Clindamycin in acne treatments: benefits and side effects, explained

Fight the bacteria that causes breakouts with this prescription topical acne treatment.

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Clindamycin topical treatment for acne breakouts
We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.
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Some bacteria are good and necessary for normal skin functions. But an overgrowth of bacteria can disrupt the natural balance in your skin’s ecosystem. Topical antibiotics like clindamycin can help stop breakouts from flourishing when certain bacteria get out of control. 

Because clindamycin is a powerful antibiotic, it’s important to understand how this acne treatment works before you start using it. We’re here to help you learn if clindamycin might be right for you. 

So… what is clindamycin, anyway? 

Clindamycin is an antibiotic commonly used in prescription topical treatments for acne vulgaris. According to the Academy of American Dermatology, bacteria are a major factor in acne breakouts—particularly one type called Cutibacterium acnes, (aka C. acnes, fka P. acnes).¹ Clindamycin phosphate gel is an FDA-approved topical acne treatment. 

Clindamycin - what it is, benefits, treatment options infographic

Antibiotics fight bacteria, so clindamycin (and other topical antibiotics like erythromycin) can help stop breakouts quite effectively. As a topical antibiotic, clindamycin can help in the treatment of blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne lesions, including moderate to severe acne. Like most antibiotics, clindamycin is only available by prescription from a dermatologist or medical provider, so you can’t just run out and buy it. 

How clindamycin works to clear acne

When you apply a prescription topical product with clindamycin, the ingredient dives deep into your hair follicles—where the bacteria C. acnes hangs out.² 

Bacteria naturally occur within your skin’s ecosystem, but inflammation (like pimples) can happen when it gets out of hand. When  C. acnes gorges on excess oil in your pores, inflammatory acne happens. Clindamycin helps shut down the all-you-can-eat buffet that makes the bacteria that contribute to acne overstay their welcome on your skin.

The skin benefits of clindamycin

Not only does clindamycin help treat acne vulgaris—it also has anti-inflammatory effects.⁴ In addition to fighting C. acnes, clindamycin helps speed healing while relieving redness and swelling from your breakouts. 

Is clindamycin the best acne treatment ever? 

Let’s not say clindamycin is the best—everyone’s skin is unique, and there are many reasons why different ingredients might work better for your specific breakouts. But generally speaking, clindamycin is good for acne. It’s clinically proven to be effective⁵,⁶,⁷,⁸ as an acne treatment option, so it’s definitely worth looking into as part of a well-rounded, acne-focused skincare routine! 

Acne treatments with clindamycin, at a glance 

  • A clindamycin topical treatment is typically found in formulations at a concentration of 1%.

  • Clindamycin comes as a foam, gel, lotion, swab, and water-based solution.⁹

  • Some brand names of topical forms of clindamycin are Cleocin, Ziana, Duac, Benzaclin, Acanya, and Curology 😎

  • You can also get generic clindamycin!

Most of those brands combine clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide. The exceptions are Ziana, which combines clindamycin with tretinoin, and Curology, which combines clindamycin with other active ingredients picked by a healthcare provider for your specific skin concerns. 

How clindamycin works to clear acne

When you apply a prescription topical product with clindamycin, the ingredient dives deep into your hair follicles—where the bacteria C. acnes hangs out.² 

Bacteria naturally occur within your skin’s ecosystem, but inflammation (like pimples) can happen when it gets out of hand. When  C. acnes gorges on excess oil in your pores, inflammatory acne happens.³ Clindamycin helps shut down the all-you-can-eat buffet that makes the bacteria that contribute to acne overstay their welcome on your skin.  

  • Step 1: Wash with a gentle cleanser and let your face dry. 

  • Step 2: Apply a thin layer of your acne treatment on your face and neck.

  • Step 3: Moisturize with a non-comedogenic facial moisturizer, if needed.

That’s it! You don’t have to rinse your treatment off, just relax and let the bacteria-busting begin. 

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Clindamycin and combination therapy 

Clindamycin tends to work best in combination therapy with other topical medications. That’s because using clindamycin on its own can lead to antibiotic resistance.¹⁰ No need to worry, though—if clindamycin is right for you, your medical provider will prescribe combinations of clindamycin with tretinoin (aka Retin-A), azelaic acid, or other ingredients.

One over-the-counter ingredient commonly paired with clindamycin is benzoyl peroxide. Both ingredients help control acne-contributing bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide has an antibacterial effect and kills C. acnes, unclogs pores, and helps reduce inflammation;¹¹ clindamycin is an antibiotic—a medication that fights or kills bacteria. It also has an antiinflammatory effect.¹² Together, clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide make a great team!

Once you’re fully adjusted to your topical solution, salicylic acid can also be a good addition to your routine. This ingredient removes dead skin cells to help keep pores unclogged. 

Clindamycin and antibiotic resistance 

Let’s get microscopic for a sec: not all antibiotics are created equally. Various kinds interact with bacteria in very different ways. 

Though they’re sometimes confused, clindamycin works differently from penicillin. Penicillin is a beta-lactam, aka an antibiotic that prevents the formation of the bacteria’s cell walls.¹³ Clindamycin belongs to the lincosamide class of antibiotics, and those bad boys interrupt bacteria’s protein-making processes.¹⁴

Other practical uses for clindamycin 

Bacteria-blocking, protein-popping, and inflammation-stopping—it’s no wonder that clindamycin has more than a few medicinal uses beyond treating acne. It can treat many different infections, including those of the lower respiratory, intra-abdominal, and skeletal systems (among others!).¹⁵ Topical clindamycin won’t do much for these areas of your body, which is why oral antibiotic and IV-drip forms of clindamycin also exist. 

When to expect results with clindamycin

It generally takes around two months to tell if a prescription acne treatment like clindamycin is working.¹⁶ At Curology, many patients see an improvement around the 4- to 6-week mark. But it can take even longer for acne to clear up completely. 

That phrase “healing isn’t linear” applies to your breakouts. Because bacteria isn’t the only factor to blame, you might never be completely “cured” of acne. Your Curology provider is here to understand your skin, give medical advice, and make adjustments to your treatment as needed.  

The side effects of clindamycin

When applying clindamycin to the affected area, you may experience these side effects: 

  • Flux in oiliness or dryness

  • Itchiness

  • A tingling or burning sensation 

Topical clindamycin’s most common side effects include dryness, oiliness, itching, and burning.¹⁷ Clindamycin gels may be more irritating than creams, because gels often contain alcohol. 

Always contact your healthcare provider if you’re worried about these side effects (just send a message if you use Curology) or if you get more (very rare) serious side effects like stomach pain or diarrhea.

By the way, it may not be safe to use clindamycin while pregnant or breastfeeding. That’s because we lack data that it’s safe to use in pregnant humans. Talk to your OBGYN about the best decision for you! 

How to get clindamycin 

If you’re suffering from acne, clindamycin is a treatment option. Like other antibiotics in the U.S., clindamycin is available by prescription only. That means you’ll have to meet with a dermatologist or medical provider to obtain it. You can do that right now when you start your Curology free trial

How to Use Tretinoin For Acne and Anti Aging Skincare

Just snap a few selfies and answer some questions about your skin. One of our in-house dermatology providers will evaluate your specific situation. If Curology is right for you, they’ll prescribe your Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients for your unique skin concerns. 

Curology is designed by dermatologists for acne-prone skin. Your first month of Curology is free—you’ll just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling. You can also add any of our recommended products for no extra cost. You can cancel anytime or switch up what’s in your box based on your needs. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Don’t want to bother with the trip to the derm? Meet our dermatology experts online right now. Start your Curology free trial today. 

P.S. We did our homework so you don’t have to.

  1. “Topical antibiotics for acne accumulate in the follicle and have been postulated to work through antiinflammatory mechanisms and via antibacterial effects.” A. L. Zaenglein, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

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

  3. M. Toyoda and M. Morohashi. Pathogenesis of acne. Medical Electron Microscopy. (March 2001). 

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

  5. Johan Ohlson, et al. Observational Study of Clindamycin Phosphate and Tretinoin Gel for the Treatment of Acne. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2019).

  6. L. E. Becker, et al. Topical clindamycin therapy for acne vulgaris. A cooperative clinical study. National Library of Medicine. (August 1981). 

  7. James J. Leyden, et al. Erythromycin 2% gel in comparison with clindamycin phosphate 1% solution in acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (April 1, 1987). 

  8. Alex Yaroshinsky and James Leyden. The safety and efficacy of clindamycin (1% as clindamycin phosphate and tretinoin (0.025%)] for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a combined analysis of results from six controlled safety and efficacy trials conducted in Europe. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (March 1, 2004). 

  9. Medline Plus. Clindamycin Topical. National Library of Medicine. (October 15, 2016).

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

  11. Taraneh Matin and Marcus Goodman. Benzoyl Peroxide. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2022). 

  12. Patrick B. Murphy, et al. Clindamycin. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (July 1, 2021). 

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All Antibiotic Classes. (n.d.). 

  14. Jaroslav Spizek and Tomas Rezanka. Lincosamides: Chemical structure, biosynthesis, mechanism of action, resistance, and applications. Biochemical Pharmacology. (June 1, 2017).

  15. Patrick B. Murphy, et al. Clindamycin. Ibid. 

  16. L. E. Becker, et al. Topical clindamycin therapy for acne vulgaris. Ibid. 

  17. Patrick B. Murphy, et al. Clindamycin. Ibid. 

*Results may vary.

• • •
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.
Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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