Can Prescription Treatments Help Your Acne?

prescription treatment for acne

​Guest post by Abbie of Pretty Little Skin

Many people who have spent time suffering with acne often take frequent visits to the doctor, hoping that they will find something that works for them and can cure them of their acne.

I know that this has been the case for me, over the years I have quite possibly had 50+ GP visits or dermatology visits.

But what do they prescribe? And does it work?

I decided to take this time to go though the ins-and-outs of prescription acne treatments, the various categories and how they aim to treat such a frustrating and self-esteem breaking skin condition.

Topical Lotions

On your first few doctors visits regarding your skin, the treatment plan will most likely be topical creams & lotions. You apply these directly to your skin in the areas that are affected.

A common ingredient in these lotions is benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient aims to unclog pores and ultimately kills the bacteria that lead to the formation of spots and pimples.

For many people with mild acne and tolerable (non-sensitive skin) this is the perfect treatment. I would recommend this treatment if it’s your first flare-up of acne as it may work for you.

If like me however, you suffer from dry or sensitive skin, then this can burn and cause the skin to become sore.

The Low-Down on Benzoyl Peroxide:

If it’s your first acne outbreak then give it a try (patch test on another less visible area of your body i.e. your back / chest). If it works with no irritation, great! See irritation? Skip it!

Some other topical lotion ingredients:

Salicylic acid is another common ingredient in topical lotions, which also works to unclog pores, however it has little effect on sebum production and fighting bacteria. You can find many drug-store treatments / cleansers that contain this which may help additionally in combination with another topical lotion.

Adapalene is a retinoid treatment, which decreases inflammation. In the USA it can be bought over-the-counter, known as ‘Differin’. In other countries this is prescribed, such as the UK. I've always had pretty decent results with adapalene and little skin irritation.

Adapalene also exists in combination with Benzyol peroxide. This is known as epiduo, which if you’re not too sensitive to benzoyl peroxide apparently works amazingly well. It’s often given to people once they have completed a course of the strong retinoid treatment Accutane (see below).


If you’ve tried a few lotions and they’re not helping then the next option is usually antibiotic treatment.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. They aim to kill the bacteria lying in the pores of your skin. They can come in the form of tablets or they can also be topical creams that you apply to the skin.

My personal experience with antibiotics:

The antibiotic tablets I've tried previously include Tetracycline and Erythromycin. Neither of these treatments dramatically improved my skin, which was very frustrating. After my recent acne flare-up, I decided to visit the doctor.

She prescribed me the antibiotic minocycline. After about 4 days taking minocycline my skin began to improve and I was feeling pleasantly surprised.

However, the next day I started to feel very sick and was suffering with headaches, which continued over the next few days. Unfortunately, the doctor concluded I was likely having a reaction to the antibiotics and I decided to stop taking them.

The following month I went back to the doctor. This time they gave me a topical antibiotic - Clindamycin Phosphate. 

I’ve now been using clindamycin phosphate for around 6 months and I think this is the best antibiotic / topical cream I’ve ever tried.

Before being on Accutane, antibiotics and creams never helped me. This lotion does not dry out my skin, which is definitely hard to find in acne treatments. It’s also very easy to apply before make-up!

Contraceptive Pill (Ladies Only!)

If you’re a girl than this treatment will almost always be attempted. Contraceptive pills aim to balance the hormone fluctuations in teenage girls, and can therefore help to fight acne.

Hormone levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle and this can lead to increased sebum production, resulting in acne.

The more androgens a women produces then the more sebum produced. Contraceptive pills contain oestrogen and progesterone to lower androgens and consequently reduce sebum.

My personal experience with the contraceptive pill:

When I was 15, I was given Dianette (cyproterone acetate and ethinylestradiol), which did work wonders for me.

It can be quite dangerous, therefore they only allowed me to have it for a year. For some people this will be enough to keep their acne at bay permanently. However, once I stopped then the acne appeared as severely as before. I would recommend trying this if you get the chance.

On a recent visit to the doctor I was given a new contraceptive pill called sprintec (norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol). This seems to be helping so far in conjunction with my current antibiotic cream.

Prior to this I was taking Femodene (ethinylestradiol and gestodene), which I didn’t think was helping. In the weekly break from taking the pill my skin seemed to improve, when typically it should be worse.

I had this problem with another pill, Yasmin (Drospirenone and Ethinyl Estradiol), which is normally given to those with acne.​

The Last Resort: Accutane (Isotretinoin)

Isotretinoin probably deserves its own entire post, as there is a lot to say. First of all, it’s definitely a last resort for acne sufferers. This is a strong and quite controversial treatment. It works by blocking sebum (oil) production to reduce acne.

Whilst doing this it quite obviously dries everything out… and I mean everything! Severely dry lips, a dry scalp, dry eyes, dry skin and dehydration are extremely common. It has also been shown to cause depressive episodes.

Many people initially experience a severe breakout in the first few weeks of treatment. However, this eventually subsides and normally leaves you with clear skin. The treatment lasts for 4-8 months depending on the severity and how you're coping with the treatment.

My personal experience with Isotretinoin:

Nearly two years ago I had just finished my 7-month course of isotretinion, it was a hard process causing me severely dry skin, dehydration (leading to headaches), extreme sun sensitivity and no drinking alcohol!

If you google the side effects of Isotretinoin it can honestly be scary to read. However, my skin was amazing after this treatment, for about 18 months; I don’t think I've ever been so happy with my skin. I thought this was the cure.

Many people take two courses, but to take it again would be a big decision for me. I've had quite a few breakouts recently, but I’m not sure if it’s enough for me to try a second course. If my skin continues to get worse then I think I would try another course of Isotretinoin.

It should always be taken with caution, and mood should definitely be monitored whilst taking it, but for me it was definitely worth it.

So, that’s the general idea of each type of prescription acne treatment. Speaking to your doctor is very important if your acne is beginning to get you down or affect your day-to-day life.

They may be able to try you on one of these treatments that could just help boost that confidence! And remember, persevere with these treatments. They can take 6+ weeks to start showing an affect, which can be frustrating but you have to try.

Abbie of Pretty Little Skin

Abbie struggled with acne for many years before deciding to create her blog, Pretty Little Skin, to help others who struggle with the same issues. Having tried pretty much every treatment in the book herself, she shares honest accounts and pictures of her journey, and is a mine of information for anyone with skin problems.