Acne is a common disease that shows up in the form of pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, or other inflamed skin spots. When it gets severe, it can cause scars. Although acne most often occurs in preteens and teenagers, people of every age are affected. Acne can show up anywhere on the body.

Your sebaceous glands manufacture oil to keep your skin moisturized. Acne arises when these glands produce too much of that oil, which then creates a clog in your pores, the tiny openings on your skin’s surface. Acne can occur because of internal or external irritants, though most cases are caused by bacteria and can be triggered by hormonal changes.

Knowing that bacteria play a key role in the appearance of pimples and other lesions, you might be tempted to try an over-the-counter antibiotic, such as Neosporin, to treat acne. In practice, that strategy might actually make matters worse.

Neosporin is one of many triple antibiotic ointments or gels that contain polymyxin, bacitracin, and neomycin to fight infections. It seems logical to assume it could kill the bacteria that causes acne as well, but this will not usually be the case.

At any given moment, there’s a small possibility that a pimple might have been caused by a type of bacteria that Neosporin is designed to kill. In those rare cases, Neosporin would fight the cause and likely heal the acne. However, the vast majority of the time acne is caused by Propionibacterium acnes, a particular type of bacteria that Neosporin does not tackle.

Efficacy of Neosporin for pimples, cystic acne, and acne scars

Neosporin does not kill the most common acne-causing bacteria, so it won’t typically be effective at fighting pimples or cystic acne. Because it has many moisturizing, skin-healing oils in its ingredients, Neosporin may temporarily tame irritation and also heal areas of damaged, broken skin. This might give the impression that it is treating the acne, when in fact it’s simply healing some of the damage done by that acne.

The skin-soothing moisturizers in Neosporin, including cocoa butter, cottonseed oil, olive oil, and vitamin E, might very well soften acne scars too, but there are far more effective ways to accomplish all of these skin goals without using an antibacterial. You will almost certainly be able to find these ingredients in products that are less expensive and less potentially harmful than Neosporin could be.

There is one scenario where Neosporin should be applied to breakouts, including pimples or cystic acne, and that is when the acne becomes infected. This can happen when you pop a pimple or it ulcerates and bleeds, then comes in contact with bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus. Healthy skin usually fights off these bacteria, but an open wound provides the perfect opportunity for entry into your body.

Neosporin also contains petroleum jelly, which creates a healing environment and protective barrier, warding off additional bacteria.

Infection is most likely the only reason to use Neosporin for acne.

Incorrect or excessive use of antibacterials is not harmless. When people use these medications too often, bacteria builds up a resistance to them, and they become less effective, even against bacteria that they used to kill quickly and easily.

Using Neosporin for acne when it isn’t necessary could increase the risk and severity of future skin infections.

When it is used long-term, Neosporin and other antibacterial ointments can also wear away at the skin’s protective layers, making it more likely to develop other problems.

Finally, the petroleum jelly in Neosporin does not allow the skin to breathe, making clogged pores and acne even more likely.

Other, much less common side effects are usually related to an allergic reaction, and include:

  • itching
  • rash
  • hives
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing

Although Neosporin is not a good treatment for acne, there are other topical treatments, either sold over the counter or prescribed by your doctor, that work very well, including a number of topical antibiotics and topical acids. Other options include:

Oral and injectable prescriptions are also available:

If your acne is severe and over-the-counter treatments have not been successful, your doctor can help you decide what next steps to take. This may include prescription medications or other treatments.

If you believe you have an infection or you’re having serious side effects, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.

Although acne is often caused by bacteria, Neosporin does not target the bacteria most often responsible for breakouts, and overuse could cause resistance. It’s preferable to use treatments that are specifically designed to treat acne. If you need help with making the best choice for your skin, your dermatologist can provide a lot of insight and direction.