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Topical Medications for Acne

To treat persistent acne breakouts, NYU Langone dermatologists may first recommend using topical treatments, such as creams and cleansers. These medications, which you apply directly to the skin, contain different types of acne-fighting ingredients. A variety of these relatively inexpensive topical medications are available at your local drugstore. Others are only available with a prescription. Most of the time, your dermatologist can confirm an acne diagnosis during your first appointment, and you start treatment that same day.

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Your dermatologist at NYU Langone can explain the different ways topical treatments work, the types of products or combination of products that might work for you, and how to correctly apply them.

Over-the-Counter Topical Treatments

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are two common active ingredients in over-the-counter acne creams. They are effective for many people, but the best dose and application regimen varies depending on whether your skin is oily or dry, and where outbreaks typically occur. For example, benzoyl peroxide bleaches clothing on contact, so it might not be the best choice to treat acne on the chest or back.

Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria, whereas salicylic acid opens pores and encourages new skin cells to grow. These are sometimes used in combination and in varying concentrations. Your dermatologist recommends a treatment based on your skin type and acne symptoms.

Prescription Topical Treatments

Topical retinoids, which are related to vitamin A, treat acne by keeping pores clear and preventing oily buildup. Retinoids can be very effective in treating acne but need to be applied properly to avoid possible side effects, including sensitivity to sunlight and dry or peeling skin. Your dermatologist can suggest how much of the product to use, how often you should apply it, and how to avoid side effects. 

Antibiotic creams are another prescription treatment option. Antibiotics target the bacterial infection that underlies many acne outbreaks and can treat inflamed skin and red, painful pimples. Because antibiotics don’t clear pores, doctors frequently prescribe these in combination with over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide creams or topical retinoids. 

Topical retinoids and antibiotic creams are most effective when used on blackheads, whiteheads, pustules, and papules. Topical medications may not be as effective for persistent cysts and nodules.

Our Research and Education in Acne

Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.