Acne: self-care

by | Dermatology, Pharmacy Care

General Information

Acne is a skin problem that usually starts during teenage years. Hormone changes cause glands in your hair follicles to produce too much sebum (oil). Your skin pores become blocked with sebum, trapping dead skin cells and bacteria. This leads to whiteheads (pimples), blackheads, pustules or cysts developing.

Acne is very common, affecting 80 to 90% of teenagers. It is usually worse during the teenage years and in the early 20s, but can continue into the 40s, especially in women. Acne seems to run in families and is most common on the face, neck and shoulders. It can also appear on other parts of your body.

Acne myths

  • acne is not infectious and cannot be ‘scrubbed away’ by keeping your skin excessively clean
  • acne is not caused by eating fatty foods or chocolate; however, a balanced, healthy diet is important for overall good health
  • stress does not cause acne, though this can make it worse

Acne triggers

  • times of stress
  • hot and humid weather
  • some women find their acne is worse around the time of their period
  • severe acne in women or girls can be from abnormally high levels of certain hormones, which can be treated by your doctor
  • certain medications can make acne worse; they include some types of steroids, anti-epilepsy pills and oral contraceptive pills

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

  • if you have moderate to severe acne
  • if you have tried acne products for several months without success
  • if you are female and also have an excessive amount of facial hair, irregular periods or weight gain; these may be signs of a hormone imbalance
  • if you are feeling depressed or have low self-esteem because of your acne
  • if your acne occurs when you use or are exposed to certain topical products
  • if you are pregnant or breastfeeding; not all treatments are suitable

Treatment Tips

  • try not to pick or squeeze pimples; it can make the inflammation worse and cause scarring
  • removing blackheads is not recommended
  • clean your skin gently twice a day and after exercise; avoid excessive scrubbing
  • use a cleansing lotion or skin wash (as a soap substitute) to wash your face; regular soap may be too drying
  • avoid using oily or greasy products on your skin or hair
  • there are many treatments to help with acne and you may need to try more than one
  • most treatments should be applied to the whole area of affected skin, not just to individual spots or pimples
  • some products should be tested on a small area of skin when using for the first time to test for allergic reaction; see individual products for details
  • although small amounts of sunlight may help dry out pimples, avoid getting sunburnt by wearing a non-comodegenic (non-oily) SPF 30+ sunscreen
  • some acne treatments require the use of sunscreen
  • if your acne is particularly severe, your doctor may refer you to a skin specialist, such as a dermatologist, who can prescribe stronger treatments

Treatment Options

  • remember that topical treatments will not work instantly and will need to be used for a few weeks before benefits are seen
  • topical treatments will not cure acne but will help to prevent further worsening and recurrence of the problem


e.g. resorcinol, sulphur, salicylic acid

e.g. Clean & Clear range, Clearasil range, Proactiv

  • keratolytic agents encourage the loss of dead cells from the surface of your skin, which can help unclog blocked pores
  • this type of product is useful for the treatment of mild acne
  • use once or twice a day; follow product directions
  • keratolytic agents can cause skin irritation, with redness and peeling
  • the skin may feel dry after use; if this happens, apply a light, non-oily moisturiser after use
  • avoid using other drying products, such as alcohol-containing products like toners or abrasive cleansers, such as certain exfoliants
  • face masks which peel off surface skin cells may also be helpful for unblocking pores

Benzoyl peroxide

e.g. Benzac AC Wash, Benzac AC Gel, Clearasil Ultra Acne Treatment Cream, Oxy Cream, Oxy Vanishing Cream (5%)

e.g. Benzac AC Gel 10%

  • benzoyl peroxide works by killing bacteria associated with acne and drying out the pimples
  • it also makes the top layer of skin peel off, unblocking pores
  • regular use can improve mild to moderate acne
  • the most common side effect is skin dryness; if this happens, apply a light, non-oily moisturiser
  • avoid using other drying products, such as alcohol-containing products or abrasive cleansers
  • some reddening, soreness and worsening of acne may occur initially with these treatments; stop using them if your skin becomes extremely red, inflamed or sore
  • start with a low-strength product and gradually increase the strength and/or number of applications, to prevent side effects
  • avoid exposure to direct sunlight during treatment
  • some improvement may be seen in as little as five days but it may take several weeks or months to have maximum effect
  • benzoyl peroxide can bleach clothing, bedding and rarely, hair and eyebrows

Azelaic acid

e.g. Acnederm Medicated Lotion, Finacea

  • azaleic acid works by killing bacteria associated with acne
  • it also helps to remove dead skin cells, which can clog pores
  • apply twice daily, morning and night
  • wash face and hands before use; wash hands after use
  • if irritation occurs, reduce frequency of application until your skin settles
  • azaleic acid also has a bleaching effect, causing hypopigmentation which can cause irreversible lightening of the treated skin
  • it can take up to four weeks for effects to be noticeable and the maximum effect may not be seen for several months



e.g. La Roche-Posay Retin-A, Skinstitut Retinol

  • these products help slough off the dead skin cells and generate new skin cells, clearing the affected area of any blockages which can cause acne
  • it is very important to wear sunscreen while using this medication, as it can lead to sunburn
  • while using these products, peeling, redness and drying can occur. If this happens, stop using or reduce usage until the skin has adjusted to it.

Other topical antibacterials

e.g. chlorhexidine, cetrimide, triclosan

Clearasil Vanishing and Tinted Pimple Treatment Creams (also contain sulphur), pHisoHex, Oxy Skin Wash

  • these products work by killing bacteria on your skin


  • antibiotics: these treat acne by killing bacteria on the skin
  • retinoids: these reduce sebum production and are usually used to treat severe acne; they are not suitable for use in pregnancy or for women planning to become pregnant
  • hormonal products: these are used for women to treat acne which is caused by a hormonal imbalance
  • contraceptive pill: can help prevent the occurence of acne through correcting hormonal imbalances

More Information

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.
  • PRESCRIPTION ONLY available only with a prescription from your doctor or other health professional.

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