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Acne treatment

About 85% of people in the UK may experience acne. We explain what treatments are available for mild to severe acne.

Acne, or acne vulgaris, is a common skin condition that affects around 85% of people at some point in their lives. It is most common in teenagers but can affect anyone at any age.

Acne causes spots on the skin, normally on the face, forehead, chest and back. The spots vary in type and severity. Acne can be inflammatory or non-inflammatory.

Types of non-inflammatory acne include:

  • Whiteheads
  • Blackheads

Types of inflammatory acne include:

  • Papules
  • Pustules
  • Nodules
  • Cysts

Acne is not dangerous, but it can make you feel self-conscious about your appearance leading to anxiety and low self-esteem. Untreated acne can lead to scarring which can be hard to treat and may be permanent.

Call or book online today to arrange a consultation to discuss private acne treatment with a consultant of your choice at Circle Health Group.

This page explains what acne is, looks at the symptoms and causes of acne and what treatments are available.

The cost of this procedure depends on your individual circumstances. At the time of your appointment your consultant will discuss all options with you and ensure all your questions are answered.

Our fixed-price packages include the cost of your surgery and all appropriate aftercare appointments. However, any pre-surgery diagnostic tests and your consultant’s outpatient appointment consultation fee are charged separately.

Our flexible payment options help you spread the cost of your payment across a time period that suits you.

If you have private health insurance, the procedure will usually be covered by your provider. Speak to your insurer directly to find out.

Acne symptoms vary according to the type and severity of your acne. Acne is categorised as mild, moderate, or severe.

Types of mild acne include:

  • Whiteheads (closed comedones) — occur when a pore gets clogged by oil (sebum), dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells. Unlike blackheads, the top of the pore is closed
  • Blackheads (open comedones) — are similar to whiteheads and occur when a pore becomes clogged. In the case of blackheads, the top of the pore stays open which gives them a black appearance due to exposure to air and the dark pigmentation within the follicle

Types of moderate acne include:

  • Papules — small red, tender bumps that occur when the walls surrounding your pores break down due to inflammation
  • Pustules — like papules, pustules also occur when the walls around your pores break down, but unlike papules, pustules are filled with pus

Types of severe acne include:

  • Nodules — large, solid, painful lumps that form deep under the skin. Nodules occur when clogged, swollen pores grow bigger due to increased inflammation
  • Cysts — painful, pus-filled lumps under the skin. Cysts occur deeper below the skin’s surface than nodules

Acne occurs when tiny hair follicles (pores) in your skin become blocked with oil, dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells.

This is commonly due to hormonal fluctuations that cause the oil-producing (sebaceous) glands in your skin to produce too much oil (sebum). This overproduction of oil causes changes to a bacteria that normally lives harmlessly on your skin, P. acnes, resulting in inflammation. Acne commonly affects people with fluctuating hormone levels including adolescents, people with a hormonal imbalance such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or during pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause. It often runs in families. There is no evidence that acne is caused by poor hygiene, diet, or sexual activity.

At your first consultation, you will be seen by a consultant dermatologist, a doctor specialising in conditions affecting the skin.

Your consultant will ask you about your symptoms, medical history, and any medications you are taking. They will ask you about any previous acne treatments you have tried and what were the results. They will examine your skin and assess the type and severity of your acne.

How is a diagnosis made?

Your consultant will make a diagnosis by examining your skin.

Why is this first consultation so important?

At Circle Health Group, your first appointment is very important as it’s where your consultant will ask you about your symptoms, examine your skin, make a diagnosis, and discuss possible treatment options.

Your first consultation is also where we get to know you, discuss your expectations for treatment and encourage you to ask any questions you may have. It is important to us that you are as well-informed and comfortable as possible during your time with us, so please ask your consultant any questions you may have.

After making a diagnosis, your consultant will discuss possible treatment options with you and decide on the best treatment for you, based on your diagnosis and any previous acne treatments you have tried.

There are various treatments available for acne. The right treatment for you will depend on the type of acne you have, and what treatments you have tried previously.

Acne can be difficult to treat, and it may take several months of treatment before your acne improves.

Over-the-counter medication

If your acne is mild, you may be able to treat it yourself using over-the-counter facial washes, gels or creams containing benzoyl peroxide. Your pharmacist can recommend one.

Benzoyl peroxide works by reducing the number of bacteria on your skin. It also helps to reduce inflammation. Some stronger preparations of benzoyl peroxide contain other ingredients such as antibiotics or retinol and are only available with a prescription.

  • Apply benzoyl peroxide sparingly to clean skin on all the areas affected by acne
  • Benzoyl peroxide makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so avoid sun and sunbed exposure and use a high-factor sunscreen when outside
  • Benzoyl peroxide can have a bleaching effect, so avoid getting it on your hair or clothes
  • Common side effects of benzoyl peroxide include dryness, itching, burning, stinging, redness, and peeling
  • It normally takes about six weeks of use to see an improvement in your acne. You may need to continue using benzoyl peroxide on occasion to prevent your acne from coming back

Prescription medications

If you have moderate or severe acne, acne that hasn’t responded to over-the-counter treatment, or are at risk of scarring, your consultant may prescribe a stronger medication. These may be topical (applied to the skin), oral (taken by mouth), or a combination of both.

Topical medications to treat acne include:

Topical antibiotics

Topical antibiotics are antibiotic lotions or gels that are applied directly to your skin. They work by killing bacteria on the surface of the skin and are applied to clean skin once or twice a day.

Topical antibiotics are normally prescribed for six to eight weeks. Using them for longer than this can cause the bacteria on your skin to become resistant to the antibiotics which could make your acne worse and harder to treat. Side effects of topical antibiotics may include minor skin irritation, redness, burning and peeling.

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids such as tretinoin and adapalene work by removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, preventing a build-up of dead skin cells which can block hair follicles. They are available as a cream or gel that is normally applied to clean skin once a day before you go to bed.

You will normally continue treatment with topical retinoids for six weeks. Your consultant may advise you to continue using them from time to time once your acne has cleared to prevent it from coming back.

  • Apply a thin layer to all the parts of your face affected by acne 20 minutes after washing your face
  • Topical retinoids can increase your skin’s sensitivity to light, so avoid being in the sun or using sunbeds while using this treatment and use a high-factor sunscreen when outside
  • Topical retinoids may cause birth defects and are not suitable for use during pregnancy
  • Side effects of topical retinoids include mild irritation and stinging

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid may be used as an alternative treatment if you experience unpleasant side effects such as soreness or irritation from benzoyl peroxide or topical retinoids.

Azelaic acid is available as a cream or gel and is usually applied once or twice a day. It works by removing dead skin and killing bacteria on the surface of your skin.

You'll usually need to use azelaic acid for around a month before you see an improvement in your acne.

The side effects of azelaic acid are usually mild but may include dryness, burning, stinging, redness, and itching.

Oral medications to treat acne include:

Oral antibiotics

If your acne isn’t improving with topical treatments, your consultant may prescribe oral antibiotics in addition to topical treatment.

Acne is normally treated with a type of antibiotic called a tetracycline, unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding, in which case a different antibiotic will be prescribed.

Oral antibiotics are normally prescribed for four to six months, and it usually takes around six weeks to see an improvement in your acne.

  • Tetracyclines can make your skin more sensitive to UV light, so avoid exposure to sunlight, avoid using sunbeds and wear a high-factor sunscreen while taking this medication
  • Tetracycline can make the oral contraceptive pill less effective, so you'll need to use an alternative method of contraception, such as condoms, to be protected from pregnancy while taking it

The combined contraceptive pill (in women)

The combined contraceptive pill can help improve acne in women, especially if your acne is due to a hormonal imbalance such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or typically gets worse around your period.

It can take up to a year before you see an improvement in your acne while taking the combined contraceptive pill.


Co-cyprindiol (Dianette) is a hormonal treatment that may be used to treat severe acne in women that has not improved with oral antibiotics.

It is a hormonal treatment and is not suitable for men. Co-cyprindiol works by reducing the production of oil (sebum) by the sebaceous glands.

It normally takes between two and six months of treatment with co-cyprindiol before you see a significant improvement in your acne.

  • Co-cyprindiol may slightly increase your risk of breast cancer and blood clots
  • Co-cyprindiol is not recommended if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Possible side effects of co-cyprindiol include headaches, sore breasts, mood changes, low libido (sex drive), and weight changes


Isotretinoin (Roaccutane) is an oral treatment for severe acne that has not responded to other treatments.

It works in several ways by:

  • Reducing the amount of sebum produced by your sebaceous glands
  • Preventing follicles from becoming clogged
  • Decreasing the amount of bacteria on your skin
  • Reducing inflammation

Treatment is normally for four to six months.

Isotretinoin is effective in eliminating acne in over 90% of patients, however the medication can cause several side effects, some of which may be serious. Isotretinoin can cause birth defects and should not be taken by pregnant women. You will need to have a pregnancy test before starting and while you are taking isotretinoin and will need to use a reliable method of birth control while taking this medication.

Because of the risk of side effects, isotretinoin can only be prescribed by a specialist doctor.

Alternative treatments

There are several alternative treatments for acne that do not involve medication, however, there is limited scientific evidence that these treatments work.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

During PDT, a photosensitizing agent is applied to your skin to help your skin absorb the light more effectively. Your skin is then exposed to a special blue or red light for around 20 minutes. PDT may reduce your skin’s production of sebum and kill bacteria, leading to an improvement in your acne.

Chemical peels

During this treatment, a chemical solution is applied to your face, removing (exfoliating) the top layer of skin. This removes dead cells and oil, allows the regeneration of new skin cells, and helps to prevent pores from becoming clogged.

Comedone extraction

Comedone extraction works by using a special instrument known as a comedone extractor to physically remove blockages from your follicles. This type of treatment is only suitable for non-inflammatory acne.

Like any medication or procedure, acne treatment may carry a small risk of complications or side effects. These will vary depending on the type of treatment.

Your consultant will explain all the possible risks and complications of your treatment and give you instructions on how to use your medication correctly. Follow these instructions carefully and ask your consultant or pharmacist if you have any questions.

 It’s important that you are fully aware of the risks, complications, and possible side effects of your medication before you start your acne treatment so that you can make an informed decision.

At Circle Health Group, we have the experience and expertise to ensure the best possible care and outcome for our patients. As a patient with Circle Health Group, you can expect the highest standards of care including:

  • Flexible appointment times and locations that are convenient for you
  • The freedom to choose which hospital and consultant suit your needs
  • Personalised, consultant-led treatment plans tailored to your individual needs
  • Comfortable and safe private facilities maintained by expert multidisciplinary teams
  • Private ensuite rooms as standard
  • A range of delicious healthy meals
  • Affordable, fixed-price packages with aftercare included
  • Flexible payment options to help you spread the cost of your care

If you would like to see a consultant or learn more about acne treatment, book your appointment online today or call a member of our team directly.

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in March 2024. Next review due March 2027.

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