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What Is a Safe Acne Treatment?

By Viola Horne ; Updated July 18, 2017

There are a number of safe acne treatments on the market today. The safest way to treat minor outbreaks is with localized topical treatments, which generally have fewer and less severe side effects. If acne is severe, systemic treatment may be required, which may involve dangerous side effects. Some oral acne medications, such as Accutane, can cause life-threatening side effects, and should only be used as a last resort.


The first step in safely treating acne is to prevent an outbreak, if possible. Maintaining clean skin may help prevent or lessen the frequency or severity of outbreaks.

While the exact cause of acne is unknown, recommends keeping skin clean to remove dirt, surface oils and dead skin cells that can clog pores and lead to inflammation. Also clean skin after exercise as sweat can clog pores and worsen acne. However, frequent, vigorous washing with harsh products can backfire, making acne worse.

Safely Treating Mild Acne

Mild acne consists of clogged pores, called comedones, and pimples, or pustules. Safely treating mild acne begins with regular, gentle cleansing with an oil-free cleanser and topical applications of over-the-counter acne medication. Avoid the urge to pop or squeeze pimples as this can cause the infected material to be pushed deeper into the skin, causing further irritation or infection, and may result in scarring.

The safest medication for mild to moderate acne is usually a topical cream, gel or lotion, applied locally to the outbreak. Most topical treatments contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, sulphur, or a retinoid, a form of vitamin A. Most can be obtained over-the-counter but those containing the retinoid, tretinoin, and some stronger formulas require a doctor's prescription.

Safely Treating Moderate to Severe Acne

Chronic and/or severe acne may require prescription-strength medication. Severe acne may consist of nodules, acne lesions that are embedded deeper into the skin, and cysts, which lie deep within the skin and contain pus. Severe acne can be painful and cause scarring.

A dermatologist can diagnose moderate to severe acne and recommend a safe treatment plan. Often, a combination of topical, prescription-strength treatments along with oral antibiotics or hormone-regulating drugs are prescribed. Oral medications include antibiotics, hormone-regulating medication and the drug isotretinoin, or Accutane.

Potential Side Effects

Side effects of topical treatment are redness, irritation, photosensitivity, peeling and burning. These minor skin irritations usually disappear once treatment is discontinued.

Serious side effects occur more often with oral medications. The most common side effects of antibiotics are upset stomach, dizziness and lightheadedness. Serious side effects can include an allergic reaction, including hives, respiratory distress, and shock. notes that side effects of hormone-regulating medications can include birth defects to a developing fetus, an increase risk of blood clots and high blood pressure.


While many acne treatments are relatively safe with only minor side effects, some acne medication can be dangerous. Isotretinoin, sold as Accutane, is an oral, systemic drug given for severe forms of acne. Taking the drug while pregnant can cause severe, life-threatening birth defects.

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