Acne vulgaris refers to the pimples, blackheads, or just the “acne” that may break out on your skin. Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, prescription medication, and lifestyle changes can help manage acne.

Pimples and blackheads are just two symptoms of the overall inflammatory condition the medical literature refers to as “acne vulgaris.” It’s more commonly known as just acne.

Acne is the most common skin disorder in the United States, affecting 40 to 50 million Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

Acne is the result of a blockage of the hair follicles in the skin. This blockage usually involves oil or skin cells. You may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

These outbreaks may not be limited to the face. They may also occur on the:

  • back
  • shoulders
  • neck
  • chest

Acne can appear in different forms on your skin. Here are some images of the most common types of acne pimples.

It’s important not to blame yourself for acne. Those old familiar tales about greasy french fries, chocolate, or dirty skin causing acne are largely false.

Instead, what’s happening is complex. The oil glands at the tips of the hair follicles in your skin are possibly overactive, usually due to hormonal changes. Pores become clogged and inflammation ensues.

This happens especially during puberty, which is why so many teenagers experience acne outbreaks. But acne can happen at any age.

Some women also experience acne outbreaks just before their period. Birth control pills may help manage this.

The goals for treatment include treating and preventing acne, as well as preventing scarring.

Over-the-counter treatments

The first solution to consider is treating acne at home using common over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. This may be suitable only for very mild acne.

Benzoyl peroxide

A well-known treatment for acne is the antibacterial agent benzoyl peroxide. Here’s why it’s a good choice:

  • There’s no risk of bacterial resistance to benzoyl peroxide.
  • Adding benzoyl peroxide to antibiotic therapy may reduce the risk of bacterial resistance.
  • It’s available in gels, cleansers, and spot treatments. It comes in different concentrations geared to the severity of the breakout.
  • It’s affordable and easy to find in many stores.
  • It works to kill bacteria under the skin and unclog pores.
  • It’s good for treating inflammatory acne (those red bumps).

Here are some disadvantages of benzoyl peroxide:

  • It’s not as good for blackheads and whiteheads.
  • It’s also not effective for nodulocystic acne, the most serious acne category. Nodulocystic acne calls for a dermatologist’s care.
  • It can bleach linen and clothing.

Other OTC treatments

Topical retinoids, such as adapalene (Differin) are important acne treatments used to prevent all kinds of acne lesions.

Salicylic acid may also help treat mild acne.

Prescription treatments

More severe cases of acne require a doctor’s visit, so you may need to see a dermatologist. Prescription treatments may include the following:

  • Stronger topical retinoids, such as Retin-A and Tazorac, are the mainstay of acne treatment.
  • Azelaic acid is present in some applications and can improve the color of skin after inflammation subsides and the lesions resolve.
  • Topical or oral antibiotics may help with more severe and widespread acne.
  • Oral isotretinoin (Accutane) can help manage more severe nodules and cysts, scarring acne, and acne not responding to conventional treatments. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85% of people who take one course of this medicine see permanent clearing of their acne.
  • Birth control pills, together with an antibiotic or a drug called spironolactone (off-label treatment for acne), may be prescribed for female patients.
  • Oral steroids, such as prednisone, can be used when initiating other treatments, such as oral isotretinoin or in the case of a very severe flare-up.

You may wonder what lifestyle changes you can add to your topical or oral drug regimen. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • Protect yourself from the sun. Many acne medications will increase your sensitivity to the sun and make you more likely to get a sunburn.
  • Don’t pick. Don’t pick at any acne lesions or touch them. Picking acne can result in scarring.
  • Exercise. Exercising is a great way to minimize stress.
  • Avoid foods that may flare acne. There’s evidence to suggest that cow’s milk, fatty foods, and sugary foods and beverages may be linked to current episodes of acne.
  • Use treatment correctly. Follow the instructions precisely, use a treatment for 4–6 weeks, and if it doesn’t work, try another approach. Apply medication to all the acne-prone skin, not just current lesions.
  • Avoid cosmetics that may aggravate the skin. Look out for words such as won’t clog pores, non-comedogenic, non-acnegenic, and oil-free, or ask a pharmacist or dermatologist for advice.

Acne may affect a person’s mental health. Indeed, stigma still exists. Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem are some potential effects.

If you’re a parent and your child is experiencing acne, help them by offering not only the physical remedies listed above but also emotional support.

Empathize with them while helping them get the medical treatment they need.

If acne is causing you or your family member to experience feelings of depression or anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional. They can offer more specific coping strategies and treatments.

What is the main cause of acne vulgaris?

Acne happens when the sebaceous glands overreact to typical levels of androgen hormones circulating in the body. Experts don’t know exactly why this happens, but causes and risk factors include:

  • the use of some medications, including steroids
  • occlusive clothing and active wear, such as headbands
  • genetic features
  • overexposure to sunlight
  • pregnancy and various health conditions that affect hormone levels
  • anxiety, which can affect hormone levels
  • using oil-based products on the face
  • some dietary factors

What is the difference between acne, cystic acne, and acne vulgaris?

Acne vulgaris is the common form of acne, usually just called acne. There are some different types of acne, including cystic acne, or severe nodular acne, which involves deep, pus-filled lesions that can be painful.

How do you fix acne vulgaris?

A wide range of medications can help manage acne, including topical preparations that contain antibiotics, retinoids, or salicylic acid. For severe acne, a doctor may prescribe oral retinoids, such as isotretinoin, but some of these can have severe adverse effects. Laser therapy, chemical peels, and other techniques can help remove acne scars.

Many cases of acne are short term, but don’t hesitate to seek a dermatologist’s help if an outbreak gets serious. Medications are available to treat and keep your acne at bay.

If you don’t already have a dermatologist, our Healthline FindCare tool can help you connect to physicians in your area.