Acne is a skin disorder that leads to an outbreak of lesions called pimples or "zits." The most common form of the disease in adolescents is called acne vulgaris. Antiacne drugs are the medicines that help clear up the pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and more severe forms of lesions that occur when a teen has acne.
Different types of antiacne drugs are used for different treatment purposes, depending on the severity of the condition. For example, lotions, soaps, gels, and creams containing substances called benzoyl peroxide or tretinoin may be used to clear up mild to moderately severe acne. Isotretinoin (Accutane) is an oral drug that is prescribed only for very severe, disfiguring acne.
Acne is caused by the overproduction of sebum during puberty when high levels of the male hormone androgen cause excess sebum to form. Sebum is an oily substance that forms in glands just under the surface of the skin called sebaceous glands. Sebum normally flows out hair follicles onto the skin to act as a natural skin moisturizer. The glands are connected to hair follicles that allow the sebum, or oil, to empty onto the skin through a pore.
Sometimes the sebum combines with dead, sticky skin cells and bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) that normally live on the skin. The mixture of oil and cells allows the bacteria to grow in the follicles. When this happens, a hard plug called a comedo can form. A comedo is an enlarged hair follicle. It can appear on the skin as a blackhead, which is a comedo that reaches the skin's surface and looks black, or as a whitehead, which is a comedo that is sealed by keratin, the fibrous protein produced by the skin cells and looks like a white bump.
In addition, pimples can form on the skin. Types of pimples include:
- papules, which are small, red bumps that may be tender to touch
- pustules, which are pus-filled lesions that are often red at the base
- nodules, which are large, painful lesions deep in the skin
- cysts, which are painful pus-filled lesions deep in the skin that can cause scarring
Pimples form when the follicle is invaded by the P. acnes bacteria. The damaged follicle weakens and bursts open, releasing sebum, bacteria, skin cells, and white blood cells into surrounding tissues. Scarring happens when new skin cells are created to replace the damaged cells. The most severe type of acne includes both nodules and cysts.
Acne cannot be cured, but antiacne drugs can help clear the skin and reduce the chance of scarring. The goal of treating moderate acne is to decrease inflammation and prevent new comedones from forming. Benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin work by mildly irritating the skin. This encourages skin cells to slough off, which helps open blocked pores. Benzoyl peroxide also kills bacteria, which helps prevent whiteheads and blackheads from turning into pimples. Isotretinoin shrinks the glands that produce sebum. It is used for severe acne lesions and must be carefully monitored because of its side effects. Antibiotics also may be prescribed to kill bacteria and reduce inflammation.
Benzoyl peroxide is found in many over-the-counter acne products that are applied to the skin, such as Benoxyl, Neutrogena Acne, PanOxyl, and some formulations of Clean & Clear, Clearasil, and Oxy. Some benzoyl peroxide products are available without a physician's prescription; others require a prescription. Acne treatments that can dry the skin should be used with caution by people with skin of color.
Tretinoin (Retin-A) is available only with a physician's prescription. It comes in liquid, cream, and gel forms, which are applied to the skin. Isotretinoin (Accutane), which is taken by mouth in capsule form, is available only with a physician's prescription. Only physicians experienced in diagnosing and treating severe acne, such as dermatologists, should prescribe isotretinoin.
The recommended dosage depends on the type of antiacne drug. These drugs usually come with written directions for patients and should be used only as directed by the prescribing physician. Teens who have questions about how to use the medicine should check with their physician or pharmacist.
Patients who use isotretinoin usually take the medicine for a few months, then stop for at least two months. Their acne may continue to improve even after they stop taking the medicine. If the condition is still severe after several months of treatment and a two-month break, the physician may prescribe a second course of treatment.
Isotretinoin can cause serious birth defects, including mental retardation and physical deformities. This medicine should not be used during pregnancy. Females who are able to bear children should not use isotretinoin unless they have very severe acne that has not cleared up with the use of other antiacne drugs. In that case, a woman who uses this drug must have a pregnancy test two weeks before beginning treatment and each month she is taking the drug. Another pregnancy test must be done one month after treatment ends. The woman must use an effective birth control method for one month before treatment begins and must continue using it throughout treatment and for one month after treatment ends. Females who are able to bear children and who want to use this medicine should discuss this information with their healthcare providers. Before using the medicine, they will be asked to sign a consent form stating that they understand the danger of taking isotretinoin during pregnancy and that they agree to use effective birth control.
People using this drug should not donate blood to a blood bank while taking isotretinoin or for 30 days after treatment with the drug ends. This will help reduce the chance of a pregnant woman receiving blood containing isotretinoin, which could cause birth defects.
Isotretinoin may cause a sudden decrease in night vision. If this happens, users should not drive or do anything else that could be dangerous until vision returns to normal. They should also let the physician know about the problem.
This medicine may also make the eyes, nose, and mouth dry. Ask the physician about using special eye drops to relieve eye dryness. To temporarily relieve the dry mouth, chew sugarless gum, suck on sugarless candy or ice chips, or use saliva substitutes, which come in liquid and tablet forms and are available without a prescription. If the problem continues for more than two weeks, check with a physician or dentist. Mouth dryness that continues over a long time may contribute to tooth decay and other dental problems.
Isotretinoin may increase sensitivity to sunlight. Patients being treated with this medicine should avoid exposure to the sun and should not use tanning beds, tanning booths, or sunlamps until they know how the drug affects them.
In the early stages of treatment with isotretinoin, some people's acne seems to get worse before it starts getting better. If the condition becomes much worse or if the skin is very irritated, they should check with the physician who prescribed the medicine.
Benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin
When applying antiacne drugs to the skin, people should be careful not to get the medicine in the eyes, mouth, or inside the nose. They should not put the medicine on skin that is wind burned, sunburned, or irritated, and not apply it to open wounds .
Because antiacne drugs such as benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin irritate the skin slightly, users should avoid doing anything that might cause further irritation. They should wash the face with mild soap and water only two or three times a day, unless the physician says to wash it more often. They should also avoid using abrasive soaps or cleansers and products that might dry the skin or make it peel, such as medicated cosmetics, cleansers that contain alcohol, or other acne products that contain resorcinol, sulfur, or salicylic acid.
If benzoyl peroxide or tretinoin make the skin too red or too dry or cause too much peeling, the user should check with a physician. Using the medicine less often or using a weaker strength may be necessary. Benzoyl peroxide can irritate the skin of people with skin of color and cause darkened spots called hyperpigmentation on the skin. Benzoyl peroxide may discolor hair or colored fabrics.
ORAL DRUGS Oral antibiotics are taken daily for two to four months. The drugs used include tetracycline, erythromycin, minocycline (Minocin), doxycycline, clindamycin (Cleocin), and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra). Possible side effects include allergic reactions, stomach upset, vaginal yeast infections, dizziness , and tooth discoloration.
The goal of treating moderate acne is to decrease inflammation and prevent new comedones from forming. One effective treatment is topical tretinoin, used along with a topical or oral antibiotic. A combination of topical benzoyl peroxide and erythromycin is also very effective. Improvement is normally seen within four to six weeks, but treatment is maintained for at least two to four months.
People who have certain medical conditions or who are taking certain other medicines may have problems if they use antiacne drugs. Before using these products, the physician should be informed about any of the following conditions.
ALLERGIES Anyone who has had unusual reactions to etretinate, isotretinoin, tretinoin, vitamin A preparations, or benzoyl peroxide in the past should let the physician know before using an antiacne drug. The physician should also be told about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.
PREGNANCY Teens who are pregnant or who may become pregnant should check with a physician before using tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide. Isotretinoin causes birth defects in humans and must not be used during pregnancy.
OTHER MEDICAL CONDITIONS Before using antiacne drugs applied to the skin, people with any of these medical problems should make sure their physicians are aware of their conditions:
- Eczema. Antiacne drugs that are applied to the skin may make this condition worse.
- Sunburn or raw skin. Antiacne drugs that are applied to the skin may increase the pain and irritation of these conditions.
In people with certain medical conditions, isotretinoin may increase the amount of triglyceride (a fatty-substance) in the blood. This may lead to heart or blood vessel problems. Before using isotretinoin, adolescents with any of the following medical problems should make sure their physicians are aware of their conditions:
- alcoholism or heavy drinking, currently or in the past
- diabetes or family history of diabetes (Isotretinoin may change blood sugar levels.)
- family history of high triglyceride levels in the blood
- severe weight problems
Using antiacne drugs with certain other drugs may affect the way the drugs work or may increase the chance of side effects.
Conditions caused by isotretinoin
Minor discomforts such as dry mouth or nose, dry eyes, dry skin, or itching usually go away as the body adjusts to the drug and do not require medical attention unless they continue or are bothersome.
Other side effects should be brought to a physician's attention. These include:
- burning, redness, or itching of the eyes
- signs of inflammation of the lips, such as peeling, burning, redness or pain
Bowel inflammation is not a common side effect, but it may occur. If any of the following signs of bowel inflammation occur, stop taking isotretinoin immediately and check with a physician:
- pain in the abdomen
- bleeding from the rectum
- severe diarrhea
Conditions caused by benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin
The most common side effects of antiacne drugs applied to the skin are slight redness, dryness, peeling, and stinging, and a warm feeling to the skin. These problems usually go away as the body adjusts to the drug and do not require medical treatment.
Other side effects should be brought to a physician's attention. Check with a physician as soon as possible if any of the following side effects occur:
- blistering, crusting, or swelling of the skin
- severe burning or redness of the skin>
- darkening or lightening of the skin (This effect will eventually go away after treatment with an antiacne drug ends.)
- skin rash
Other side effects are possible with any type of antiacne drug. Anyone who has unusual symptoms while using antiacne drugs should get in touch with his or her physician.
Patients using antiacne drugs on their skin should tell their physicians if they are using any other prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medicine that they apply to the skin in the same area as the antiacne drug.
Isotretinoin may interact with other medicines. When this happens, the effects of one or both drugs may change or the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who takes isotretinoin should let the physician know about all other medicines being used and should ask whether the possible interactions can interfere with drug therapy. Among the drugs that may interact with isotretinoin are listed below:
- Etretinate (Tegison), used to treat severe psoriasis . Using this medicine with isotretinoin increases side effects.
- Tretinoin (Retin-A, Renova). Using this medicine with isotretinoin increases side effects.
- Vitamin A or any medicine containing vitamin A. Using any vitamin A preparations with isotretinoin increases side effects. Do not take vitamin supplements containing vitamin A while taking isotretinoin.
- Tetracyclines (used to treat infections). Using these medicines with isotretinoin increases the chance of swelling of the brain. Make sure the physician knows if tetracycline is being used to treat acne or another infection.
Acne —A chronic inflammation of the sebaceous glands that manifests as blackheads, whiteheads, and/or pustules on the face or trunk.
Bacteria —Singular, bacterium; tiny, one-celled forms of life that cause many diseases and infections.
Bowel —The intestine; a tube-like structure that extends from the stomach to the anus. Some digestive processes are carried out in the bowel before food passes out of the body as waste.
Cyst —An abnormal sac or enclosed cavity in the body filled with liquid or partially solid material. Also refers to a protective, walled-off capsule in which an organism lies dormant.
Eczema —A superficial type of inflammation of the skin that may be very itchy and weeping in the early stages; later, the affected skin becomes crusted, scaly, and thick.
Noncomedogenic —A substance that does not contribute to the formation of blackheads or pimples on the skin. Jojoba oil is noncomedogenic.
Pimple —A small, red swelling of the skin.
Psoriasis —A chronic, noncontagious skin disease that is marked by dry, scaly, and silvery patches of skin that appear in a variety of sizes and locations on the body.
Pus —A thick, yellowish or greenish fluid composed of the remains of dead white blood cells, pathogens, and decomposed cellular debris. It is most often associated with bacterial infection.
Triglyceride —A substance formed in the body from fat in the diet. Triglycerides are the main fatty materials in the blood. Bound to protein, they make up high- and low-density lipoproteins (HDLs and LDLs). Triglyceride levels are important in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
Acne comes at a difficult time, the adolescent years. While mild acne can be treated with over-the-counter medications, more severe acne needs medical attention. Experts advise against a wait-and-see attitude. Treatment options can help control acne and avoid scarring.
Isotretinoin can cause serious birth defects, including mental retardation and physical deformities. This medicine should not be used during pregnancy. Sexually active adolescent females who are able to bear children should not use isotretinoin unless they have very severe acne that has not cleared up with the use of other antiacne drugs. In addition, acne treatments that can dry the skin should be used with caution by people with skin of color.
See also Acne .
McNally, Robert A. Skin Health Information for Teens: Health Tips about Dermatological Concerns and Skin Cancer Risks. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2003.
Simons, Rae. For All to See: A Teen's Guide to Healthy Skin. Broomall, PA: Mason Crest, 2005.
American Academy of Dermatology. 930 E. Woodfield Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60168. Web site: http://www.aad.org/pamphlets/acnepamp.html.
"Accutane." American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Available online at http://aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/accutane.html (accessed October 16, 2004).
"Questions and Answers about Acne." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Information Clearinghouse , October 2001. Available online at http://www.niams.nih.gov/hi/topics/acne/acne.htm (accessed October 16, 2003).
"Treating Acne in Skin of Color." AcneNet , 2002. Available online at http://www.skincarephysicians.com/acnenet/update.htm (accessed October 16, 2004).
"'What Can I Do about Pimples?"' American Family Physician, Information from Your Family Doctor Handout , January 15, 2000. Available online at http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000115/20000115a.html (accessed October 15, 2004).
Christine Kuehn Kelly