsen acne. Healthy eating and drinking plenty of water is good for your skin. If you find a particular food aggravates your acne talk to your doctor — as you may be advised to avoid it.

Acne can be treated

Treatments applied to the skin (known as topical therapies) and other treatments for acne have improved in recent years. According to Sydney dermatologist, Dr Jo-Ann See, acne is a very manageable condition, and using the correct treatment is vital to achieving the best outcomes.

“Topical therapies are not spot treatments and need to be applied to the whole affected area”, says Dr See.

You may need to try a few different treatments before finding what works best for you. Dr See also says that this can take time, often several weeks or months, and you may need to see a dermatologist to get the treatment you need.

“If topical therapy doesn’t improve the acne after 12 weeks, oral treatment such as an antibiotic or the contraceptive pill, for females, can be considered. Some treatments can only be prescribed by a dermatologist", says Dr See.

Persevering with acne therapies can be challenging, but the right treatment will help reduce your chance of long-term scarring and distress.

Do-it-yourself acne treatments

The first thing is avoid squeezing or picking at your acne. This can worsen acne and cause scarring. You can also help prevent clogging of pores by removing make-up when it’s not needed, such as before going to bed.

Clean your skin using a low-irritant, pH-balanced, soap-free cleanser twice a day. Acne is not caused by dirt so don’t over cleanse or scrub your skin, as this can create other problems such as skin dryness or irritation. Keep your hair clean too and off your face and neck.

Ask your pharmacist or doctor about an over-the-counter acne medicine. These are generally in the form of cleansers or leave-on applications that work by killing acne bacteria, drying up excess oil, and removing dead skin cells. They contain active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, sulphur or resorcinol, which are useful for mild superficial lesions, such as whiteheads or blackheads.

Starting prescription medicines

Sometimes acne — even when it’s mild — may not clear up with an over-the-counter product. If this happens to you, your doctor can suggest a prescription acne medicine.

If your acne is mild, a doctor will often recommend trying a topical antibiotic first, such as a gel or lotion. They may also suggest a topical retinoid medicine which is derived from vitamin A (active ingredients include adapalene, isotretinoin, tazarotene and tretinoin).

Topical products with a combination of active ingredients are also available. For example, a topical retinoid with a topical antibiotic; and a product combining benzoyl peroxide with the antibiotic clindamycin.

An oral treatment may be a better choice if your acne is severe, extensive, or not treated by topical prescription medicines. Oral antibiotics may be prescribed if your acne is very inflamed or in multiple sites such as the face, neck and chest. Other options include an oral retinoid (isotretinoin), or for females, a hormonal medicine.

If you are prescribed an antibiotic for your acne, ensure you take it exactly as directed. If you were prescribed topical antibiotics before, don’t continue using them with your oral antibiotic as this can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Preventing side effects

Topical acne treatments (either over-the-counter or prescribed) can cause skin irritation. Some things you can do to prevent this include:

  • applying your treatment to cool, dry skin
  • avoiding facials or scrubs before application
  • testing new treatments on a limited area first
  • washing off the medicine shortly after you first apply it, then gradually increasing the time of application.

Dr See also warns that all acne treatments come with possible side effects and medicine interactions, some of which can be serious.

“Oral isotretinoin is a medicine reserved for severe acne. It has serious adverse effects, so people using isotretinoin should be monitored regularly. It can cause birth defects, so effective contraception is essential”, says Dr See.

It is important to tell your doctor or pharmacist about your other conditions and all the medicines you are taking. They can offer advice on how you can reduce potential harmful side effects or interactions with your acne medicines.

Call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for more information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (including herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements).