What is acne?

Acne is a disorder of the hair follicles and sebaceous glands. With acne, the sebaceous glands are clogged, which leads to “pimples”.

Acne is very common--nearly 80 percent of individuals in the U.S. between 11 and 30 years old will be affected by this condition at some point. Acne most often begins in puberty. During puberty, the male sex hormones (androgens) increase in both boys and girls, causing the sebaceous glands to become more active--resulting in increased production of sebum. While acne is most common during puberty it can happen at any age.  

How does acne develop?

The sebaceous glands produce oil (sebum) which normally travels via hair follicles to the skin surface. However, skin cells can plug the follicles, blocking the oil coming from the sebaceous glands. When follicles become plugged, skin bacteria (called Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes) begin to proliferate inside the follicles, causing inflammation. Acne progresses in the following manner:

  1. Blockage of hair follicles results in comedone formation (“white heads” and “black heads”).
  2. Inflammation develops around these comedones leading to “pimples.” Depending on the extent of inflammation, sometimes large painful cysts can develop.

What are the symptoms of acne?

Acne can occur anywhere on the body. However, acne most often appears in areas where there is a high concentration of sebaceous glands, including the following:

  • Face
  • Chest
  • Upper back
  • Shoulders
  • Neck

The following are the most common symptoms of acne. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Blackheads
  • Whiteheads
  • Pus-filled lesions that may be painful
  • Nodules (solid, raised bumps)

The symptoms of acne may resemble other skin conditions. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

Treatment of acne

Specific treatment will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • Severity of the acne
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition

The goal of acne treatment is to minimize scarring and improve appearance. Treatment for acne will include topical and/or systemic drug therapy. Many effective over-the-counter topical medications are available. When buying lotions or makeup, effort should be made to find products labeled "noncomedogenic or nonacnegenic," since these products do not clog pores. Depending on the severity of acne, topical medications (medications applied to the skin) or systemic medications (medications taken orally) may be prescribed by your child's doctor. In some cases, a combination of both topical and systemic medications may be recommended.

Topical medications to treat acne

Topical medications are often prescribed to treat acne. Topical medication can be in the form of a cream, gel, lotion, or solution. Examples include:

Benzoyl peroxideKills the bacteria (P. acnes)

Helps stop or slow down the growth of P. acnes and reduces

inflammation.  Typically, topical or oral antibiotics are never given

without starting either benzoyl peroxide or tretinoin to prevent

bacterial resistance. 

Tretinoin and other vitamin A derivatives

Stops the development of new acne lesions (comedones) and

encourages cell turnover


Systemic medications to treat acne

Systemic antibiotics are often prescribed to treat moderate to severe acne, and may include the following:

  • Tetracycline family (Doxycycline, Minocycline)
  • Ampicillin
  • Bactrim

Treatment for severe, cystic, or inflammatory acne

Isotretinoin (Accutane, Sotret, Claravis, Amnesteem), an oral drug, may be prescribed for individuals with severe, cystic, or inflammatory acne to prevent extensive scarring. Isotretinoin reduces the size of the sebaceous glands, increases skin cell shedding, thereby reducing the development of acne lesions. Isotretinoin can clear acne in 85 percent of patients. This medication is safe to use for the vast majority of the population; however, as with any medication, there is potential for side effects, so this should be discussed with your physician. 

Isotretinoin must not be taken by women who are pregnant because of the possibility of birth defects or miscarriage. However, after the medication is discontinued, there are no known issues with future pregnancies. To minimize the potential for fetal exposure, isotretinoin is approved for marketing only under a special restricted distribution program approved by the FDA. This program is called iPLEDGE. 

The goal of the iPLEDGE program is to prevent pregnancies in females taking isotretinoin and to prevent pregnant females from taking isotretinoin. Requirements of the iPLEDGE program include:

  • Isotretinoin must only be prescribed by prescribers who are registered and activated with the iPLEDGE program.
  • Isotretinoin must only be dispensed by a pharmacy registered and activated with iPLEDGE.
  • Isotretinoin must only be dispensed to patients who are registered with and meet all the requirements of iPLEDGE
  • Female patients who can get pregnant are required to use birth control for one month prior to treatment, during treatment, and for one month after stopping treatment.
  • Pregnancy tests are required before, during, and after treatment.