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Acne treatment

Woman with acne and acne cream on her face
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If you experience acne, and you’re struggling to manage your condition, read on for a guide to treating acne spots and scarring.

About acne treatment

Acne treatment is a term that refers to any prescription or non-prescription products or procedures used to manage the symptoms of acne. Acne is very common, and because it varies in severity from person to person, there are lots of different ways to treat it.

If your symptoms are mild, you might only need to use over-the-counter skin treatment for acne. If your symptoms are more severe, you will probably need to visit a doctor to receive prescription treatment.

If you’ve experienced scarring as a result of acne, you might require a cosmetic procedure or laser treatment – scroll down to “How is acne scarring treated?” to learn more.

Types of acne spot treatment

Acne spot treatments typically fall into four categories:

  • Topical skincare products containing low doses of acne medication
  • Over-the-counter topical treatments containing stronger doses of acne medication
  • Prescription-strength topical treatments
  • Prescription tablets

Other treatments include comedone extractors (used to remove blackheads and whiteheads), chemical peels, and light therapy.

What kinds of acne treatments are available in the UK?

A variety of different acne spot treatments are available from your local pharmacy or online, some of which can be obtained without a prescription.

In the UK, the most widely used treatments are:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Nicotinamide
  • Azelaic acid
  • Topical retinoids
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Antibiotic tablets
  • Combined contraceptive pills
  • Isotretinoin tablets

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a type of acid that has an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effect on the skin. When applied in a cream or gel it kills bacteria on the skin, reducing the risk of infection and helping to prevent the development of blackheads and whiteheads.

Topical treatments containing benzoyl peroxide are available over the counter in pharmacies. This means that you don’t require a prescription to buy them. One popular over-the-counter acne product containing benozyl peroxide is Acnecide 5%.

Other products containing benzoyl peroxide, such as Duac Once Daily, are available only with a prescription from your GP. You should speak to a doctor about whether these are right for you.


Nicotinamide (also known as niacinamide) is a form of vitamin B3, which has an anti-inflammatory effect when applied directly to the skin. As with benzoyl peroxide, nicotinamide is often found in over-the-counter topical treatments.

The most popular acne treatment containing nicotinamide is Freederm. Freederm is an anti-inflammatory treatment formulated with a clinically active vitamin B complex that can reduce inflamed red spots. It’s ideal for those experiencing mild to moderate acne, speak to a pharmacist today to find out if this treatment is right for you.

Nicotinamide/niacinamide is an ingredient commonly found in skincare products tailored towards people with acne. Many of the products containing this ingredient can be purchased freely without the need to speak to a pharmacist or doctor. However some are only available with a prescription.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is a topical acne treatment similar to benzoyl peroxide. It works by killing bacteria and getting rid of dead skin, which helps prevent the development of spots.

You might find azelaic acid listed as an ingredient in skincare products, but it’s most effective as a prescription treatment at a concentration of 15 or 20%.

Topical retinoids

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A and work by removing dead skin cells. They help to prevent the hair follicles becoming clogged, which in turn stops spots forming.

As with the other treatments listed above, topical retinoids are available with and without a prescription. Retinoids used in skincare products are low-strength and usually referred to as “retinol” or “retinaldehyde”.

Prescription-strength retinoids include tretinoin and adapalene.

Topical antibiotics

Topical antibiotics are antibiotics that come in a gel or cream form. They are applied directly to affected skin and work by killing bacteria, and thereby preventing infection.

Topical antibiotics are usually only prescribed in a short course of six to eight weeks. If you use them for longer the bacteria on your skin could become resistant to the treatment.

Antibiotic tablets

Antibiotic tablets are a treatment for severe acne. They are usually prescribed in conjunction with a topical treatment. Courses of oral antibiotics can last for four to six months.

Combined contraceptive pill

The combined pill is often recommended to women who are experiencing acne symptoms. It’s been observed that the combined pill (which contains synthetic versions of progesterone and oestrogen) helps to reduce acne symptoms. Our Online Doctor may recommend this treatment to you as part of the acne online assessment if deemed appropriate.

For women with severe acne that hasn’t responded to other treatments, a specific contraceptive pill called Co-cyprindiol may be prescribed. This medicine is primarily used to treat acne and hirsutism, which means it’s not appropriate for use as a hormonal contraceptive alone.

Isotretinoin capsules

Isotretinoin capsules are a treatment for severe acne. Because this acne treatment can have serious side effects, it is prescription only, and can only be taken with the guidance and supervision of a doctor As regular monitoring is required.

Isotretinoin capsules are very effective in treating severe acne – around 80% of people have clearer skin after four months of treatment*.

Acne treatment at Online Doctor

Can I get acne treatment delivered?

With LloydsDirect by LloydsPharmacy you can get your acne prescription delivered for free. Learn more about LloydsDirect.

What is the best acne treatment?

There is no single acne treatment that will be suited to every person with acne. The treatments listed above vary in strength and come with different kinds of side effects.

The best thing to do is to start with a gentle, over-the-counter topical product, before progressing onto stronger treatments. You can also talk to your GP or a pharmacist who will be able to advise which treatment may work best for you.

What is the best acne treatment for teens?

Teenagers are the group most commonly affected by acne. This is because puberty causes hormonal changes that can in turn cause changes in the skin. The best acne treatment will be dependent of the individual and symptoms. The GP or pharmacist would be able to advise further according to the individual’s needs.

How is acne scarring treated?

For people with moderate to severe acne, scarring can be an unpleasant complication of their symptoms.

Any type of acne spot can leave a scar, but it’s most common with nodules (large, hard lumps under the skin) and cysts (large, pus-filled spots similar to boils). When a nodule or cyst bursts it can cause damage to the surrounding skin and leave a scar.

Plenty of skincare products are available to treat acne scars, including bio oil, however, these may not have an effect if your scarring is very severe. Body care oil can also be used to reduce the appearance of scars.

Acne scarring can be medically treated with:

  • Dermabrasion, where the top layer of skin is removed
  • Laser treatment, where lasers are used to remove scarred skin or stimulate collagen growth
  • Surgery to remove or modify the appearance of scars

These kinds of treatments usually aren’t available on the NHS, although an exception may be made if your scarring is causing significant distress.

How can acne scarring be prevented?

It’s not always easy to avoid scarring if you have severe acne. The main rule is to avoid squeezing or picking at your spots, no matter how tempting this may be.

In addition, you should:

  • Make sure you’re using the appropriate acne spot treatments, as directed by your doctor or pharmacist
  • Wash your face to remove dirt and makeup twice a day, using a mild cleanser and lukewarm water
  • Avoid scrubbing your skin too hard
  • Wear non-comedogenic makeup, as this won’t clog the skin

If you’d like to receive advice and treatment for your acne, visit a pharmacist, make an appointment with your GP, or use our free acne treatment assessment.