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If you search online for “subclinical acne,” you’ll find it mentioned on several websites. However, it isn’t exactly clear where the term comes from. “Subclinical” isn’t a term typically associated with dermatology.

Commonly, a subclinical disease means it’s in the early stages of the condition, when no recognizable signs or symptoms of the disease have presented themselves.

When it comes to acne, any bump or pimple on your skin is, in itself, a clinical presentation, so the term “subclinical” doesn’t really apply.

A better classification for acne might be active or inactive:

  • Active acne signifies the presence of comedones, inflammatory papules, and pustules.
  • Inactive acne (or well-controlled acne) means there are no comedones or inflammatory papules or pustules present.

Keep reading to learn more about acne (whether active or inactive) and how to treat and prevent it.

To understand acne, you need to know about comedones. Comedones are acne lesions found at the opening of skin pores.

These small bumps can give skin a rough texture. They may be flesh-colored, white, or dark. They may also be open or closed.

Open comedones (blackheads) are small follicles with openings to the skin. Because they’re open, the contents in the follicle can oxidize, leading to the dark color.

Closed comedones (whiteheads) are small plugged follicles. Their contents aren’t exposed, so they don’t turn a dark color.

Several factors can cause acne, including:

  • acne bacteria (P. acnes)
  • clogged pores (dead skin cells and oil)
  • excess oil production
  • inflammation
  • excess hormonal activity (androgens) leading to an increase of sebum production

Acne develops where sebaceous follicles are found. It can appear anywhere on your body, but may commonly develop on your:

  • forehead
  • cheeks
  • chin
  • back

Dermatologists determine acne treatment based on its severity. Treatment for mild acne commonly includes lifestyle measures and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

Moderate to severe acne may need prescription-strength treatments that a doctor or dermatologist prescribes.

Lifestyle measures

Here are some self-care treatments you can try at home to clear up your acne:

  • Gently wash the affected area two times each day (when you wake up and at bedtime) and after heavy sweating.
  • Avoid scrubbing your skin.
  • Use skin care products that don’t cause acne. Look for products that are oil-free and noncomedogenic.
  • Resist touching and picking at skin that has acne or is prone to acne.
  • Consider altering your diet. Some recent research suggests a diet high in dairy and sugar can cause acne, but the diet-acne connection is still controversial.

OTC medications

If self-care doesn’t help with your acne, a few OTC acne medications are available. Most of these medications contain ingredients that can help kill bacteria or reduce oil on your skin. Here are some examples:

  • A salicylic acid wash (2 to 3 percent preparations) can unclog pores and ease inflammation.
  • A benzoyl peroxide wash or cream (2.5 to 10 percent preparations) can decrease P. acnes bacteria and unclog pores.
  • An adapalene 0.1 percent gel can unclog pores and prevent acne. Topical retinoids like adapalene are the foundation of many successful acne treatments.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that you give acne treatment a minimum of 4 weeks to work, suggesting that you should expect to notice improvement in 4 to 6 weeks. However, some medications, like topical retinoids, require 12 weeks to work.

The AAD also recommends that you follow the label instructions of any OTC medications you use.

Doctor-prescribed treatments

If lifestyle measures and OTC medications don’t seem to be working, you may want to see a doctor or dermatologist. They can prescribe oral or topical antibiotics or prescription-strength creams that may help reduce your symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are some factors that can aggravate acne. To prevent triggering acne:

  • Avoid certain medications if possible, such as corticosteroids, lithium, and drugs that contain or increase testosterone.
  • Limit or avoid foods with a high glycemic index, like pasta and sugary cereal, as well as certain dairy products.
  • Manage your stress, as stress may contribute to acne.

Subclinical acne isn’t a term typically associated with dermatology. Rather, acne can be either active or inactive.

Treatment and prevention of most mild cases of acne often includes proper skin care with a topical retinoid and sometimes medications, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or antibiotics.

For women, combined oral contraceptives and off-label antiandrogen therapies (like spironolactone) are also options.