Acne Active Ingredients
Acne, a highly prevalent dermatological concern, has a variety of underlying causes. Four elements in particular are known to contribute to the problem, as the American Academy of Dermatology explains: bacteria, excess sebum (oil in the skin), clogged pores and inflammation. The array of active ingredients in acne treatments all work in different ways, but each one specifically targets one or more of these root causes.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Alpha hydroxy acids are typical active ingredients in over-the-counter acne treatment products. Often the types used are lactic acid or glycolic acid. As the Mayo Clinic explains, alpha hydroxy acids are synthesized versions of acids found in fruits that contain sugar. They target clogged pores by exfoliating dead skin cells, and they reduce inflammation. Alpha hydroxy acids are also useful in preventing acne scars, as they promote the growth of new skin.
Benzoyl peroxide, which Skin Care Physicians, or SCP, points out was one of the first proven acne treatments, is available in over-the-counter products and in higher concentrations by prescription. It fights acne by killing P. acnes, the bacteria that contribute to the condition, and by stripping dead skin cells from pores. This ingredient has fairly common side effects, including dry skin, redness and irritation, so it may not be suitable if you have sensitive skin.
Salicylic acid, found in many over-the-counter creams, lotions and pads, fights acne by unclogging pores. It helps remove dead skin cells and may help break down sebum buildup. It is useful only for non-inflammatory acne, according to SCP, and it must be used on an ongoing basis to remain effective.
Other Over-the-Counter Ingredients
Alcohol and acetone are a common combination of active ingredients in over-the-counter acne treatments. The former has antibacterial properties, while the latter works to reduce excess oil, explains SCP. Sulfur is often found as an additive in over-the-counter acne products, useful for removing dead skin cells and for breaking down excess oil, reports the Mayo Clinic. Resorcinol is another additive that helps control acne lesions.
Topical Antimicrobial Ingredients
Topical antimicrobial prescriptions are sometimes used to kill P. acnes bacteria, notes SCP. Azelaic acid treats moderate inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, and helps remove dead skin cells from pores. Clindamycin, erythromycin and sodium sulfacetamide are other antimicrobial ingredients used to combat inflammatory acne.
Oral Antibiotic Ingredients
For more serious infections of P. acnes bacteria, prescriptions for oral antibiotics are often used to kill the bacteria and ease inflammation. Erythromycin, tetracycline and two of its synthetic derivative forms, minocycline and doxycycline, are used in these instances.
Retinoid ingredients are derived from vitamin A, explains SCP, and are used to fight moderate to severe acne. Applied topically, adalpene, tazarotene and tretinoin are prescription retinoids that help unclog pores by stripping away dead skin cells and breaking down sebum buildup. They are known to cause skin irritation and to increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun's ultraviolet radiation, according to SCP. Isotretinoin is a retinoid ingredient taken orally. It carries serious risks of side effects, so it is used only in severe, chronic cases of acne that don't respond to any other treatments.
Norgestimate and Ethinyl Estradiol
Norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol are a combination of ingredients that make up several forms of oral contraceptive. The Mayo Clinic points out that these ingredients are sometimes prescribed to women as a form of ongoing acne control. However, birth control pills have serious risks of side effects, so a dermatologist should not prescribe them without approval from your gynecologist.
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