Why Do Doctors Use Antibiotics To Treat Acne?

Antibiotics are effective but their use should be carefully considered

You’ve just gone to the doctor for acne treatment and walked out with a new prescription for a three month supply of antibiotics. You’re not alone. Estimates peg dermatologists at prescribing 8 to 9 million oral antibiotics and 3 to 4 million topical antibiotics every year to treat acne.[1] Acne is not considered an infection.[2] So why are antibiotics used so commonly? 


Antibiotics Have Non-Antibiotic Effects

Although antibiotics were originally discovered and used to treat infection, research has shown that they have several non-antibiotic effects:[2]

  • Antibiotics have anti-inflammatory actions[3]
  • Antibiotics inhibit the production of reactive oxygen species by preventing neutrophils (an inflammatory cell) from producing them.[4] Tetracyclines (such as doxycycline and minocycline) were more effective at inhibiting the reactive oxygen species than the other tested antibiotics.[4]
  • Antibiotics inhibit the breakdown of tissue. The inflammation caused by acne can lead to damage to the surrounding skin, which can lead to uneven texture and scarring. In particular, the tetracycline family of antibiotics, such as doxycycline and minocycline inhibit the actions of proteins that can normally break down tissue.[5,6] This may reduce the damage to the skin around the acne lesion, although more clinical studies are needed to evaluate this. 

If you think about these properties of antibiotic medications, it makes sense to use them for their anti-inflammatory properties. This also explains the stark difference in the duration of treatment. In general, antibiotics for infections are written for 10-14 days. However, when using antibiotics for inflammation, longer durations (several months) are required in order to achieve the desired outcome.[7]


Antibiotics Work for Acne but Have Side Effects

Antibiotics are considered first-line therapy in the treatment of acne, which is why they are used so widely and frequently in the treatment of acne. Some of the typical antibiotics used are listed below including those that are FDA approved for acne and those that are used as off-label acne treatments: 

  • Tetracycline family of antibiotics: Doxycycline and Minocycline
  • Macrolide family of antibiotics: Erythromycin and Azithromycin 
  • Lincosamide family of antibiotics: Clindamycin
  • Penicillin family of antibiotics: Ampicillin and Amoxicillin
  • Trimethoprim/Sulfamethoxasole

These antibiotics must be discussed with a qualified health provider to see if a prescription is appropriate and for a full discussion of the side effects of these antibiotics. 

Both topical and oral antibiotics are prescribed regularly in both the United States and abroad.[8-10] Unfortunately, one of the consequences is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A worldwide survey of antibiotic resistance showed that some countries have antibiotic resistance rates in P. acnes (the bacterium involved in acne) as high as 90 to 100% for some of the antibiotics.[9] 

What is more concerning is the possibility that this use of antibiotics may lead to resistance in other bacteria that can create more dangerous illnesses. For example, antibiotics like trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, doxycycline, and minocycline are effective in the treatment of methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA),[11] a drug-resistant bacterium that can lead to serious skin and internal infections. Thus far, there is no evidence that MRSA resistance rates are increasing due to antibiotic use in acne.[12] However, others have stated that drug-resistant bacteria may develop in the future and that carefully conducted studies are needed to more closely evaluate this possibility.[13] Yet other physicians have reported the development of doxycycline resistant MRSA in a few patients after exposure to long courses of doxycycline, similar to how they are used in acne.[14] 

The long-term consequences in using antibiotics have led to the emergence of drug-resistant P. acnes bacteria. The potential to create drug-resistance among MRSA bacteria is concerning and will require further clinical studies. In the meantime, careful use of antibiotics will be important. Physicians and patients should be aware of these risks and to plan treatments so that antibiotic exposures are reduced. 


Reducing Exposure to Antibiotics 

People with moderate to severe acne are exposed to 11 months of antibiotics before they start other therapies.[15] The recommendations for how antibiotics should be used are shifting toward more careful use of antibiotics, focusing on reducing antibiotic exposure, and the use of non-antibiotic alternatives. These recommendations may include the following concepts: 

  • When people are started on antibiotics, they may benefit from the addition of other non-antibiotic topical medications along with the antibiotics.[16,17] 
  • It is suggested that the duration of exposure to antibiotics be limited[10,17] and should be discussed carefully with the health care practitioner. 
  • Non-antibiotic options to oral antibiotics include the use of medications that can alter the hormones in the body. Two examples include oral contraceptive pills and spironolactone. Both of these should be discussed with a qualified healthcare practitioner to discuss the benefits, risks, and side effects of using such medications. In general, medications that alter hormones are not appropriate for use in males. 
  • The use of isotretinoin could be considered in cases of moderate to severe acne and needs to be discussed with a qualified health practitioner if it is a possibility. 

Ultimately, more research is needed to develop alternative non-antibiotic therapies for acne. This includes the use of alternative medical approaches, botanicals, and light-based therapies. However, until more therapies are carefully studied, antibiotics remain an effective therapy for the treatment of acne. They should be mindfully used to minimize the development of drug-resistant bacteria. 

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.


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2.    Eady EA, Cove JH. Is acne an infection of blocked pilosebaceous follicles? Implications for antimicrobial treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol.2000;1(4):201-209; PMID: 11702364.

3.    Plewig G, Schopf E. Anti-inflammatory effects of antimicrobial agents: an in vivo study. J Invest Dermatol.1975;65(6):532-536; PMID: 1194716.

4.    Miyachi Y, Yoshioka A, Imamura S, et al. Effect of antibiotics on the generation of reactive oxygen species. J Invest Dermatol.1986;86(4):449-453; PMID: 3755739.

5.    Ramamurthy NS, Rifkin BR, Greenwald RA, et al. Inhibition of matrix metalloproteinase-mediated periodontal bone loss in rats: a comparison of 6 chemically modified tetracyclines. J Periodontol.2002;73(7):726-734; PMID: 12146531.

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7.    Straight CE, Lee YH, Liu G, et al. Duration of oral antibiotic therapy for the treatment of adult acne: a retrospective analysis investigating adherence to guideline recommendations and opportunities for cost-savings. J Am Acad Dermatol.2015;72(5):822-827; PMID: 25752715.

8.    Kuhn KG, Laursen M, Hammerum AM, et al. High consumption of tetracyclines for acne treatment among young Danish adults. Infect Dis (Lond).2016;10.1080/23744235.2016.1205214:1-5; PMID: 27385460.

9.    Sardana K, Gupta T, Kumar B, et al. Cross-sectional Pilot Study of Antibiotic Resistance in Propionibacterium Acnes Strains in Indian Acne Patients Using 16S-RNA Polymerase Chain Reaction: A Comparison Among Treatment Modalities Including Antibiotics, Benzoyl Peroxide, and Isotretinoin. Indian J Dermatol.2016;61(1):45-52; PMID: 26955094.

10.    Farrah G, Tan E. The use of oral antibiotics in treating acne vulgaris: a new approach. Dermatol Ther.2016;10.1111/dth.12370PMID: 27306750.

11.    Michalek K, Lechowicz M, Pastuszczak M, et al. The use of trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMX) in dermatology. Folia Med Cracov.2015;55(1):35-41; PMID: 26774630.

12.    Fanelli M, Kupperman E, Lautenbach E, et al. Antibiotics, acne, and Staphylococcus aureus colonization. Arch Dermatol.2011;147(8):917-921; PMID: 21482860.

13.    Thiboutot D. Dermatologists do not yet fully understand the clinical significance of antibiotic use and bacterial resistance in patients with acne: comment on "Antibiotics, acne, and Staphylococcus aureus colonization. Arch Dermatol.2011;147(8):921-922; PMID: 21844450.

14.    del Giudice P, Hubiche T, Etienne J. Long-term use of tetracycline and Staphylococcus aureus tetracycline resistance: not only a problem of acne. Arch Dermatol.2012;148(3):402; PMID: 22431791.

15.    Nagler AR, Milam EC, Orlow SJ. The use of oral antibiotics before isotretinoin therapy in patients with acne. J Am Acad Dermatol.2016;74(2):273-279; PMID: 26525749.

16.    Del Rosso JQ, Rosen T, Thiboutot D, et al. Status Report from the Scientific Panel on Antibiotic Use in Dermatology of the American Acne and Rosacea Society: Part 3: Current Perspectives on Skin and Soft Tissue Infections with Emphasis on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Commonly Encountered Scenarios when Antibiotic Use May Not Be Needed, and Concluding Remarks on Rational Use of Antibiotics in Dermatology. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol.2016;9(6):17-24; PMID: 27386047.

17.    Eichenfield LF, Krakowski AC, Piggott C, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric acne. Pediatrics.2013;131 Suppl 3:S163-186; PMID: 23637225.