Clindamycin for Treating Acne: How it Works

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/1/2021

Dealing with acne can be an immensely frustrating experience, especially when your acne is inflamed and infected due to certain forms of bacteria.

Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic that’s prescribed to treat a selection of bacterial infections, including infected acne. It’s fast-acting, easy to use and effective, making it a good option if you’re prone to pimples and other forms of inflamed, painful acne.

Below, we’ve explained what clindamycin is, how it works as an acne treatment, the potential side effects you may experience while using clindamycin and more. We’ve also listed several other treatments that you may wish to consider if you’re prone to acne breakouts.

What is Clindamycin?

Clindamycin is an antibiotic. It works by slowing down the growth of bacteria, or by preventing bacteria from multiplying altogether.

Like many other antibiotics, clindamycin is used to treat a range of different infections. In its oral form, it’s a common treatment for bacteria infections of the skin, reproductive system, lungs and other organs. As a topical medication, it’s primarily used to treat acne breakouts.

How Does Clindamycin Work?

As an antibiotic, clindamycin works by stopping the bacteria that cause inflamed, infected acne from growing.

Several factors play a role in acne breakouts. The first is sebum — a type of natural oil that your sebaceous glands produce to keep your skin lubricated and protected against damage from the environment and bacteria.

Although sebum is essential for your skin’s health and wellbeing, excessive amounts of sebum can collect inside your hair follicles, causing them to become clogged.

At the same time, dead skin cells that build up on the surface of your skin can mix with sebum, causing whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne to develop.

Sometimes, the bacteria that live on your skin can become trapped inside clogged hair follicles, causing the acne to become infected. A variety of different bacteria can worsen acne, including the well-known Propionibacterium acnes.

When acne becomes infected due to bacteria, it can become red, inflamed and painful. Severe forms of inflamed acne can cause pain, discomfort and even take a toll on your self-confidence, self-image and quality of life.

Although clindamycin doesn’t stop your sebaceous glands from producing sebum or clear away dead skin cells, its effects on bacteria make it a useful treatment if you’re prone to breakouts of infected, inflamed acne.

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Studies of Clindamycin for Acne

Research shows that clindamycin works well. For example, a study from the early 80s involving more than 350 participants found that topical clindamycin produced a reduction in acne lesions over the course of eight weeks of treatment, outperforming a non-therapeutic placebo.

Like many other acne treatments, clindamycin for acne is often used alongside other medications to treat acne from multiple angles.

For example, one study from 2009 found that a combination formula of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide (an over-the-counter antibacterial agent for treating acne) reduced acne lesion counts and severity over the course of 12 weeks of treatment.

A different study from 2015 also found that a combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide produced large improvements in teenagers and young adults with acne, including a significant reduction in the total number of acne lesions.

Finally, a study from 2019 concluded that a combination of clindamycin and tretinoin (a topical retinoid often used to treat acne) produced a “continuous improvement” in facial acne over the course of 12 weeks of treatment in teenagers and young adults.

In short, clindamycin works very effectively, especially when it’s used in combination with other acne medications.

Clindamycin Safety & Side Effects

Topical clindamycin for acne is a safe and effective medication for most people. However, just like other medications, it does have the potential to cause certain side effects. 

Most potential side effects of topical clindamycin are mild, but some can be irritating, persistent and uncomfortable. Potential side effects include:

  • Oily skin

  • Headache

  • Dry or peeling skin

  • Itchy skin

  • A burning sensation

  • Newly formed pimples and/or blemishes

If any of these symptoms are severe or persistent, make sure that you contact your healthcare provider. 

Although uncommon, clindamycin can cause more serious side effects. You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you experience watery or bloody stools, diarrhea or stomach cramps after using clindamycin.

How to Use Clindamycin

Clindamycin is available as a lotion, gel, foam or solution. It’s easy to apply to the skin. Follow the instructions provided with your medication and apply it to areas of your skin that are affected by acne. Most of the time, you’ll need to use clindamycin two times per day.

Before applying clindamycin, make sure that your skin is clean. Make sure to wash the affected area with warm water and gently dry it before applying your medication. Only apply as much as your healthcare provider recommends.

If you normally use other skincare products, make sure to ask your healthcare provider before applying them to skin that’s being treated with clindamycin. 

Clindamycin is only safe for use on your skin. Make sure to avoid getting the medication close to or in your eyes, nose, mouth or areas with broken skin. If you accidentally apply clindamycin to these areas, make sure to rinse them thoroughly using cool water.

When you aren’t using clindamycin, store it in a secure location away from open flames. Do not smoke while applying clindamycin, as some clindamycin products may be flammable. If you aren’t sure what to do or have questions about how to use clindamycin, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider.

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Other Medications for Treating Acne

Although clindamycin is effective, it’s not the only medication that’s used to treat acne. If you’re prone to acne, your healthcare provider may recommend one of the medications below, either on its own or in combination with clindamycin:

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is an over-the-counter acne treatment that works by reducing bacteria on the surface of the skin. Some topical acne treatments combine clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide for an extra effect against acne.

Tretinoin

Tretinoin is a topical retinoid. It treats acne by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover process, which can reduce the amount of dead skin cells that build up on the surface of your skin and cause acne to develop.

Tretinoin and clindamycin are often used together to treat acne. In one study from 2011, researchers found that a combination of tretinoin and clindamycin was more effective at getting rid of acne than topical clindamycin by itself.

Isotretinoin

Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid. It’s often used to treat severe acne, including acne that hasn’t improved with other medications. In a 2009 study, topical clindamycin and isotretinoin were found to be effective in treating moderate acne.

Your healthcare provider may recommend using these medications together if you have severe, nodular acne or acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments. 

Treating Acne With Clindamycin

As a topical antibiotic, clindamycin can be a powerful tool for getting rid of acne and preventing breakouts from occurring again in the future. 

While over-the-counter treatments are usually enough for mild acne breakouts, your healthcare provider may suggest using clindamycin on its own or with other medication if you have severe or recurring acne that doesn’t improve with other products.

If you’re prescribed clindamycin, make sure to use it exactly as instructed. Over time, you may start to notice fewer pimples, smaller acne breakouts and clearer, smoother skin in areas that were previously prone to acne.

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.

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