Prescription Acne Medications

prescription acne medications

Prescription acne medications are classified by the FDA as drugs, and they require a prescription from your dermatologist or general physician.

Antibiotics and retinoids are the most prescribed acne treatment of choice by dermatologists.

As with any drug, prescription acne medications may cause negative side effects. Always be sure you know the potential risks involved before you take medication for acne.

Acne Antibiotics | Acne Antibiotic Treatment

Here are some important things to consider when deciding if acne antibiotic treatments are right for you:

Antibiotics are used as a prescription acne medication because they decrease the number of bacteria in and around your pores, and they can also help alleviate inflammation. However, acne is not just a bacterial problem. Even if antibiotics could kill 100% of the P. acnes bacteria -- you would still have acne.

Because acne is caused by a build up of dead skin cells combined with oil and bacteria inside the pores, antibiotics can only provide part of the solution. In my experience, there are over the counter topical solutions that kill bacteria in the pore more effectively than antibiotics without the risks associated with prescription acne medications.

The overuse of antibiotics has been a hot topic lately because:

New Drug Resistant Strains of Bacteria are becoming more common.

Long Term Health Risks include recurring nausea, heartburn, serious intestinal infections, frequent vaginal yeast infections for women, increase in frequency of colds, possible permanent staining of the teeth, and interference with the helpful bacteria in our digestive systems. There is also a possible link to increased risk of breast cancer.

Remember, acne is a chronic disorder without a cure. Antibiotics are most often prescribed for acute, short-term bacterial infections -- they aren't intended to be used long term. So, how will you keep your skin clear once you've stopped taking acne antibiotics? 

Check out alternatives to acne antibiotics here

Should You Take a Birth Control Pill for Acne?

Your doctor may prescribe an oral contraceptive, or birth control pill, for acne if you're experiencing break outs that aren't responding to other treatments.

Birth control pills may help with acne because they reduce the amount of androgens in the body, which are partly responsible for oil gland activity.

Keep in mind, you'll still need to use other treatment methods in addition to taking the birth control pill for acne. Since oral contraceptives only target oil production, you'll also need to use topical treatments with exfoliating and antimicrobial agents to get clear skin.

Some birth control pills are higher in estrogen potency. These pills are more appropriate for people with acne prone skin.

They include:

  • Desogen (Apri)
  • Demulan (Zovia)
  • Diane 35 (Dianette)
  • Mircette
  • Nevicon modicon
  • Ortho evra
  • Ortho tri cyclen
  • Yasmin (Yaz)

It is best to avoid pills that are higher in androgen effects, because they have more potential to cause acne.

They include:

  • Alesse
  • Depo Provera shot
  • Estrotrep Fe
  • Levlen
  • Loestrin
  • Norestrin
  • Nuvo ring
  • Ovral

Some side effects of taking birth control pills include weight gain, breast tenderness, risk of developing blood clots, nausea, mood changes, and depression. Serious side effects can include digestive problems, stroke, and embolism.

Be sure to carefully weigh the pros and cons before choosing birth control pills for acne control.

If you're otherwise healthy, you're not interested in preventing pregnancy with oral contraceptives, and your only reason for taking the pill is to get clear skin -- there may be better options.


Retinoids, synthetic derivatives of vitamin A, have been prescribed by dermatologists for over 50 years.

Retinoids are applied topically, and they work by preventing skin cells from sticking together and forming plugs in the pores. They also encourage formation of new skin cells and collagen, which can help with scar revision, dark spots (hyperpigmentation), and signs of aging.

Topical retinoids can be very irritating, may cause burning, stinging & itching, and can increase sun sensitivity.

Be sure to read prescription warnings and directions of use carefully before applying these medications. Avoid prolonged sun exposure, and always use sun protection with SPF 15 or higher on a daily basis to avoid sunburn and irritation.

Commonly prescribed retinoids include:

  • Avita (tretinoin) - prescribed for acne and/or skin rejuvenation

  • Differin (adapalene) - prescribed for acne

  • Retin A (retinoic acid, tretinoin) - prescribed for acne

  • Tazorac / Avage (tazarotene) - prescribed for acne and psoriasis

*Important Note - Retin-A Cream contains Isopropyl Myristate, which is highly comedogenic (pore clogging). If you've been using Retin-A, and your acne is NOT clearing or it's getting worse -- it's likely due to the fact that you're using the cream form of this medication.

Retin-A is also formulated in a topical gel which does not contain this pore clogging ingredient -- it is a better choice for people with acne.

Accutane Acne Medication

Once thought to be a "cure" for severe nodular cystic acne that wouldn't respond to other prescription acne medications, Accutane acne treatment is currently undergoing some pretty intense investigation.

Isotretinoin, an oral/systemic medication sold under the brand name Accutane, has been prescribed for resistant inflammatory acne since the early 1980's.

It was thought that Accutane could cure acne by suppressing oil gland activity and reducing inflammation. This was a successful treatment option for many people, however, many others found that their acne returned months or years after stopping use.

There have always been serious health risks associated with Accutane, but recently even more dangerous side effects have been discovered. And, thousands of lawsuits are pending.

Isotretinoin is still being prescribed under different brand names, but Accutane has been taken off the market. 

Check out alternatives to Accutane acne medication here.

Additional Drug Information

You can find current information about the side effects of prescription drugs at 

Accutane side effects and Yaz side effects have recently been under intense scrutiny.

Did You Know?

Acne can be successfully treated without antibiotics and other harmful prescription acne medications.

I've been treating acne for over 20 years by using topical exfoliants combined with antimicrobial agents and a few simple lifestyle changes. My clients typically get clear within six to twelve weeks, and the only occasional side effect of my acne treatment system is temporary skin irritation.

If you have problem skin, seek out a licensed professional who specializes in treating acne -- you'll find out that you don't need prescription acne medications, efficacy is higher, and the risks are much more favorable.

Find Out How To Get Help For Acne Now 

Get Tips On Finding A Dermatologist

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