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What Do Dermatologists Do For Acne?

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 4/21/2021

Dealing with acne can be a frustrating, stressful experience, especially when it has a noticeable impact on your appearance. 

If you have acne that’s severe, painful, persistent or just plain annoying, you may have thought about meeting with a dermatologist. 

As specialists in all things related to your skin, talking to a dermatologist can help you to find out what’s causing your acne, the specific factors that might be aggravating it and the steps that you can take to get rid of it for good. 

In some cases, a dermatologist may prescribe medication to treat your acne and keep your skin blemish-free in the future.

Visiting a dermatologist can be a good idea, but it’s not the only way to treat acne. Below, we’ve talked about what you can expect if you meet with a dermatologist, as well as other options that are available for getting your acne breakouts under control. 

Dermatologists and Acne: The Basics

  • Dermatologists specialize in treating issues that affect your skin, including acne. If you’re prone to acne, talking to a dermatologist is a good way to get expert advice on what you can do to best care for your skin.

  • If your acne is treatable without medication, a dermatologist may suggest making certain changes to your lifestyle and skin care habits.

  • In some cases, they may recommend over-the-counter products that can clear your skin and reduce your risk of dealing with acne breakouts.

  • If you have moderate or severe acne, a dermatologist might prescribe medication to stop acne from developing and get rid of your existing breakouts.

  • Dermatologists may also physically remove some forms of acne with techniques such as acne extraction, or by injecting medication to reduce inflammation and shrink the acne. 

What Does a Dermatologist Do For Acne?

Dermatologists are doctors that specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect your skin, hair and nails. 

A typical dermatologist spends 12 years or more in training and is equipped to treat more than 3,000 different skin conditions. Since acne is such a common skin issue, most dermatologists have successfully diagnosed and treated hundreds or thousands of acne cases before.

If you have acne, talking to a dermatologist can give you clear information and advice on what you can do to stop breakouts and get your skin under control.

Just like other healthcare professionals, dermatologists do several things to diagnose and treat acne. 

Diagnosing Acne

The first step in treating acne is reaching an accurate diagnosis. When you visit a dermatologist, they’ll physically inspect your skin to determine the type or types of acne you have, the areas of your body that are affected and any other relevant, related issues. 

Acne can vary hugely in severity. To learn more about your acne, a dermatologist may ask you certain questions about your symptoms. 

You may be asked when you started to notice acne, if you use any medications that may affect your skin, if you have any habits that may cause acne breakouts or if you have previously used or currently use any products or medications to treat your acne breakouts. 

Often, skin conditions that look like acne aren’t actually acne itself. For example, some common skin rashes, such as perioral dermatitis, can look similar to an acne breakout that forms around your mouth.

As specialists in skin conditions, dermatologists can identify skin conditions that appear similar to acne and recommend an appropriate treatment. 

Treating Acne

If you have acne, a dermatologist will create a treatment plan that you can follow to clear your skin and prevent your acne breakouts from coming back. 

Your dermatologist will consider a variety of factors when creating a treatment plan, including:

  • The type of acne you have (for example, comedonal acne vs. inflamed acne)

  • Where acne develops on your body

  • How long you’ve dealt with acne

  • Whether or not you have acne scarring

  • The severity of your acne

  • Which acne treatments you’ve already used

To treat and prevent acne, your dermatologist may prescribe one or several over-the-counter or prescription medications. Common medications for treating acne include:

  • Topical retinoids. These medications work by increasing the speed at which your skin produces new cells, preventing your pores from becoming clogged and developing into acne lesions.
    Some retinoids, such as retinol, are available over the counter. Others, such as tretinoin, require a prescription.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. This is a topical medication for acne. It works by preventing bacteria from growing on your skin and inside your pores. Your dermatologist may recommend a benzoyl peroxide cream, gel or a cleanser that contains this ingredient.

  • Acid peeling agents. Certain acid-based ingredients, such as salicylic and azelaic acid, can help to remove the dead skin cells that build up on the surface of your skin and clog your pores, causing acne breakouts.

  • Clindamycin. This is a type of topical antibiotic. It works by slowing down or preventing acne-causing bacteria from growing on your skin and inside your pores. You may need to use this medication if you have inflamed acne that’s infected with bacteria. 

If your acne is severe, persistent or just doesn’t respond to other treatments, your dermatologist may prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Hormonal birth control. Some combination birth control pills, such as Yaz, Estrostep and Ortho Tri-Cyclen, are approved by the FDA as treatments for acne. These work by adjusting your body’s production of hormones that cause your skin to become oily.
    Our guide to birth control and acne provides more information about how you can treat acne using hormonal birth control.

  • Spironolactone. This is a medication that reduces your production of certain hormones, including those that can cause acne. Our guide to spironolactone for acne explains more about how it works, its effectiveness and more.

  • Isotretinoin. This is an oral retinoid that’s used to treat severe acne. It’s very effective, but can cause side effects and isn’t safe for use while you’re pregnant or if you plan to become pregnant in the near future.
    To use isotretinoin, you’ll need to keep in close contact with your dermatologist and take part in the iPLEDGE program to prevent pregnancy during treatment.

In order to completely get rid of your acne, you may need to use these medications for a period of several months, even if your acne clears up in the short term.

If your dermatologist suspects that your acne is related to an underlying medical condition, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), they may refer you to a specialist healthcare provider for further assistance. 

Cosmetic Procedures for Acne

In addition to prescribing medication for acne, many dermatologists can perform procedures to rejuvenate your skin and reduce the appearance of acne.

Some of these procedures are used to physically remove acne, whereas others stimulate skin rejuvenation by removing dead cells using exfoliating chemicals or equipment. Some of these treatments are also used to remove acne scarring and other skin imperfections.

Common cosmetic procedures for acne include:

  • Acne extraction. If you have whiteheads or blackheads (comedonal acne), they may be treatable via a procedure called acne extraction. To extract acne, your dermatologist will use sterile instruments to physically remove the contents of each acne lesion.

  • Corticosteroid injections. If you have a severe form of acne, such as nodular or cystic acne, your dermatologist may treat it by injecting a corticosteroid directly into the cyst or nodule.
    This helps to reduce inflammation and speed up the healing process. Corticosteroids are generally used to treat single acne lesions and aren’t suitable for large breakouts.

  • Acne drainage and extraction. If you have cystic acne, your dermatologist may treat it by cutting into the lesion and physically removing its contents. This procedure drains the acne lesion and can reduce pain and discomfort.

  • Skin resurfacing procedures. Dermatologists offer several resurfacing procedures to remove acne and improve your skin. These include chemical peeling, laser resurfacing, microdermabrasion and other treatments.
    Although the specific process used for these treatments varies, most are used to get rid of old, dead skin cells that can contribute to acne breakouts. Some of these procedures may also offer anti-aging benefits.

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When Should You See a Dermatologist?

If you have acne, you can talk to a dermatologist at any time. There’s no need to wait until your acne is severe to visit a dermatologist, nor is there any need to try over-the-counter treatments before you seek professional help. 

Dermatologists specialize in treating acne of all types and severity levels, meaning it’s alright to talk to a dermatologist even if you only get the occasional pimple. In fact, it’s best to take action and start an acne treatment plan as soon as you notice acne developing. 

It’s particularly important to talk to a dermatologist if you have:

  • Severe acne that doesn’t seem to respond to over-the-counter treatments

  • Nodular or cystic acne that’s causing pain and/or discomfort

  • Acne that leaves behind scarring after it heals

Other Options for Treating Acne

Visiting a dermatologist is a good option if you have acne. A board-certified dermatologist will be able to diagnose acne and prescribe the most effective treatment based on your symptoms and personal history of dealing with acne breakouts.

However, visiting a dermatologist isn’t the only way to treat acne, especially if you only get mild acne breakouts. We’ve listed other options for treating acne below. 

Treat Mild Acne Yourself

While severe acne is best treated by a dermatologist, you can often treat mild acne by yourself using over-the-counter products. 

Our guide to blackheads and whiteheads explains how you can treat comedonal acne — a form of acne that isn’t inflamed or infected.

Often, simple changes to your routine such as cleansing your face and avoiding cosmetics that contain comedogenic ingredients can get rid of clogged pores and prevent acne breakouts.

Products like our Deep Sea Cleanser, which is designed to reduce blocked pores without drying out your skin, can make this process easier. 

Our guide to getting rid of acne naturally lists tips and techniques that you can use to keep your skin healthy, clear and blemish-free at home. 

Access Personalized Acne Treatment Online

If you’d like to talk to a healthcare provider about acne, you don’t always need to visit your local dermatologist.

We offer several FDA-approved acne treatments online, following a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider. This way, you can access expert advice and proven medication without any need to leave your home.  

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In Conclusion

Dermatologists specialize in conditions related to your skin, making them experts in diagnosing and treating even the most troublesome, persistent types of acne. 

If you only have mild acne, you may be able to clear your skin using over-the-counter products without any need to visit a dermatologist. 

If you have moderate, severe or persistent acne, it’s best to talk to a dermatologist. Alternatively, you can access science-based, personalized acne treatments and talk to a licensed healthcare provider about your symptoms online. 

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. Learn more about our editorial standards here.