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  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How to help treat and prevent moderate acne

Say goodbye to moderate acne with the help of these treatments that can help stop it in its tracks.

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Curology Team
May 17, 2022 · 8 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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If you have acne, know this: You’re not alone. It’s a fairly common skin condition that many people experience at some point in their lives. But there’s good news: A wide array of treatment plans exist. While learning how to treat moderate acne may seem overwhelming, knowledge is power. Simply understanding the different types of acne and their common causes, along with the ways to help prevent and treat them, can make all the difference. That way, you can figure out a plan of action that’s best suited for your unique skin.

Let’s start with the basics.

What causes acne? 

The short answer: acne happens when your pores become clogged with sebum (the natural oil your skin produces) and dead skin cells. Bacteria that normally live on our skin (Cutibacterium acnes) thrive in the excess oil and create an inflammatory response. Voila—acne!¹ That said, acne is multifactorial.

Other factors including genetics, hormones, and diet can all play a role. What contributes to your acne may be different from others, but it can help in figuring out how to best treat and help prevent it. At Curology, we’re here to help you along that journey, because that’s exactly what skincare is—a journey! Regardless, always keep in mind that everyone’s skin is unique, so what works for one person might not work for another.  

Let’s dive deeper into some of the common factors that can contribute to breakouts including:

Hormones. Fluctuating hormone levels can play a major role in acne. Androgens (a certain type of hormone) are a particularly common culprit since androgens can cause oil glands to increase in size, making it easier for excess sebum to clog pores.² These hormones are more active during puberty, which is why some teenagers experience breakouts more frequently.³ The same goes for some adult women during their menstrual cycles.⁴

Genetics. Unfortunately, some people are more likely to develop acne because of their genetics.⁵ But don’t panic. There are still many acne treatment products available to treat your acne, even if it’s in your DNA.

What is moderate acne?

First, it’s important to know that currently, there is no universally accepted system for grading acne severity.⁶ That means there isn’t a single way to define moderate acne. Instead, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that healthcare professionals use consistent methods to make treatment decisions. They suggest using characteristics such as the number of acne lesions, type of acne lesions, site of acne lesions, scarring, and the patient’s quality of life.⁷

problematic-skin-scars

That said, recent research has suggested potential options for grading acne severity. For example, one study proposed a five-category scale to measure the number of lesions, inflammation, scars, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. In this study, moderate acne was defined as having many comedones, some papules/pustules, mild/moderate inflammation, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, and no scars.⁸ A fairly recent proposal by the US FDA outlined a five-category scale ranging from 0 to 4 (clear, almost clear, mild, moderate, and severe). In this scale, moderate acne is defined as “up to many noninflammatory lesions and may have some inflammatory lesions, but no more than one small nodular lesion.”⁹

How is moderate acne diagnosed?

Treatment options for your acne can depend on its severity. Dermatologists look at a variety of factors, including the amount and type of lesions, when determining acne severity. As a reminder, though, there is currently no universal acne grading/classifying system.

Moderate acne may include:

  • closed comedones (whiteheads)

  • open comedones (blackheads)

  • inflammatory acne (papules, pustules, cysts, and/or nodules)

  • a combination of inflammatory and noninflammatory acne (AKA, acne vulgaris)

How to treat moderate acne?

When it comes to finding the best acne treatment for your skin, you have a lot of options to choose from. Speaking with a dermatology provider to get specific advice for your skin is always a good idea, especially since everyone’s skin is unique. An acne vulgaris treatment can come in either a topical or oral form, and you may need a combination of treatments for max effectiveness.

Topical treatments

There are moderate acne treatments you can do at home available over-the-counter, while others require a prescription. Prescription acne medication for adults is typically prescribed by a dermatologist or licensed dermatology provider and comes in several different forms.

Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide can be found in over-the-counter face cleansers or leave-on acne treatments. This ingredient fights the bacteria that contribute to acne.¹⁰

Salicylic acid. Another common over-the-counter ingredient used to treat acne is salicylic acid, which has been shown to decrease acne lesions.¹¹

Topical antibiotics. Medical professionals often prescribe topical antibiotics to treat moderate acne. Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic that can help kill the bacteria that contribute to inflamed acne.¹²

Dapsone. is a topical acne treatment product that has antibacterial properties. Moderate acne typically includes some inflammatory lesions, and dapsone may help control the bacteria and inflammation that contribute to them.¹³

Retinoids. Topical retinoids are an acne medication that many people with moderate acne use. Retinol is available in over-the-counter products, though medical professionals often prescribe more powerful prescription retinoids. Retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A and encourage skin cell turnover.¹⁴ Adapalene, tretinoin, and tazarotene are common prescription retinoids used to treat acne.

Oral medications 

Oral prescription medications are often used to treat acne, typically along with topical treatments. 

Birth control pills. Women often use oral contraceptives to help with acne, especially if they experience breakouts around their menstrual cycle.¹⁵ However, there can be some side effects associated with taking certain oral contraceptives, including weight gain and nausea.¹⁶

Isotretinoin. Formerly known by the brand name Accutane, isotretinoin is an oral retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A. Medical professionals typically prescribe this medication when moderate to severe acne does not respond to other treatments first or when there is physical scarring or significant distress.¹⁷

Oral antibiotics. Doctors may also prescribe a course of oral antibiotics for a short time if acne is persistent. Oral antibiotics are generally a short-term solution because people can develop resistance to them with extended use.¹⁸

Acne therapies

If you try acne treatments and are not satisfied with the first-line approaches, there are some other therapies available that may help acne. Speak with your dermatology provider first to find out if an alternative skin treatment is right for your skin.

Light therapy. Light therapy is one option for in-office acne treatment, although there is limited research on its effectiveness. 

Chemical peels. Typically intended for mild acne, chemical peels involve applying chemicals like glycolic acid to the skin. Multiple treatments are often necessary.¹⁹

How to help prevent moderate acne

No one likes having to deal with a breakout. That’s why it’s a good idea to try to help prevent acne from developing in the first place. Luckily, there are some techniques you can try to help you say goodbye to breakouts. Give these tips a go.²⁰

  1. Regularly use an acne-fighting cleanser. Help keep your pores clear with an acne-fighting cleanser with ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.

  2. Be gentle. We know how tempting it can be to pop pimples—but try to keep your hands off them. When you try to pop a pimple, you’re more likely to push its contents deeper into your skin. Let those blemishes heal on their own, and your skin will thank you.

  3. Moisturize. Dry or irritated skin can mean more acne breakouts. Give your skin a moisturized glow by applying a facial moisturizer after you wash your face daily.

  4. Be consistent. It takes time for products to work their magic, so make sure to give them time. You might not see results immediately, and it’s normal for a product to take 6-8 weeks before you notice changes.

  5. Go to sleep with a clean face. Part of consistently sticking to your skincare routine is keeping your pores unclogged. Sometimes removing your makeup and washing your face before bed can feel like climbing a mountain, but it’s worth it in the long run.

  6. Always go non-comedogenic. If a product is comedogenic, that means it can clog your pores. Look for non-comedogenic makeup and hair products to help lessen the chances of clogged pores.

Remember, there are many different reasons why you may experience acne. Moderate acne can be frustrating, but there are a lot of treatments you can try to help keep breakouts to a minimum. 

FAQs

What causes acne?

Acne happens when your pores become clogged with sebum (the natural oil your skin produces) and dead skin cells. Bacteria that normally live on our skin (Cutibacterium acnes) thrive in the excess oil and create an inflammatory response. Voila—acne! That said, acne is multifactorial.

What is moderate acne?

Moderate acne was defined as having many comedones, some papules/pustules, mild/moderate inflammation, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, and no scars.

How is moderate acne diagnosed?

Treatment options for your acne can depend on its severity. Dermatologists look at a variety of factors, including the amount and type of lesions, when determining acne severity. As a reminder, though, there is currently no universal acne grading/classifying system.

How to treat moderate acne?

Speaking with a dermatology provider to get specific advice for your skin is always a good idea, especially since everyone’s skin is unique. An acne vulgaris treatment can come in either a topical or oral form, and you may need a combination of treatments for max effectiveness.

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It can be hard to know what option is right for you—which is where we come in. With Curology, you get access to a skincare expert who can create your own personalized, dermatologist-backed skincare routine. 

Curology recommends simple routines with all the right ingredients to keep your skin healthy—without the hard work and unnecessary stress on your end.

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P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

1.  Toyoda, M., & Morohashi, M. Pathogenesis of acne. Medical electron microscopy: official journal of the Clinical Electron Microscopy Society of Japan. (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/s007950100002 

2. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne: Who Gets and Causes. (n.d.).

3. Cleveland Clinic. Acne. (n.d.)

4. Geller, L., et al. Perimenstrual flare of adult acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. ( August 2014).

5. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

6. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

7. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne clinical guidelines. (n.d.).

8. Bernardis, E., et al. Development and Initial Validation of a Multidimensional Acne Global Grading System Integrating Primary Lesions and Secondary Changes. JAMA dermatology. (2020).

9. US Food and Drug Administration. Draft guidance on tretinoin. (November 2018).

10. Kawashima, Makoto, et al. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. The Journal of dermatology. ( November 2017).

11. Jacqueline Woodruff, et al.  A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris.(2013, April 1).

12. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

13. Barry Coutinho, Dapsone 5% Gel for the Treatment of Acne. American Family Physician. ( 2010, February 15).

14. Leyden, J., et al. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and therapy, (September 2017).

15. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

16. Mayo Clinic Staff.Acne: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. (2020, September 12).

17. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

18. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

19. Mayo Clinic Staff. Acne: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. Ibid.

20. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne. (n.d.).

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary. 

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP-C

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