What You Can Do when Over-the-Counter Topicals Haven't Combated Your Acne

Boy applying topical medication to acne What You Can Do when Over-the-Counter Topicals Haven't Combated Your Acne

While acne is not often a threat to your health, it’s about the last thing most people want to deal with because of its cosmetic implications. What do you do when over-the-counter topicals just aren’t cutting it in your personal fight against acne? Read on and find out.

What to Know About OTC Topical Medications

Why OTC Topical Medications Aren’t Doing Enough for Your Acne

Acne can vary in severity based on a number of circumstances. Many of these things are out of our control. Some people have skin that’s more oily than others; this oiliness will generally lead to more clogged pores, as the sebum (natural oil) that our skin produces accumulates and collects dirt and dead skin. When this happens, a black or whitehead can develop. Other factors, like age and hormone levels, can contribute to the overproduction of oil and cause acne. Teens and pregnant women are among the most susceptible to severe acne because of the great deal of hormones our bodies produce during puberty and pregnancy.

Many topical, over-the-counter medications focus on reducing the presence of oil in our skin, and some do an admirable job. But over-the-counter topical drugs are also not always specialized enough to fight your specific acne. Treating flare-ups caused by hormonal shifts are one thing, but managing persistent adult acne is not usually so simple. Over-the-counter medications, by their nature and many laws dictating which active ingredients they can use, are often under-powered for moderate to severe acne.

What Can You Do When OTC Topicals Don’t Cut It?

Thankfully for people suffering from persistent acne, there are a number of solutions that your dermatologist can offer you with a prescription. Not all acne solutions are topical, but if that’s your preferred method of treating acne, and you’ve seen some success with topical OTC’s, they may be the best first line of acne treatment. Most over the counter acne drugs focus on reducing the production of oil, and prescription strength drugs often have the same focus, though some are geared toward more specific symptoms and issues associated with acne.

Antibiotics: A Helpful Assistant

Topically speaking, there are a few different directions that treatment can take. For more severe cases of acne, an antibiotic may be prescribed to help eliminate excess bacteria on the surface of your skin. This can help reduce redness and inflammation associated with cystic acne and also prevent infection. Antibiotics alone aren’t enough in treating acne, but for the first few months of your treatment, they’re often an indispensable aid to the other topical drugs.

Retinoids: The Big Guns

Antibiotics are almost never prescribed on their own. They are for supporting other acne drugs that go after the root cause of acne: oil. One of the more common acne drugs is called retinoids. Retinoids are drugs containing vitamin A. Vitamin A is vital to treating acne because it can reduce inflammation, help keep pores clear and free of dead skin cells, and in many cases, slow the production of oil in your skin. Some oil is necessary for healthy skin, so managing how much your treatment stops is critical. While some over-the-counter topical drugs do contain vitamin A, prescription strength dosages are often necessary to treat harsh acne.

The Best Acids for Fighting Acne

Other common drugs prescribed for topical use are salicylic and azelaic acid. Salicylic acid is the preferred treatment, but azelaic acid is a bit softer on the skin and is often prescribed to pregnant women or people with more sensitive skin. These acids both work to reduce the amount of bacteria on the surface of the skin and can penetrate pores and help clear oil and other debris. Again, these drugs are available topically and can help, but their prescription strength counterparts are often what you need to fight the worst of what acne has to offer.


Treating acne is often not something you can do with over-the-counter drugs, simply because of how many factors may contribute to acne, and OTCs many strength and ingredient limitations. If you’re sick of struggling with acne and want some prescription strength help, reach out to the pros at Northeast Dermatology Associates for an acne consultation today.

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