Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/7/2021
Noticed a few pimples recently? You’re not alone. Acne is a common skin condition that affects more than 80 percent of people at some point in life.
If you’re prone to acne breakouts, you may have wondered whether it’s possible to permanently cure acne and prevent pimples from ever developing again.
Although some websites and magazines may claim that a certain diet or lifestyle can stop acne from ever coming back, the reality is that there’s currently no “cure” for acne — at least, not one that’s supported by any large-scale, reputable scientific research.
However, several acne treatments are available, including one acne medication that comes very close to acting as a cure when used properly.
Below, we’ve explained how acne develops, as well as the different methods that are currently used to treat it.
We’ve also explained what you can do to drastically lower your risk of dealing with acne using medication, good skin care habits and a healthy lifestyle.
Acne can be treated and controlled, but according to research, there’s currently no way to cure it permanently.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to cover the basics of how pimples and other types of acne develop.
Acne develops when your pores, or hair follicles, become clogged with a combination of sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is an oil that’s produced by your skin. It plays a major role in keeping your skin hydrated and healthy.
It’s also an important substance for protecting your skin from infectious pathogens and other potential sources of harm.
Your skin needs sebum for optimal function. Without it, your skin would be overly dry, brittle and prone to damage.
However, when excess sebum builds up on the surface of your skin, it can mix with leftover skin cells and cause your pores to become clogged. This is acne.
Most acne is mild and relatively easy to treat. However, when the bacteria that live on your skin make their way inside a clogged pore, they can multiply rapidly and cause your skin to become inflamed, swollen and painful. This is cystic acne.
Treatments for acne work by controlling one or several of these factors: sebum production, skin cell turnover (the creation of new skin cells) or bacterial growth.
So, why isn’t acne curable? The key reason is that the main causes of acne (sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria) aren’t things that you can just, well, stop.
A certain amount of sebum is essential for healthy skin. Likewise, our skin needs to create new skin cells in order to maintain itself.
Finally, although antibiotics can control the growth of many types of bacteria, there’s no on/off switch that you can push to stop bacterial growth forever.
This means that while it’s possible to treat acne, there’s no cure that you can take once to stop acne forever.
With this said, there’s currently one medication that comes about as close as possible to acting as a cure for acne.
It’s called isotretinoin (previously Accutane®). It’s a prescription medication used to treat severe or persistent forms of acne, including acne that doesn’t improve with other treatments.
Unlike most acne medications, isotretinoin isn’t a cream, lotion or gel that’s applied to skin with acne. Instead, it comes in capsule form and is usually taken for 15 to 20 weeks.
Most acne medications treat acne temporarily, meaning you’ll need to keep using them in order to prevent acne from coming back.
However, some research shows that people who use isotretinoin often experience a permanent reduction in acne that can last for years after treatment ends.
For example, in one study published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 1993, researchers looked at the long-term effects of isotretinoin in people with stubborn acne.
A total of 88 patients were treated with isotretinoin, with most patients receiving the medication for a treatment period of four months.
After four months of treatment, most patients showed an improvement of approximately 85 percent.
Years later, the researchers followed up to see if the patients still had clear skin, or if their acne breakouts had returned.
They found that just under 70 percent of the patients were still virtually clear of acne — an average of nine years after stopping treatment with isotretinoin.
Another study, which monitored results over a period of three years, found that 87.5 percent of people stayed acne-free after taking isotretinoin for five to six months.
Finally, a different study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology in 2013 found that slightly more than 67 percent of people treated using high-dose isotretinoin were acne-free 12 months after the end of treatment.
In short, although isotretinoin doesn’t appear to “cure” acne in everyone, a large percentage of people who use it seem to experience a large reduction in acne over the long term.
Isotretinoin is highly effective, especially as a treatment for severe acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments.
However, it’s also one of the acne treatments that’s most likely to cause side effects, including a range of potentially severe and/or irritating ones.
Potential side effects of isotretinoin include very dry skin, especially around your eyes, nose and mouth.
While using isotretinoin, you may develop dry, cracked or irritated lips and peeling that affects the skin on the palms and hands of your feet.
Other potential side effects include nosebleeds, changes in your skin color, slowed skin healing, bleeding or swollen gums, flushing, sweating, swollen or bleeding gums and other issues.
Isotretinoin is also associated with mental health problems, including depression. In women, it’s linked to severe birth defects.
Because of these issues, you’ll need to take part in the iPledge® safety program if you’re prescribed isotretinoin to manage your acne.
This program aims to stop pregnancy by requiring you to use two separate forms of birth control during treatment with isotretinoin.
While the side effects of isotretinoin can sound alarming, it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of people who use isotretinoin do so safely and without any major issues.
Your healthcare provider will work with you to make sure that you’re fully informed about all side effects, and to provide expert advice to help you to keep yourself safe during treatment.
Currently, isotretinoin is the only FDA-approved medication for acne that has long-lasting effects on your skin.
However, several other medications are also used to treat acne. While these won’t “cure” acne in a permanent sense, they can clear up your skin and help you to gain more control over your acne breakouts.
Popular medications for acne include:
This medication comes in cream and gel form. It helps to peel away old, dead skin cells and unclog your pores to prevent acne breakouts.
It also possesses anti-aging effects that can make fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of aging less visible.
Tretinoin is one of several ingredients in hers’ Prescription Acne Cream, which is designed specifically to treat stubborn acne and prevent future breakouts.
Popular retinoids include adapalene (sold as Differin® gel) and retinol (available in a variety of skin care creams).
These medications work similarly to tretinoin, but aren’t quite as powerful.
This over-the-counter medication works by preventing acne-causing bacteria from multiplying. It’s often used as an active ingredient in cleansers and other non-prescription acne products.
Common peeling agents include salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and others. These ingredients work by peeling away dead skin cells that can contribute to acne breakouts.
Some forms of hormonal birth control, such as the combination pill, help to control acne breakouts by regulating your hormone levels.
Our guide to the best acne treatments provides more information about how these medications work, how you can use them to treat acne, their effects, side effects and more.
While your habits and lifestyle can’t cure acne, practicing good skin care habits can significantly reduce your risk of dealing with recurring or severe acne breakouts.
To treat and prevent acne, use the following tips:
Wash your skin twice a day, as well as after sweating. This helps to remove sweat, which can make your acne worse. Try to wash as soon as possible after you exercise or spend time in a hot, humid environment that makes you sweat.
Avoid products that irritate your skin. If you have sensitive skin, avoid using products that contain alcohol. Instead, try to use gentle, non-abrasive products that are formulated to reduce your risk of irritation.
If you have oily hair, wash it regularly. This helps to stop sebum from your scalp from clogging pores around your hairline. If you have very oily hair, you might need to wash it every day.
Don’t scrub your face. When you clean your face or use acne treatments, do so gently using your fingertips. Avoid scrubbing your face with a cloth, sponge or brush.
Avoid touching your face. This can transfer oil and bacteria onto your skin, increasing your risk of dealing with breakouts. If you need to touch your face (for example, to use a topical acne product), make sure to wash your hands thoroughly first.
Don’t try to pop your pimples. This could make your acne more severe by pushing the contents deeper into your skin. Popping pimples can also lead to scarring. Instead, let your acne clear naturally.
Our guide to preventing acne breakouts explains more about how you can use the tactics above to maintain clear, acne-free skin.
Currently, there’s no 100% effective cure for acne. However, research suggests that isotretinoin, a prescription medication that’s used to treat severe and/or persistent acne, often stays effective for years after treatment.
Good habits, such as controlling your skin’s oiliness and preventing skin irritation, may also help to keep acne away for good.
If you’re prone to acne, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to learn about your options.
We offer a range of science-based acne treatments online, including prescription products that are available after a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider.