Over-the-Counter Treatments for Acne
By Melissa Sanoff-Wiener, RPA-C
Even before humans could write, they were trying to get rid of their acne, and ancient Egyptians’ first notes on papyrus referenced pharaohs with problem skin. In the U.S., acne is the most common skin condition there is. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since ancient times: We understand the processes in play, and we have effective treatments.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, as many as 40 to 50 million people in the United States have some level of acne at any one time, the result of factors including hormones, genetics, and stress. People often deem pimples a rite of passage for teens. But people of all ages can get acne.
The term itself refers to the skin bacteria p. acnes, which can contribute to the formation of pimples, nodules, and cysts. Our skin is designed to regenerate and expel old cells as new cells form. But if our skin produces too much oil, called ‘sebum,’ it can cause pores to get clogged, trapping dead cells beneath the surface and triggering pimples. If surface bacteria also gets trapped, it can cause more severe acne in the form of nodules and cysts.
Acne can carry significant social and psychological tolls, particularly for adolescents. It’s important that patients and their families realize that acne can be successfully controlled, and that for less severe acne, there are a number of different products patients can buy without a prescription.
5 Tips Regarding OTC Acne Treatment:
1. Apply products that limit troublesome bacteria: A number of products limit the overgrowth of p. acnes. For regular widespread application, benzoyl peroxide can be used, while sulfur-based products can be used for more targeted treatment, both to control bacteria and unclog pores.
2. Use products that address clogged pores: These include topical medications with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), salicylic acid, or retinol, as well as mechanical exfoliants, such as cleansing cloths.
3. Consider a combination approach: Some products work well together. For example, patients can use exfoliating towelettes with benzoyl peroxide to address the dual causes of acne.
4. Don’t over do it: Patients want acne to clear up fast. Unfortunately, that’s not how OTC products work. It may take up to eight weeks for pimples to begin to clear. In the meantime, patients need patience. Overuse of products can increase skin inflammation and irritation. Scrubbing and overwashing can trigger the production of more skin oil, making the situation worse. In terms of the products themselves, higher strengths don’t necessarily work better: benzoyl peroxide products with concentrations of more than 2.5 percent, for example, may be too strong. And harsh scrubs can be overly irritating. Using gentle cleansers and following product directions offer the best possibility for clearing skin.
5. For more severe acne, consider seeing a dermatologist: We classify acne on a scale of 1 to 4 in severity. For patients whose acne does not respond to OTC products or is more severe – for example, if their skin develops nodules or cysts – a dermatologist can customize a treatment plan. We have a range of very effective techniques, from prescription medications to outpatient procedures, to help patients recover from and prevent more serious breakouts, as well as ward off after-effects like scarring.
The fact that acne is so common doesn’t mean patients should just live with it. There is no reason for patients to suffer from the discomfort or social anxiety that acne can cause. Their drugstore and skin care experts can offer reliable treatments.