Clindamycin for Treating Acne: How it Works

    Acne develops for a variety of different reasons, from hormonal fluctuations that make your body produce more sebum to dead skin cells that get trapped inside your pores, producing blockages and pimples.

    Add bacteria into the equation and acne can go from an annoyance into a serious problem that affects everything from your appearance to your self-confidence.

    Clindamycin is an antibiotic. Like most antibiotics, it’s used for a variety of purposes, from some bacterial infections to diseases like malaria. It’s most popular as an acne treatment, specifically a treatment for infected, inflammatory acne breakouts.

    Alongside tretinoin, isotretinoin and hormonal medication, clindamycin is one of the most widely used medications for acne. It’s popular for good reason—countless studies show that it works, and works well.

    Below, we’ve covered everything you need to know about using clindamycin to treat acne, from its mechanism of action and benefits to potential side effects. We’ve also explained how you can add clindamycin to your acne treatment and prevention routine for optimal results.

    What is Clindamycin?

    Clindamycin is an antibiotic. As an acne treatment, it works by killing the bacteria that can get trapped inside clogged pores. This makes it a powerful tool for preventing the inflamed, painful acne that can develop during a breakout.

    As we covered in our guide to hormonal acne, acne breakouts have several components:

    • Blocked pores. Whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne develop when your pores become blocked. Blockages can occur as a result of excess sebum production, dead skin cells, your environment or a combination of factors.
    • Bacteria. When bacteria gets trapped inside a blocked pore, it can cause the acne to become infected and inflamed. In severe cases, this can result in the development of painful cystic acne.
    • Hair products and cosmetics. In some cases, oily hair and skincare products can make acne breakouts worse by clogging pores. Some makeup products also lead to clogged pores and acne breakouts.

    While clindamycin doesn’t affect your body’s sebum production, it does fight the bacteria that cause acne breakouts to become infected and inflamed.

    Clindamycin is available as an oral medication and as a topical solution. For acne prevention, you’ll usually be prescribed the topical version.

    How Does Clindamycin Work?

    Clindamycin works by killing the bacteria that cause acne breakouts to develop from whiteheads and blackheads into inflamed, infected acne.

    Dermatologists usually prescribe clindamycin to people with inflammatory or cystic acne. As an antibiotic, clindamycin specifically targets the bacteria that cause acne to become inflamed and painful. The same bacteria can also cause acne to spread by infecting other nearby pores.

    Studies show that clindamycin works well as an acne treatment. In a double-blind study from 1981, people with acne who were treated using clindamycin showed a greater improvement in symptoms than people treated with a non-therapeutic placebo.

    It’s important to know that clindamycin doesn’t prevent acne by itself. Clindamycin has no effect on your body’s sebum production, meaning it won’t make your skin less oily. Because of this, it’s usually prescribed along with another acne prevention medication:

    • Clindamycin and tretinoin. Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that speeds up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle, making it harder for dead skin cells to become trapped inside your pores and cause blockages.

      Tretinoin and clindamycin are often used together to treat inflammatory acne. Studies show that clindamycin and tretinoin are highly effective when used together, delivering better results than treatment with clindamycin alone.
    • Clindamycin and isotretinoin. For severe acne, dermatologists will often prescribe clindamycin with an oral retinoid such as isotretinoin (Accutane). Isotretinoin tends to have more severe potential side effects than tretinoin, but can be more effective.
    • Clindamycin and birth control. Birth control pills that combine an estrogen with a progestin can reduce your body’s sebum production, making them great options for treating acne.

      Clindamycin is often prescribed along with oral birth control to treat the bacterial side of acne, while birth control pills manage your body’s sebum production to prevent blocked pores from developing.
    • Clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide. A common combination in skincare creams, these ingredients work together to kill the bacteria that cause acne to spread while unclogging pores.

    Clindamycin is also used with a variety of other ingredients, from over-the-counter acne creams to prescription medication.

    It’s important to remember that there’s no “best” medication for every case of acne, meaning the specific medications you’re prescribed might not match those listed above.

    Does Clindamycin Treat Acne?

    Simply put, yes. Clindamycin has been tested in numerous studies and shows real benefits as an acne treatment.

    Most of these studies involve clindamycin in use alongside another acne medication, such as tretinoin or isotretinoin. For example, a 2009 study found that clindamycin and isotretinoin are highly effective in treating moderate acne, all with few side effects.

    Other studies have produced similar findings. A 2001 study found that a cream made using a combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide outperformed other topical acne treatments, producing better results than a 5% benzoyl peroxide/3% erythromycin combination product.

    The combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide also worked better than either of these two ingredients on their own, showing that clindamycin is most effective when used as one part of a more comprehensive acne treatment and prevention routine.

    Like other acne medications, clindamycin starts working as soon as you apply it, but it doesn’t always produce immediate results. On average, it takes between six and 12 weeks to notice an improvement in your acne from clindamycin.

    In short, clindamycin works. It works even better as an acne treatment when it’s used alongside other medications to control your body’s production of sebum and skin cell turnover cycle—two additional factors that can contribute to acne breakouts.

    Is Clindamycin Safe?

    Clindamycin is an extremely well-studied, tested medication. It’s been proven safe in countless studies and has one of the lowest rate of side effects of any topical antibiotic.

    When used orally, clindamycin has fewer side effects many oral antibiotics. As an oral antibiotic, it’s easy to use and less likely to cause common antibiotic side effects, such as diarrhea due to changes to your gut microbiota.

    The most frequently reported side effects of topical clindamycin are dryness, itchiness and skin irritation. These side effects are usually mild and stop occurring after your skin gets used to the effects of clindamycin.

    If these side effects continue, it’s best to contact your doctor. You might be able to switch to a less irritating topical acne treatment, or an oral antibiotic.

    Clindamycin is placed in Category B for its pregnancy risk, meaning that there are no thorough studies of the drug’s effects on pregnant women. If you use clindamycin for acne, it’s essential that you talk to your doctor if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.

    Clindamycin can also be transferred into human breast milk, meaning it’s not recommended for use if you’re nursing.  

    On the whole, clindamycin is an extremely safe, well-studied medication. Side effects are rare and usually minor. Used properly, the vast majority of people get great results from clindamycin with few or no side effects.

    How to Use Clindamycin

    Using clindamycin is simple. If you’ve been prescribed clindamycin by your doctor, follow the usage instructions provided with the medication. If you’re using clindamycin as part of a skin cream with multiple ingredients, follow the usage instructions on the cream’s packaging.

    Before you apply clindamycin to acne-affected areas, wash these areas thoroughly using soap and water. Gently dry your skin using a towel and make sure all of the soap has been washed off the skin before applying the clindamycin cream.

    Apply the clindamycin cream to the affected areas of your face, making sure not to irritate any acne lesions. Make sure you wash your hands immediately after using clindamycin cream to avoid leaving the medication on your fingers.

    After you’ve applied the clindamycin, avoid using other skincare products, makeup or other topical creams. If you’ve been advised to use clindamycin more than once daily, follow your doctor’s dosage recommendations.

    When you’re not using clindamycin, make sure the cream (or other skin product containing clindamycin) is stored in a room temperature location away from direct sunlight.

    Learn More About Treating Acne

    Clindamycin is one of several topical medications used to treat acne. As an antibiotic, it’s a powerful tool for fighting back against infected, inflammatory acne. But it’s far from the only treatment available for dealing with recurring acne outbreaks.

    Our guides to tretinoin and hormonal birth control cover two other popular and effective acne treatments, both of which are frequently used with clindamycin.

    You can also learn more about the main causes of acne in our guides to hormonal acne and cystic acne, which explain everything you need to know about the two most common forms of facial acne.

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    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.