If acne does not respond to over-the-counter (OTC) treatment, a person may wish to receive treatment from a dermatologist. The treatment can depend on factors including the acne’s type, severity, and location.

Acne is a common inflammatory skin condition that occurs when dead skin cells and oil called sebum clog the hair follicles under the skin, leading to breakouts of spots and pimples.

A person can usually treat mild acne with topical OTC solutions. However, moderate-to-severe acne or acne that does not improve with OTC treatment may require prescription medications and other treatment from a dermatologist.

This article examines when a person should see a dermatologist for acne, how a dermatologist can help, and what treatments they may recommend.

It also looks at how to find a dermatologist and financial help for dermatology treatment.

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If a person’s acne does not improve with OTC treatment and they feel it is affecting their quality of life, they should see a dermatologist for treatment.

Acne most commonly occurs in adolescents, but it can also affect adults. The causes and types of acne that a dermatologist can treat may differ in adults and teens.


According to a 2018 article, adult women develop acne more often than men. They most often experience mild but persistent forms of the condition.

Adults should see a dermatologist for acne treatment if:

  • Their acne negatively impacts their quality of life: Adult acne may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
  • OTC treatment is ineffective: Acne may require treatment from a dermatologist if it does not respond to OTC treatment or clears temporarily and then returns.
  • Their acne is severe: A person should see a dermatologist if they have cysts, nodules, and deep, painful acne.
  • They have late-onset or persistent acne: Late-onset acne may occur in adults who have never previously had the condition. Persistent acne is a relapse or continuation of acne from adolescence into adulthood. Researchers associate both types with scarring and pigmentation, which a dermatologist may help prevent and manage.
  • Medication may be the cause of the acne: Medications including lithium and corticosteroids may cause acne. A person should not stop taking prescribed medication. Instead, they should inform a dermatologist of all the medication their doctor has prescribed.
  • The acne is causing scars or pigmentation: Acne may cause scarring or dark spots as it heals. A dermatologist may be able to help treat and prevent scarring and pigmentation.


Although acne may improve in some adolescents with OTC treatment or gradually improve with age, some teenagers may require treatment from a dermatologist.

Teenagers should see a dermatologist for acne treatment if:

  • The acne is affecting their mental health: Acne can affect teenagers’ self-esteem and may lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Acne treatment may help relieve mental health issues in teenagers.
  • Their acne is severe or does not respond to OTC treatment: Stubborn or severe acne that causes cysts or nodules may require treatment from a dermatologist.
  • The acne is causing scarring or pigmentation: Although adolescent acne may clear over time, scarring and pigmentation could remain. A dermatologist may be able to help prevent permanent marks on the skin.

A dermatologist will decide on a type of acne treatment based on a person’s age, their medical and family history, the type and severity of their acne, and other factors.

The goal of acne treatment is to prevent new lesions from developing, help existing lesions heal, and prevent scarring and pigmentation.

A dermatologist may recommend OTC products, prescribe medications, and use various therapies to help treat acne.

There are various treatments for acne, including topical products and medications, oral medications, and additional non-pharmaceutical therapies.

A dermatologist may recommend the following topical treatments for acne:

  • OTC topical products: OTC topical products such as benzoyl peroxide decrease sebum production and kill bacteria. Salicylic acid helps treat blackheads and whiteheads.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids can reduce inflammation and help prevent scarring.
  • Topical antibiotics: A dermatologist may combine topical antibiotics with other products.

Prescription medications to treat acne include:

  • oral antibiotics to help reduce inflammation, such as minocycline
  • hormonal agents, such as the pill, to reduce oil production in the skin
  • corticosteroids for severe nodular acne to reduce inflammation
  • oral retinoids, such as isotretinoin (Accutane), to help prevent acne from forming and causing scars

Other treatments may include:

A person should choose a fully qualified dermatologist certified by the American Board of Dermatology, the American Osteopathic Board of Dermatology, or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

The American Academy of Dermatology provides a Find a Dermatologist tool that allows a person to search for qualified dermatologists in their area.

People can search for a dermatologist by using search terms specific to their condition, the procedure they are interested in, the focus of the dermatology practice, or the name of the dermatologist.

Medical insurance may cover dermatological treatment if the insurance provider deems the treatment medically necessary.

Medical insurance providers typically will not cover the cost of treatment for acne scarring, as they may classify the treatment as cosmetic.

To ensure their insurance will cover dermatological treatment, a person can apply for prior authorization, which involves their insurer authorizing the treatment before a person receives it.

A person can discuss financial options with their dermatologist, who may be able to offer payment plans for certain types of treatments or suggest generic versions of medications to help reduce costs.

A person should see a dermatologist to treat their acne if the condition does not respond to OTC treatment and negatively affects their life.

A dermatologist may be able to treat stubborn, severe, or persistent acne with medication and other therapies. They may also be able to help treat and prevent scarring and pigmentation.

Acne can affect a person’s mental health and may lead to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Anyone who feels that their acne is affecting their quality of life should seek treatment, if possible.