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Top Acne Treatments – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Acne is treated with everything from X-ray radiation to soap and water, at an incremental cost from zero to thousands of dollars per treatment. The side effects of the top acne treatments range from sunburn to suicide. This article will give you a honest overview of the top acne treatments, explaining who benefits most and who may not benefit at all.

Acne Medications
Prescription acne medication can cause serious side effects.


  • For mild to moderate acne, the least expensive treatments typically work best.
  • Pharmaceutical intervention for acne usually carries risk1 of serious side effects.
  • Medical procedures for acne usually give quick results, but with significant pain and expense.

Soap and Water

Taking a used washcloth, dunking in steaming hot water, wrapping it around a bar of Lava soap, and using to rub your face red is a perfect example of how soap and water can make acne worse2. For the mildest cases of acne, however, simple soap and water can make a huge difference in how fast skin heals.

There are three basic rules for the successful use of soap and water for treating acne-affected skin.

  1. Let the soap do the work. Apply a lather of soap to your skin and leave it there for 30 seconds, without rubbing, scrubbing, and massaging it in.
  2. Use warm water, not hot, and not cold. Warm water hydrates your skin—in fact, you get 5 times more moisture into your skin by splashing it water than by applying moisturizer, at least for about half an hour. Hot water dries out the skin, and cold water shocks the skin and slows down any healing process.
  3. Once you get your face clean, don’t put grease, grime, and oil right back on it. Always dry your face with a clean towel, blotting rather rubbing your skin dry.

Many teens who have mild to moderate acne respond to an intervention as simple as soap and water. Most adults who have mild to moderate acne, whose skin does not grow as fast as it did when they were younger, need a whole lot more3.

Cleansers, Moisturizers, and Exfoliants

Most people who have acne spend enormous amounts of money finding the right cleanser for their skin type, and the right moisturizer for their skin type, and then the right exfoliant (dead skin remover) for their skin type. It’s a lot easier and a lot less expensive to start with a product that provides all three in the same package, such as Exposed Skin Care. Instead of trying and possibly returning dozens of daily acne care products, you can try one product from one source with a money-back guarantee. Sometimes keeping skin clean, moist, and exfoliated, however, is not enough either.

If you just have to try an exfoliant product on your own, remember that:

  • Glycolic acid, which is an alpha-hydroxy acid, helps lift and separate dead skin cells from dry, tight skin.
  • Salicylic acid, which is a beta-hydroxy acid, helps break up plugs of sebum stuck in pores.

But if you have trouble remembering which is which, it may be a better idea just to go with a kit.

Topical and Oral Antibiotics

Many doctors treat acne with antibiotic ointments or antibiotics taken by mouth. There are several serious drawbacks to antibiotic treatment4.

The most significant problem with antibiotic treatment is that is only has an effect on inflammatory acne, pimples, and it has no effect at all on non-inflammatory acne that causes whiteheads and blackheads. Acne bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotic ointments, so they simply don’t work. And oral antibiotics can wipe out the helpful, symbiotic bacteria in the colon that keep other kinds of pathogenic microorganisms—as well as inflammation throughout the body—in check.

If you use an antibiotic ointment, it’s usually a good idea also to use benzoyl peroxide. The chemical wipes out the bacteria that may be resistant to the ointment. And if you take an oral antibiotic, it is usually a good idea to take a probiotic supplement to maintain and restore the useful microbes that normally live in the colon.

Blue Light

A blue light wand is a much simpler way to treat bacteria infecting the skin. The Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that cause acne suffer DNA damage that “knocks out” their ability to reproduce in the skin when exposed to certain wavelengths of visible blue light. This light does not penetrate the skin beyond the depth of the pores, and leaves the underlying structure of the skin unaffected. Blue light is safe for home use5, and treatment kits are available for as little as US $150.

Retinoic Acid and Retinoids

Vitamin A is the nutrient that gives the skin the power to grow new cells. Retinoic acid is a form of vitamin A the body can use more immediately. Retinoids are essentially vitamin A on steroids. A class of drugs including Accutane, Retin-A, Adapalene, and Tazorac, retinoids cause the skin to grow6 so quickly that it literally opens up over deep-down acne infections, making lancing or surgery unnecessary.

If you have sensitive, oily skin with acne, you may find that a retinoic acid cream helps keep pores open with very few side effects. If you have nodular or cystic acne, you may find that prescription retinoids give you relief you cannot get any other way. Just be forewarned that one of the side effects of retinoid treatment for severe acne is something the doctor usually doesn’t warn you about, a new case of mild to moderate acne. Opening up cysts and nodules is only the beginning of acne treatment.

Chemical Peels

If retinoids such as Accutane and Retin-A are fairly described as “vitamin A on steroids,” then it would be fair to compare chemical peels7 to “exfoliants on steroids.” Aestheticians and cosmetologists, usually working under the supervision of a dermatologist, apply strong chemicals such as chloroacetic acid directly to the face. When skin is removed down to the level of the bloodstream, it grows back without infection—at least for a time.

Laser Therapy

Lasers treat acne from the inside out. Choosing a wavelength of light that coagulates blood but not skin8, the physician cuts off the skin’s blood supply. In a few days to a few weeks, acne blemishes simply die and fall off. For a few weeks to a few months, the skin remains smooth. Laser therapy is a lot less painful that having the skin burned off with acid or “sanded” off with dermabrasion, but it is also a lot more expensive.

These are the most commonly used successful acne treatments. These top acne treatments are generally safe and usually affordable, although some of them are not cheap. Always start with the simplest and least expensive interventions before you avail yourself of medical care for mild to moderate acne. And if you simply don’t know where to start, try an acne treatment kit, like Exposed Skin Care.


  1. Oudenhoven M.D., Kinney M.A., McShane D.B., Burkhart C.N., Morrell D.S. Adverse effects of acne medications: recognition and management. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 2015;16(4):231-242.
  2. Skin care for acne-prone skin. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). 2013.
  3. Tan A.U, Schlosser B.J., Paller A.S. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 2018;4(2):56–71.
  4. Tripathi S.V., Gustafson C.J., Huang K.E., Feldman S.R. Side effects of common acne treatments. Expert Opinion on Drug Safety (Journal). 2013;12(1):39-51.
  5. Pei S., Inamadar A.C., Adya K.A., Tsoukas1 M.M. Light-based therapies in acne treatment. Indian Dermatology Online Journal. 2015;6(3):145–157.
  6. Futoryan T., Gilchrest B.A. Retinoids and the skin. Nutrition Reviews. 1994;52(9):299-310.
  7. Grajqevci-Kotori M., Kocinaj A. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical Archives. 2015;69(6):414–416.
  8. Elman M. A new lightening approach to acne treatment–combining therapy modalities for maximizing acne treatment: Phototherapy (LHE™), drugs, skin rejuvenation and skin tightening. Laser Therapy. 2011;20(1):35–37.
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