Over the counter acne medications: has anything changed?



There are two ingredients that you have probably seen listed as active ingredients of acne products at your local pharmacy are: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. These two ingredients have dominated the market for years– here’s how they work:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide unclogs skin pores by stopping bacteria from growing and causing an acne pimple. It acts as an antiseptic against Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria that causes acne. In addition to killing bacteria, benzoyl peroxide makes some prescription antibiotics more effective in their fight against acne causing bacteria. Furthermore, benzoyl peroxide can prevent resistance from developing to antibiotics. Benzoyl peroxide is available in many forms: soap, lotion, cream, gel, liquid, pad and foam. Although it is available in strengths ranging from 2.5% to 10%, more is not always better!  Once you get above 5%, the benzoyl peroxide doesn’t work any better to kill bacteria, it just will make your skin more dry.  One caution with using benzoyl peroxide as it can bleach your towels or clothes so apply with caution!

  • Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid has the ability to break down sebum that clogs pores. Because salicylic acid can unclog pores, it can help reduce blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid does not reduce the acne causing bacteria. It is also available in many different forms and strengths over the counter. There are also chemical peels available to treat acne that contain salicylic acid.

Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are tried and true ingredients that can help clear acne. Recently, a new acne-fighter has been introduced to the pharmacy: Differin. Up until a few months ago, Differin was a prescription-only medication. It has recently been approved for over the counter use and has kept its original strength of 0.1%. This is a different mode of treating acne than benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, as it is a retinoid product. Retinoids are a form of vitamin A. They also reduce acne outbreaks by preventing dead skin cells from clogging pores. Talk to your dermatologist about which topical may be right for you.

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