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Tips for Topical Acne Skincare

A summary of topical skin treatments for acne and helpful tips how to apply them.

Tips for Topical Acne Skincare

Tips for Acne Skincare

Types of acne

There are two main types of acne:

1. Inflammatory – red, swollen and usually tender lumps and bumps.

2. Non-inflammatory - blackheads and whiteheads

Topical treatments

Topical treatments are the first choice for those with mild to moderate acne.


As a rule of thumb, all acne treatment regimens should contain a retinoid

(substances that act on the same receptor as vitamin A).

Retinoids are the key to successful acne treatment and preventing flare-ups.

They can initially cause the skin to go red or flake. Flaking skin means the treatment is working!

Tip: Retinoids are the best treatment for blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic

acid is also effective for non-inflammatory acne but may cause the skin to dry.

Benefits of retinoids:

• They reduce inflammation.

• They inhibit spot production.

• They unplug pores.

Examples of retinoids include:

Tretinoin 0.01% to 0.1%

Isotretinoin 0.05% and 0.1%

Tazarotene 0.1%

Adapalene 0.1-0.3%

These vary in strength from 0.025% to 0.3%.

Tip: Avoid buying retinoid preparations over the internet as they may not

contain the amount of retinoid they claim (or any at all). Only use a reputable manufacturer.

When to apply your treatments


It is advised to apply retinoid treatments at night as the creams degrade in sunlight.

Other treatments

As a rule, apply other treatments in the morning (such as benzoyl peroxidase, azelaic acid, salicylic acid and topical antibiotics).

How to apply

Cleanse your face first.

Pat your skin dry (don’t rub) and allow the skin to dry completely before

applying (this can take 20-30 minutes).

After 20-30 minutes, apply your treatment in a thin layer to your entire face

and not just individual spots.

Tip: Topical treatments can irritate the skin, so try it on a small area for the first few applications.

Five dot method

When applying topical medications to the face, use the 5-dot method:

Take a small pea-sized amount and place dots in each of 5 locations of your face:

1.  Mid-forehead

2.  Right cheek

3.  Left cheek

4.  Nose

5.  Chin.

Then rub in.

How thick should the treatment be applied?

You should not see a “film” of the medication on your skin; you are using too much if you do.

Tip: More is not better!

Allow the treatment to absorb completely. This usually takes 15-20 minutes.

After application

Once your treatment is completely absorbed, apply a thin layer of moisturiser such as Cetaphil Moisturising Lotion.

The next day

In the morning, gently wash your face, pat dry and apply a moisturiser with SPF such as Cetaphil Dermacontrol SPF 30.

Starting topical treatments

Start using every three days, gradually increasing to everyday use. After 20 minutes, then apply your topical treatment over the top.

How long does it take to see an improvement?

Once your skin gets used to the treatment, it can take up to four months of

regular use before you see an improvement.

Most treatments fail because people give up on the regimen too early.

Tip: if you develop inflamed acne areas (angry-looking lumps and bumps), you may need to add other topical treatments, such as benzoyl peroxidase.


Once your skin is clear, you will need to continue using your topical treatment, although less frequently - for example, every other day.

Recognised “side” effects of topical skin treatments

Skin changes

Topical medications may make your skin red, dry, flaky, tight and itchy.

This is a normal response to the treatment and almost always improves as your skin gets used to the treatment.

This may take 2-3 weeks.

Tip: If the dryness, peeling and redness are too uncomfortable, try applying your moisturiser first.

Skin redness

When you start using topical treatments for acne, you may notice your skin becoming red.

If this happens, stop using the treatment for 2-3 days.

Skin irritation

If your skin is highly irritated, take a few days off until your skin settles down.

When you start using it again, apply the treatment but wash it off after 60 minutes.

Slowly build up the time you have the treatment on your skin until you can keep it on overnight.

Remember that these side effects are worst during the first few weeks of treatment.

Allergies to skin treatments

True allergies to topical treatments are infrequent. Most reactions are due to irritation rather than an allergic reaction.

Worsening acne during use

It is common for acne to get worse for a few weeks before it improves.

This is known as purging, as acne areas may be at different stages, resulting in temporary outbreaks.

Sunscreens and topical treatments

Topical acne treatment will make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Always wear sunscreen, moisturising cream, or foundation with an SPF of 30 or above during the day, even if it is cloudy.

Tip: Do not use a moisturiser containing SPF at night.

Summary of topical treatments depending on the type of acne

Non-inflammatory acne


Salicylic acid for sensitive skin

BPO (less than 5%)

Inflammatory acne

Retinoid with or without a topical antibiotic.

Topical antibiotics in combination with BPO.

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