Management of Acne Vulgaris: A Review

JAMA. 2021 Nov 23;326(20):2055-2067. doi: 10.1001/jama.2021.17633.


Importance: Acne vulgaris is an inflammatory disease of the pilosebaceous unit of the skin that primarily involves the face and trunk and affects approximately 9% of the population worldwide (approximately 85% of individuals aged 12-24 years, and approximately 50% of patients aged 20-29 years). Acne vulgaris can cause permanent physical scarring, negatively affect quality of life and self-image, and has been associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Observations: Acne vulgaris is classified based on patient age, lesion morphology (comedonal, inflammatory, mixed, nodulocystic), distribution (location on face, trunk, or both), and severity (extent, presence or absence of scarring, postinflammatory erythema, or hyperpigmentation). Although most acne does not require specific medical evaluation, medical workup is sometimes warranted. Topical therapies such as retinoids (eg, tretinoin, adapalene), benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, and/or combinations of topical agents are first-line treatments. When prescribed as a single therapy in a randomized trial of 207 patients, treatment with tretinoin 0.025% gel reduced acne lesion counts at 12 weeks by 63% compared with baseline. Combinations of topical agents with systemic agents (oral antibiotics such as doxycycline and minocycline, hormonal therapies such as combination oral contraception [COC] or spironolactone, or isotretinoin) are recommended for more severe disease. In a meta-analysis of 32 randomized clinical trials, COC was associated with reductions in inflammatory lesions by 62%, placebo was associated with a 26% reduction, and oral antibiotics were associated with a 58% reduction at 6-month follow-up. Isotretinoin is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating severe recalcitrant nodular acne but is often used to treat resistant or persistent moderate to severe acne, as well as acne that produces scarring or significant psychosocial distress.

Conclusions and relevance: Acne vulgaris affects approximately 9% of the population worldwide and approximately 85% of those aged 12 to 24 years. First-line therapies are topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, or combinations of topicals. For more severe disease, oral antibiotics such as doxycycline or minocycline, hormonal therapies such as combination oral conceptive agents or spironolactone, or isotretinoin are most effective.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Acne Vulgaris / pathology
  • Acne Vulgaris / therapy
  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Administration, Oral
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Benzoyl Peroxide / administration & dosage
  • Child
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Combined / therapeutic use
  • Dermatologic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Dermatologic Agents / adverse effects
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Retinoids / administration & dosage*
  • Salicylic Acid / administration & dosage
  • Spironolactone / therapeutic use


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Combined
  • Dermatologic Agents
  • Retinoids
  • Spironolactone
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide