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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
National Institutes of Health
Public Health Service • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
For Your Information
This publication contains information about medicationsused to treat the health condition discussed here. Whenthis booklet was printed, we included the most up-to-date(accurate) information available. Occasionally, newinformation on medication is released.
For updates and for any questions about any medicationsyou are taking, please contact the U.S. Food and DrugAdministration at 1–888–INFO–FDA (1–888–463–6332, a toll-free call) or visit their Web site at www.fda.gov.
This booklet is not copyrighted. Readers are encouragedto duplicate and distribute as many copies as needed.
Additional copies of this booklet are available from
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletaland Skin Diseases NIAMS/National Institutes of Health1 AMS CircleBethesda, MD 20892–3675
You can also find this booklet on the NIAMS Web site at www.niams.nih.gov.
Table of Contents
What Is Acne? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
How Does Acne Develop? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
What Causes Acne? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Who Gets Acne? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
How Is Acne Treated? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Treatment for Blackheads, Whiteheads, and MildInflammatory Acne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Inflammatory Acne . . . . 8
Treatment for Severe Nodular or Cystic Acne . . . . . . . . . . 11
Treatments for Hormonally Influenced Acne in Women . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Other Treatments for Acne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
How Should People With Acne Care for Their Skin? . . . . 14
What Research Is Being Done on Acne? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Where Can People Find More Information About Acne? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Normal Pilosebaceous Unit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Types of Lesions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
This booklet contains general information about acne. Itdescribes what acne is and how it develops, the causes ofacne, and the treatment options for various forms of acne.
Information is also provided on caring for the skin. If youhave further questions after reading this booklet, you maywish to discuss them with your doctor.
What Is Acne?
Acne is a disorder resulting from the action of hormones andother substances on the skin’s oil glands (sebaceous glands)and hair follicles. These factors lead to plugged pores andoutbreaks of lesions commonly called pimples or zits. Acnelesions usually occur on the face, neck, back, chest, andshoulders. Although acne is usually not a serious healththreat, it can be a source of significant emotional distress.
Severe acne can lead to permanent scarring.
How Does Acne Develop?
Doctors describe acne as a disease of the pilosebaceous units(PSUs). Found over most of the body, PSUs consist of asebaceous gland connected to a canal, called a follicle, thatcontains a fine hair (see “Normal Pilosebaceous Unit”diagram). These units are most numerous on the face,upper back, and chest. The sebaceous glands make an oilysubstance called sebum that normally empties onto the skinsurface through the opening of the follicle, commonly calleda pore. Cells called keratinocytes line the follicle.
Normal Pilosebaceous Unit
The hair, sebum, and keratinocytes that fill the narrowfollicle may produce a plug, which is an early sign of acne.
The plug prevents sebum from reaching the surface of theskin through a pore. The mixture of oil and cells allows bac-teria Propionibacterium acnes
) that normally live onthe skin to grow in the plugged follicles. These bacteria pro-duce chemicals and enzymes and attract white blood cellsthat cause inflammation. (Inflammation is a characteristicreaction of tissues to disease or injury and is marked by foursigns: swelling, redness, heat, and pain.) When the wall ofthe plugged follicle breaks down, it spills everything into thenearby skin – sebum, shed skin cells, and bacteria – leadingto lesions or pimples.
People with acne frequently have a variety of lesions, someof which are shown in the diagrams below. The basic acnelesion, called the comedo (KOM-e-do), is simply an enlargedand plugged hair follicle. If the plugged follicle, or comedo,stays beneath the skin, it is called a closed comedo and pro-duces a white bump called a whitehead. A comedo thatreaches the surface of the skin and opens up is called an opencomedo or blackhead because it looks black on the skin’s sur-face. This black discoloration is due to changes in sebum as itis exposed to air. It is not due to dirt. Both whiteheads andblackheads may stay in the skin for a long time.
Types of Lesions
Other troublesome acne lesions can develop, including thefollowing:
– inflamed lesions that usually appear as
small, pink bumps on the skin and can be tenderto the touch
• Pustules (pimples)
– papules topped by white or
yellow pus-filled lesions that may be red at the base
– large, painful, solid lesions that are lodged
– deep, painful, pus-filled lesions that can
What Causes Acne?
The exact cause of acne is unknown, but doctors believe itresults from several related factors. One important factoris an increase in hormones called androgens (male sexhormones). These increase in both boys and girls duringpuberty and cause the sebaceous glands to enlarge and makemore sebum. Hormonal changes related to pregnancy orstarting or stopping birth control pills can also cause acne.
Another factor is heredity or genetics. Researchers believethat the tendency to develop acne can be inherited from par-ents. For example, studies have shown that many school-ageboys with acne have a family history of the disorder. Certaindrugs, including androgens and lithium, are known to causeacne. Greasy cosmetics may alter the cells of the follicles andmake them stick together, producing a plug.
Factors that can cause an acne flare include:
• Changing hormone levels in adolescent girls and
adult women 2 to 7 days before their menstrualperiod starts
• Oil from skin products (moisturizers or cosmetics)
or grease encountered in the work environment(for example, a kitchen with fry vats)
• Pressure from sports helmets or equipment, back-
packs, tight collars, or tight sports uniforms
• Environmental irritants, such as pollution and high
There are many myths about what causes acne. Chocolateand greasy foods are often blamed, but there is little evidencethat foods have much effect on the development and courseof acne in most people. Another common myth is that dirtyskin causes acne; however, blackheads and other acne lesionsare not caused by dirt. Stress doesn’t cause acne, but researchsuggests that for people who have acne, stress can make itworse.
Who Gets Acne?
People of all races and ages get acne. It is most common inadolescents and young adults. An estimated 80 percent of allpeople between the ages of 11 and 30 have acne outbreaks atsome point. For most people, acne tends to go away by thetime they reach their thirties; however, some people in theirforties and fifties continue to have this skin problem.
How Is Acne Treated?
Acne is often treated by dermatologists (doctors who special-ize in skin problems). These doctors treat all kinds of acne,particularly severe cases. Doctors who are general or familypractitioners, pediatricians, or internists may treat patientswith milder cases of acne.
The goals of treatment are to heal existing lesions, stop newlesions from forming, prevent scarring, and minimize thepsychological stress and embarrassment caused by this dis-ease. Drug treatment1 is aimed at reducing several problemsthat play a part in causing acne:
• abnormal clumping of cells in the follicles
1 All medicines can have side effects. Some medicines and side effects are mentioned inthis booklet. Some side effects may be more severe than others. You should review thepackage insert that comes with your medicine and ask your health care provider orpharmacist if you have any questions about the possible side effects.
Depending on the extent of the problem, the doctor may rec-ommend one of several over-the-counter (OTC) medicinesand/or prescription medicines. Some of these medicinesmay be topical (applied to the skin), and others may beoral (taken by mouth). The doctor may suggest using morethan one topical medicine or combining oral and topicalmedicines.
Treatment for Blackheads, Whiteheads, and
Mild Inflammatory Acne
Doctors usually recommend an OTC or prescription topicalmedicine for people with mild signs of acne. Topical medi-cine is applied directly to the acne lesions or to the entirearea of affected skin.
There are several OTC topical medicines used for mildacne. Each works a little differently. Following are themost common ones:
• Benzoyl peroxide
– destroys P. acnes,
and may also
– can help break down blackheads and
• Salicylic acid
– helps break down blackheads and
whiteheads. Also helps cut down the shedding ofcells lining the hair follicles
– helps break down blackheads and
Topical OTC medicines are available in many forms, such asgels, lotions, creams, soaps, or pads. In some people, OTCacne medicines may cause side effects such as skin irritation,burning, or redness, which often get better or go away withcontinued use of the medicine. If you experience severe orprolonged side effects, you should report them to your doctor.
OTC topical medicines are somewhat effective in treatingacne when used regularly; however, it may take up to 8weeks before you see noticeable improvement.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe
People with moderate to severe inflammatory acne may betreated with prescription topical or oral medicines, alone orin combination.
Several types of prescription topical medicines are used totreat acne. They include:
– help stop or slow the growth of bacteria
• Vitamin A derivatives (retinoids)
– unplug existing
comedones (plural of comedo), allowing othertopical medicines, such as antibiotics, to enter thefollicles. Some may also help decrease the formation
of comedones. These drugs contain an altered formof vitamin A. Some examples are tretinoin (Retin-A2),adapalene (Differin), and tazarotene (Tazorac)
– may destroy P. acnes
and reduce oil produc-
tion or help stop or slow the growth of bacteria andreduce inflammation. Some examples are prescriptionstrength Benzoyl peroxide, sodium sulfacetamide/sulfur-containing products, or Azelaic acid (Azelex).
Like OTC topical medicines, prescription topical medicinescome as creams, lotions, solutions, gels, or pads. Your doctorwill consider your skin type when prescribing a product.
Creams and lotions provide moisture and tend to be goodchoices for people with sensitive skin. If you have very oilyskin or live in a hot, humid climate, you may prefer analcohol-based gel or solution, which tends to dry the skin.
Your doctor will tell you how to apply the medicine andhow often to use it.
For some people, prescription topical medicines cause minorside effects, including stinging, burning, redness, peeling,scaling, or discoloration of the skin. With some medicines,such as tretinoin, these side effects usually decrease or goaway after the medicine is used for a period of time. If sideeffects are severe or don’t go away, notify your doctor.
2 Brand names included in this booklet are provided as examples only, and theirinclusion does not mean that these products are endorsed by the National Institutesof Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a particular brand name is notmentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.
As with OTC medicines, the benefits of prescription topicalmedicines are not immediate. Your skin may seem worsebefore it gets better. It may take from 4 to 8 weeks to noticeimprovement.
For patients with moderate to severe acne, doctors often pre-scribe oral antibiotics. Oral antibiotics are thought to helpcontrol acne by curbing the growth of bacteria and reducinginflammation. Prescription oral and topical medicines maybe combined. Common antibiotics used to treat acne aretetracycline (Achromycin V), minocycline (Dynacin,Minocin), and doxycycline (Adoxa, Doryx, and Monodox).
Other oral medicines less commonly used are clindamycin(Cleocin), erythromycin, or sulfonamides (Bactrim). Somepeople taking these antibiotics have side effects, such as anupset stomach, dizziness or lightheadedness, changes inskin color, and increased tendency to sunburn. Becausetetracyclines may affect tooth and bone formation in fetusesand young children, these drugs are not given to pregnantwomen or children under age 14. There is some concern,although it has not been proven, that tetracycline andminocycline may decrease the effectiveness of birth controlpills. Therefore, a backup or another form of birth controlmay be needed. Prolonged treatment with oral antibioticsmay be necessary to achieve the desired results.
Treatment for Severe Nodular or Cystic Acne
People with nodules or cysts should be treated by a dermatol-ogist. For patients with severe inflammatory acne that doesnot improve with medicines such as those described above,a doctor may prescribe isotretinoin (Accutane), a retinoid(vitamin A derivative). Isotretinoin is an oral drug that isusually taken once or twice a day with food for 15 to 20weeks. It markedly reduces the size of the oil glands so thatmuch less oil is produced. As a result, the growth of bacteriais decreased.
Advantages of Isotretinoin (Accutane)
Isotretinoin is a very effective medicine that can help preventscarring. After 15 to 20 weeks of treatment with isotretinoin,acne completely or almost completely goes away in mostpatients. In those patients where acne recurs after a courseof isotretinoin, the doctor may institute another course ofthe same treatment or prescribe other medicines.
Disadvantages of Isotretinoin (Accutane)
Isotretinoin can cause birth defects in the developing fetus
of a pregnant woman. It is important that women of child-
bearing age are not pregnant and do not get pregnant
while taking this medicine.
Women must use two separate
effective forms of birth control at the same time for 1 month
before treatment begins, during the entire course of treatment,
and for 1 full month after stopping the drug. You should ask
your doctor when it is safe to get pregnant after you have
stopped taking isotretinoin.
Some people with acne become depressed by the changesin the appearance of their skin. Changes in mood may beintensified during treatment or soon after completing acourse of medicines like isotretinoin. There have been anumber of reported suicides and suicide attempts inpeople taking isotretinoin; however, the connectionbetween isotretinoin and suicide or depression is not known.
Nevertheless, if you or someone you know feels unusuallysad or has other symptoms of depression, such as loss ofappetite, loss of interest in once-loved activities, or troubleconcentrating, it’s important to consult your doctor.
Other possible side effects of isotretinoin include:
• dry eyes, mouth, lips, nose, or skin (very common)
• changes in the blood, such as an increase in fats in the
To be able to determine if isotretinoin should be stopped ifside effects occur, your doctor may test your blood before youstart treatment and periodically during treatment. Sideeffects usually go away after the medicine is stopped.
Treatments for Hormonally Influenced Acne
In some women, acne is caused by an excess of androgen(male) hormones. Clues that this may be the case includehirsutism (excessive growth of hair on the face or body),premenstrual acne flares, irregular menstrual cycles, andelevated blood levels of certain androgens.
The doctor may prescribe one of several drugs to treatwomen with this type of acne:
• Birth control pills
– to help suppress the androgen
• Low-dose corticosteroid drugs, such as prednisone
(Deltasone) or dexamethasone (Decadron,
– to help suppress the androgen
produced by the adrenal glands
• Antiandrogen drugs such as spironolactone
– to reduce the excessive oil production.
Side effects of antiandrogen drugs may include irregularmenstruation, tender breasts, headaches, and fatigue.
Other Treatments for Acne
Doctors may use other types of procedures in addition todrug therapy to treat patients with acne. For example, thedoctor may remove the patient’s comedones during officevisits. Sometimes the doctor will inject corticosteroidsdirectly into lesions to help reduce the size and pain ofinflamed cysts and nodules.
Early treatment is the best way to prevent acne scars. Oncescarring has occurred, the doctor may suggest a medical orsurgical procedure to help reduce the scars. A superficial lasermay be used to treat irregular scars. Dermabrasion (or micro-dermabrasion), which is a form of “sanding down” scars, issometimes used. Another treatment option for deep scarscaused by cystic acne is the transfer of fat from another partof the body to the scar. A doctor may also inject a syntheticfilling material under the scar to improve its appearance.
How Should People With Acne Care for Their Skin?
If you have acne, you should gently wash your face with amild cleanser, once in the morning and once in the evening,as well as after heavy exercise. Wash your face from under thejaw to the hairline and be sure to thoroughly rinse your skin.
Ask your doctor or another health professional for advice onthe best type of cleanser to use.
Using strong soaps or rough scrub pads is not helpful andcan actually make the problem worse. Astringents are notrecommended unless the skin is very oily, and then theyshould be used only on oily spots.
It is also important to shampoo your hair regularly. If youhave oily hair, you may want to wash it every day.
Avoid Frequent Handling of the Skin
Avoid rubbing and touching skin lesions. Squeezing, pinch-ing or picking blemishes can lead to the development of scarsor dark blotches.
Men who shave and who have acne should test both electricand safety razors to see which is more comfortable. Whenusing a safety razor, make sure the blade is sharp and softenyour beard thoroughly with soap and water before applyingshaving cream. Shave gently and only when necessary toreduce the risk of nicking blemishes.
Many of the medicines used to treat acne can make you moreprone to sunburn. A sunburn that reddens the skin or suntanthat darkens the skin may make blemishes less visible andmake the skin feel drier. However, these benefits are onlytemporary, and there are known risks of excessive sun expo-sure, such as more rapid skin aging and a risk of developingskin cancer.
While undergoing acne treatment, you may need to changesome of the cosmetics you use. All cosmetics, such as founda-tion, blush, eye shadow, moisturizers, and hair-care productsshould be oil free. Choose products labeled noncomedogenic(meaning they don’t promote the formation of closed pores).
In some people, however, even these products may makeacne worse.
For the first few weeks of treatment, applying foundation evenlymay be difficult because the skin may be red or scaly, particu-larly with the use of topical tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide.
What Research Is Being Done on Acne?
Medical researchers are working on new drugs to treat acne,particularly topical antibiotics to replace some of those incurrent use. As with many other types of bacterial infections,doctors are finding that, over time, the bacteria that are asso-ciated with acne are becoming resistant to treatment withcertain antibiotics, though it is not clear how significant aproblem this resistance represents.
Scientists are also trying to better understand the mecha-nisms involved in acne so that they can develop new treat-ments that work on those mechanisms. For example, onegroup of NIAMS-supported researchers is studying themechanisms that regulate sebum production in order toidentify ways to effectively reduce its production without theside effects of current medicines. Another group is trying to
understand how P. acnes
activates the immune system inorder to identify possible immunologic interventions. Otherareas of research involve examining the effects of isotretinoinon an area of the brain that might lead to depression anddeveloping a laser system to treat acne and acne-related scarswithout damaging the outer layers of the skin.
Researchers in Germany, funded by German institutions,have taken P. acnes
and identified its genetic information(genome). This information may help researchers developnew treatments to target the bacteria.
Where Can People Find More Information About Acne?
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal
and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
National Institutes of Health
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892–3675
Phone: 301–495–4484 or
877–22–NIAMS (226–4267) (free of charge)
NIAMS provides information about various forms ofarthritis and rheumatic disease and bone, muscle, joint,and skin diseases. It distributes patient and professionaleducation materials and refers people to other sources ofinformation. Additional information and updates canalso be found on the NIAMS Web site.
American Academy of Dermatology
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumburg, IL 60168–4014
Phone: 847–330–0230 or
888–462–3376 (free of charge)
This national organization can provide referrals todermatologists. It also publishes a brochure on acnefor adults and a fact sheet for young people. Theseare available on the organization’s Web site or can beobtained by calling or writing to the academy.
NIAMS gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Laurence H. Miller, M.D.,
Chevy Chase, MD; Kenneth A. Katz, M.D., M.Sc., University of Pennsylvania
School of Medicine, Philadelphia; Edward W. Cowen, M.D., National Cancer
Institute, NIH; and Alan Moshell, M.D., NIAMS, NIH, in the preparation and
The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis andMusculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of theDepartment of Health and Human Services’ National Insti-tutes of Health (NIH), is to support research into the causes,treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal andskin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists tocarry out this research; and the dissemination of informationon research progress in these diseases. The National Instituteof Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Infor-mation Clearinghouse is a public service sponsored by theNIAMS that provides health information and informationsources. Additional information can be found on the NIAMSWeb site at www.niams.nih.gov.
U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublic Health ServiceNational Institutes of HealthNational Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
NIH Publication No. 06–4998January 2006
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