4 Topical Prescription Acne Treatments

Updated December 16, 2014.

It would be great if acne could always be taken care of with over-the-counter products. But, as you may well have experienced, that’s not always the case.

More than likely, to get some real results you’ll need to turn to your physician for a prescription acne treatment. The good news is, there are plenty of topical medications that are super effective in treating acne.

So, if OTC acne products just

aren’t helping, it’s time to move on to the prescription options. (Not sure if you’re ready for a prescription acne medication? This article: Do I Need a Prescription Treatment? will help you decide.)

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is a prescription cream or gel for mild to moderate acne. It is believed that azelaic acid works by reducing Propionibacteria acnes, the bacteria responsible for acne breakouts. It also helps normalize shedding of dead skin cells, and decreases inflammation. Azelaic acid has the added benefit of improving post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, the discoloration left after an acne lesion has healed.

Azelaic acid is sold under the brand names:

Topical Retinoids

Retinoids are popular and effective acne treatments, derived from synthetic vitamin A. Topical retinoids rapidly exfoliate the skin, thereby keeping pores unclogged and preventing comedones. Retinoids adapalene, tazarotene, and tretinoin are prescribed for those with moderate to severe acne.


especially tretinoin, have other advantages. It is often used to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles, making it a popular treatment choice for adult onset acne sufferers.

Some common topical retinoids include:

Topical Antibiotics

Topical antibiotics improve acne by inhibiting the growth of bacteria. They may also help reduce inflammation and decrease the amount of blocked pores, depending on the form used. Topical antibiotics are most often prescribed to treat moderate to severe acne.

Common topical antibiotics used to treat acne include:

Topical Combination Therapy

Topical combination therapy, as the name suggests, include medications which contain combinations of topical antibiotics with other acne-fighting ingredients. The benefits of these medications include the ability to kill acne-causing bacteria, normalize the shedding of dead skin cells, keep pores clear, and reduce the number of comedones. An important feature of topical combination therapy is the fact that less antibiotic is often needed to kill bacteria compared to using topical antibiotics alone.

Topical combination therapy medications include: