Mayo Clinic Health Library

Acne treatments: Medical procedures may help clear skin

Updated: 08-01-2012

Acne treatments aren't a one-size-fits-all commodity. If prescription creams and antibiotics aren't working for you — or if you can't tolerate the side effects these medications can cause — you might consider acne treatments that can be provided at your doctor's office.

Ranging from blue-light therapy to chemical peels, several types of office-based medical procedures have been found to be effective acne treatments for many people.

Regardless of which acne treatments you use, try to keep your expectations realistic. Acne can't be cured, only controlled. You won't start seeing improvements from most treatments for four to eight weeks, and your acne might appear worse before it gets better.

Light therapy

The redness and swelling that can occur with acne is caused by a type of bacteria that can be killed by exposing your skin to different types of light. Blue light is the most commonly used wavelength, although a combination of blue light and red light also appears to be effective.

Before the procedure, your doctor might apply a medication to your skin to make it more sensitive to light. Multiple treatment sessions are usually necessary with light therapy. Side effects can include temporary redness, crusting and peeling in the treated areas.

The acne bacteria can also be killed with pulsed light and heat energy. These treatments also shrink oil (sebaceous) glands, which decreases oil production. Side effects include temporary redness in the treated areas.

Steroid injections

Steroid injections are most often used for nodules and cysts — two types of acne that cause large, painful lumps beneath the surface of the skin. These types of acne can take weeks to resolve on their own. After a steroid injection, the acne lesion flattens, and symptoms resolve within two to four days. Though effective, complications can include:

  • Thinning of the skin
  • Appearance of small blood vessels on the surface of the skin
  • Skin tone that turns lighter than normal

Steroid injections are typically used as a temporary or occasional fix for stubborn acne lesions. They aren't used to treat widespread acne because of potential complications and the need for frequent doctor visits.

Cosmetic procedures

Chemical peels and microdermabrasion may be helpful in controlling acne. These cosmetic procedures — which have traditionally been used to lessen the appearance of fine lines, sun damage and minor facial scars — are most effective when used in combination with other acne treatments.

  • Chemical peels. Mild acids applied to your skin help remove dead skin cells, unclog pores and remove whiteheads and blackheads. Chemical peels can also generate new skin growth. Side effects can range from temporary redness, blisters, scaling and crusting to scarring, infection and abnormal skin coloring.
  • Microdermabrasion. This type of treatment involves a hand-held device that blows crystals onto skin. These crystals gently abrade or "polish" the skin's surface. Then, a vacuum device removes the crystals and skin cells.

If your skin tends to form exaggerated scar tissue — such as keloids — chemical peels or microdermabrasion could make your complexion worse.