How Has Acne Treatment Changed? A HealthCentral Explainer

ATsai Editor
  • Acne has long been a struggle for teens--nearly 80 percent of them  have some form of it. To make matters worse, doctors have found that the bacteria that cause acne have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics.


    What is acne?

    Acne is caused by oil and skin cells that become clogged in hair follicles, which then become infected with bacteria and causes swelling. A pimple forms when the plug begins to break down. Several types of pimples and acne exist, but most people will experience a combination of whiteheads, blackheads, papules and pustules. In less common acne, people will develop nodules or cysts, which are deep below the skin and can be very painful.

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    Mild acne can be treated with over-the-counter medications, which contain substances like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.  For more severe cases, a visit to the dermatologist is necessary. Typically a patient would be prescribed an oral or topical antibiotic, which combats the growth of bacteria and reduces inflammation. Specifically, Erythromyocin and Tetracycline are often prescribed.


              [SLIDESHOW: 6 Strategies for Taming Teenage Acne]


    What is antibiotic-resistant acne?

    Over the years, antibiotics have become less effective at treating acne. This likely is occurring for several reasons. One is that the bacteria is mutating so that the antibiotic is not effectively killing it. The second is that the bacteria is banding together to produce biofilms, which slows down penetration of antibiotics. Research shows that antibiotic-resistant acne cases have tripled over the past few decades, which is leaving a gap in treatment.


    Sore throats are another strike against oral antibiotics. Research has found that taking oral antibiotics for acne can raise the risk of developing sore throat symptoms. The study, published in the Archives of Dermatology found that college students taking oral antibiotics for acne were three times more likely to develop a sore throat than those not taking oral antibiotics.


    How is this type of acne being treated?

    Currently, antibiotic-resistant acne is being treated most commonly with combination therapy. This includes using an antibiotic with benzoyl peroxide or retinoids. Benzoyl peroxide decreases bacteria through a different mechanism than antibiotics, and this combination clears acne better than an antibiotic alone. Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, but studies have not shown the same effectiveness as benzoyl peroxide.


    Another option is intense-pulsed laser and light treatments, which is used when other acne treatments fail. Laser and light treatments last for 15 to 20 minutes and take several treatments before improvements are seen. Studies show that the blue light destroys the bacteria and reduces inflammation. Unfortunately light therapy is expensive and usually is not covered by insurance. It also does not work for everyone.


    Yet another option is isotretinoin, or Accutane, a stronger form of retinoid, which is a highly effective oral acne medication, but comes with serious side effects. Birth defects, depression and possible inflammatory bowel symptoms have been reported, which led to the federal government regulating the drug’s use. 

  •                [SLIDESHOW: 5 Myths About Acne]

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    Are there any new possibilities?

    Scientists from UCLA are working on harnessing a harmless virus that lives on our skin, particularly people without acne, and naturally seeks and destroys the bacteria responsible for acne. Samples were taken from the noses of study participants who had either pimply or clear skin. Researchers analyzed both the bacterium and the family of viruses living on our skin that kills it.


    The virus genomes were patterned and analyzed and it appears that their attributes make them ideal for possible new acne treatments. Further research will determine if an isolated protein from the virus is as successful as the whole virus at killing the acne bacteria.



    n.p. (2009, March 5). "What is Acne? What Causes Acne? How to Get Rid of Acne." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    Neighmond, Patti. (2012, October 15). “Doctors Strike Mutating Bacteria in Teen Acne Battle.” Retrieved from


    n.p. (2011, November 21). "Acne - Oral Antibiotics Raise Sore Throat Risk." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    n.p. “Antibiotic Resistance.” Retrieved from


    n.p. (2012, September 25). "Virus May Be Able To Treat Acne." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Published On: October 22, 2012