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From the What to Expect editorial team and Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect the First Year. Health information on this site is based on peer-reviewed medical journals and highly respected health organizations and institutions including ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), as well as the What to Expect books by Heidi Murkoff.


Since benzoyl peroxide is often prescribed in office for handling cystic acne (it kills acne-causing bacteria within the hair follicle), it was the first choice among dermatologists I spoke to as an over-the-counter treatment. There are a couple of different options out there from face washes to topical creams to bodywashes, but dermatologist Ross S. Levy, of CareMount Medical — the director of dermatologic surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine — says that typically “the benzoyl peroxide (5 to 10 percent) topical creams or gels are more effective than the cleansers or washes.” The only danger with benzoyl peroxide to be mindful of is that it will stain clothing and pillowcases. Clean & Clear’s Persa-Gel, which contains 10 percent benzoyl peroxide, is one of Gonzalez’s go-to recommendations for treating cystic acne at home.

But Accutane has mixed reviews for a reason. It makes the skin super dry and sensitive, which means it’s important to keep moisturizers and lip balm nearby while you’re on the treatment. Oh, and don’t even think about waxing your eyebrows (just imagine your skin ripping off). There’s another downside to Accutane: It requires a lot of paperwork and office visits. Since isotretinoin can cause birth defects, you have to come into the dermatologist once a month to get a pregnancy test and take a lengthy survey with embarrassing questions about your sex life to prove that you are using sufficient birth control. These precautions are intense, but dermatologists agree that the final results for Accutane are like no other. “This is one of the few medicines that I can look [patients] in the eye and guarantee them it will work,” says Friedman.

And though none of the experts we spoke to specifically called this out, writer Frankie May Wong declared this salicylic-acid-enhanced Medik8 gel as her cystic-acne Holy Grail. She uses it sparingly to avoid it losing its efficacy, but thanks its blend of acne-fighting ingredients for her clear skin and the lack of scarring thereafter: “Another reason the Beta Gel seemed to work miracles could’ve been the combination of dioic acid (a rarer ingredient that otherwise only appears in the pricey but raved-about SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense serum), azelaic acid, and niacinamide.”

The approach to acne treatment underwent significant changes during the twentieth century. Retinoids were introduced as a medical treatment for acne in 1943.[82] Benzoyl peroxide was first proposed as a treatment in 1958 and has been routinely used for this purpose since the 1960s.[167] Acne treatment was modified in the 1950s with the introduction of oral tetracycline antibiotics (such as minocycline). These reinforced the idea amongst dermatologists that bacterial growth on the skin plays an important role in causing acne.[163] Subsequently, in the 1970s tretinoin (original trade name Retin A) was found to be an effective treatment.[168] The development of oral isotretinoin (sold as Accutane and Roaccutane) followed in 1980.[169] After its introduction in the United States it was recognized as a medication highly likely to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. In the United States, more than 2,000 women became pregnant while taking isotretinoin between 1982 and 2003, with most pregnancies ending in abortion or miscarriage. About 160 babies were born with birth defects.[170][171]
Acne vulgaris and its resultant scars have been associated with significant social and academic difficulties that can last into adulthood, including difficulties obtaining employment.[31][177] Until the 1930s, it was largely seen as a trivial problem among middle-class girls – a trivial problem, because, unlike smallpox and tuberculosis, no one died from it, and a feminine problem, because boys were much less likely to seek medical assistance for it.[165] During the Great Depression, dermatologists discovered that young men with acne had difficulty obtaining jobs, and during World War II, some soldiers in tropical climates developed such severe and widespread tropical acne on their bodies that they were declared medically unfit for duty.[165]
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.
Use a toner after cleansing. After you wash your face, exfoliate, or apply a face mask, apply a toner to the entirety of your face. Toners work to tighten pores making it less likely that dirt and oil will become trapped in them. Buy acne toners at a local drugstore, or use witch hazel or apple cider vinegar dabbed on with a cotton ball. Don’t rinse toners after application - allow them to stay on your skin.
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Scientists initially hypothesized that acne represented a disease of the skin's hair follicle, and occurred due to blockage of the pore by sebum. During the 1880s, bacteria were observed by microscopy in skin samples affected by acne and were regarded as the causal agents of comedones, sebum production, and ultimately acne.[163] During the mid-twentieth century, dermatologists realized that no single hypothesized factor (sebum, bacteria, or excess keratin) could completely explain the disease.[163] This led to the current understanding that acne could be explained by a sequence of related events, beginning with blockage of the skin follicle by excessive dead skin cells, followed by bacterial invasion of the hair follicle pore, changes in sebum production, and inflammation.[163]
No one knows exactly what causes acne. Hormone changes, such as those during the teenage years and pregnancy, probably play a role. There are many myths about what causes acne. Chocolate and greasy foods are often blamed, but there is little evidence that foods have much effect on acne in most people. Another common myth is that dirty skin causes acne; however, blackheads and pimples are not caused by dirt. Stress doesn't cause acne, but stress can make it worse.
Clascoterone is a topical antiandrogen which has demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of acne in both males and females and is currently in the late stages of clinical development.[119][120][121][122] It has shown no systemic absorption or associated antiandrogenic side effects.[121][122][123] In a direct head-to-head comparison, clascoterone showed greater effectiveness than topical isotretinoin.[121][122][123] 5α-Reductase inhibitors such as finasteride and dutasteride may be useful for the treatment of acne in both males and females, but have not been thoroughly evaluated for this purpose.[1][124][125][126] In addition, the high risk of birth defects with 5α-reductase inhibitors limits their use in women.[1][125] However, 5α-reductase inhibitors can be combined with birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, and are frequently used to treat excessive hair in women.[124] There is no evidence as of 2010 to support the use of cimetidine or ketoconazole in the treatment of acne.[127]

Oral isotretinoin is very effective. But because of its potential side effects, doctors need to closely monitor anyone they treat with this drug. Potential side effects include ulcerative colitis, an increased risk of depression and suicide, and severe birth defects. In fact, isotretinoin carries such serious risk of side effects that all people receiving isotretinoin must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved risk management program.
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