Pharmaceutical (Rx) Acne Treatments

Pharmaceutical (Rx) Acne Treatments are medications which are generally only available via a prescription from your doctor (in the United States, at least)


Pharmaceutical Treatments are an essential part of many effective acne treatment regimens. These medications can be particularly useful for patients with moderate to severe acne symptoms.

A wide variety of medications are routinely used to treat acne symptoms, but almost all of them are members of one of five major pharmaceutical types: Antibiotics, Retinoids, Keratolytics, Hormonal Contraceptives or Androgen Inhibitors. Each class of medications is has a unique complement of advantages and disadvantages. These families are profiled below.


Antibiotics kill bacteria. The overgrowth of certain species of bacteria in the skin is often a major contributor to acne symptoms. Inhibiting bacterial growth with antibiotics can help improve acne symptoms for many people.

There are several types of antibiotics that are routinely used to treat acne. Antibiotic-based acne treatments may be administered topically or taken orally. This section contains information and reviews about all of the antibiotics that are regularly used as acne treatments.


Keratolytics help improve acne symptoms by preventing the formation of “clogged pores”. They work by helping to soften and remove the outermost layer of the skin. This helps open up plugged pores and follicles. Keratolytics, and other types of exfoliants, can also helpful for improving the appearance of mild acne scars and small areas of uneven skin.

Many keratolytics are available at low concentrations in Over The Counter products (eg. Benzoyl peroxide). Higher concentration keratolytic products  are often administered by a physician. Keratolytics are primarily used for the treatment of mild acne vulgaris (Acne Types: 1-2).


Retinoids are medications that decrease the production of sebum (oil) in the skin. Retinoids can improve acne symptoms by decreasing the growth of bacteria in the skin and preventing formation of hyper-keratinized plugs (clogged pores). Retinoids also increase cellular turnover in the skin and are a common treatment for mild acne scars and fine lines.

Retinoids are available in both topical and oral formulations. Topical retinoids are applied directly to the skin and are a very common treatment for all types of acne, although they tend to be less effective against moderate to severe acne. Oral retinoids (eg. Accutane) are ingested and affect the entire body. Oral retinoids can have significant side effects and are generally only used in the treatment of moderate to severe acne (Acne Types: 3-4).

Hormonal Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control pills (“The Pill”) are the most common hormonal treatment in the world and these medications can have a significant impact on acne symptoms. Other types of hormonal treatments include androgen inhibitors and corticosteroids. This section contains information and reviews about all of the hormonal treatments that are regularly used as acne treatments.

Androgen Inhibitors

Hormones can contribute to acne in many ways. Androgen hormones (eg. testosterone) can stimulate the growth of sebaceous glands and increase the production of sebum (oily skin). Overactive sebaceous glands and excessive sebum production can contribute to the growth of acne-causing bacteria, and can lead to hyper-keratinized follicles (clogged pores).

Treatments that suppress the activity of androgen hormones are helpful for many women who are struggling with acne (hormonal treatments are rarely used in men because of the side effects).