Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid that is very effective for severe nodular acne, and moderate acne that is stubborn to other treatments. One to two months use is typically adequate to see improvement. Acne often resolves completely or is much milder after a 4–6 month course of oral isotretinoin. After a single course, about 80% of people report an improvement, with more than 50% reporting complete remission. About 20% of patients require a second course. Concerns have emerged that isotretinoin use is linked with an increased risk of adverse effects, like depression, suicidality, anemia, although there is no clear evidence to support some of these claims. Isotretinoin is superior to antibiotics or placebo in reducing acne lesions. The frequency of adverse events was about twice as high with isotretinoin, although these were mostly dryness-related events. No increased risk of suicide or depression was conclusively found. Isotretinoin use in women of childbearing age is regulated due to its known harmful effects in pregnancy. For such a woman to be considered a candidate for isotretinoin, she must have a confirmed negative pregnancy test and use an effective form of birth control. In 2008, the United States started the iPLEDGE program to prevent isotretinoin use during pregnancy. iPledge requires the woman under consideration for isotretinoin therapy to have two negative pregnancy tests and mandates the use of two types of birth control for at least one month before therapy begins and one month after therapy is complete. The effectiveness of the iPledge program has been questioned due to continued instances of contraception nonadherence.
The approach to acne treatment underwent significant changes during the twentieth century. Retinoids were introduced as a medical treatment for acne in 1943. Benzoyl peroxide was first proposed as a treatment in 1958 and has been routinely used for this purpose since the 1960s. 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. Subsequently, in the 1970s tretinoin (original trade name Retin A) was found to be an effective treatment. The development of oral isotretinoin (sold as Accutane and Roaccutane) followed in 1980. 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.
The treatment regimen your doctor recommends depends on your age, the type and severity of your acne, and what you are willing to commit to. For example, you may need to wash and apply medications to the affected skin twice a day for several weeks. Often topical medications and drugs you take by mouth (oral medication) are used in combination. Pregnant women will not be able to use oral prescription medications for acne.