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It has been the scourge of teenagers for generations. But acne, the red pimples on the face and neck, can afflict adults as well, especially pregnant women.

While the affliction is as old as man, there are some new developments when it comes to treatment.

“While over-the-counter (OTC) products are pretty much the same as they have been for years – just different concentrations of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid in various forms such as cleansers, gels and creams – the prescription world has really changed in the past 10 years or so,” said Sarah Taylor, M.D., a dermatologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We’re much better equipped to deal with all different types of acne.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, prescription topical acne medications include Avita, Retin-A, Differin, Taxorac amd Avage. All are products derived from Vitamin A. They are designed to promote cell turnover and prevent hair follicles from getting clogged up.

Side effects

There may be side effects, however. Some topical treatments may cause stinging, burning, redness or peeling. Your doctor may recommend ways to reduce these side effects.

Generally, a doctor may not prescribe an acne medication unless you have a severe case. In that case, you're stuck with OTC remedies which, as Taylor notes, haven't changed much over the years.

“Over-the-counter products can work in many cases,” said William Huang, M.D., another Wake Forest Baptist dermatologist. “But no matter what the TV ads may say, they take time, usually six to eight weeks. You’re not going to have that overnight, here today-gone tomorrow phenomenon.”

Teen angst

For a teenager with a big date or other social event coming up quickly, that can be frustrating.

“Acne can cause them a lot of stress and affect their emotional well-being so they want something that works right away, but we don’t have anything like that,” Huang said.

When selecting an OTC acne medication, be sure to check the ingredients. Dermatologists at the American Academy of Dermatology say products with acetone should also contain alcohol. Acetone alone, they say, is mostly ineffective.

Most common acne products contain benzoyl peroxide. It's among the oldest of active ingredients in acne medication and dermatologists say it is often effective, but that dry skin can be a side effect.

Another old ingredient, sulfur, is also effective though no one knows why. Be warned – its oder can be unpleasant.

You may see herbal, organic and natural OTC acne products. Dermatologists say there have been few clinical trials and their effectiveness is mostly unknown.

What's responsible for it?

Acne breaks out when the skin’s pores get clogged up. Pores of the skin each open to a hair follicle containing a gland that produces oil called sebum, which helps keep skin soft.

When the glands start producing too much oil the pores can become blocked. When that happens, dirt, bacteria and dead skin cells start to build up, forming the whiteheads, blackheads, pimples and other lesions commonly referred to as zits.

Why this happens isn't exactly known. Hormonal changes could have something to do with it, since these changes are associated with the excess production of oil. Heredity may also be a factor.

Researchers over the years have debunked a number of myths about acne. Pimples, they say, are not caused by dirty skin or by eating chocolate, pizza or greasy foods.

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