The FDA Just Approved the First-Ever Retinoid for OTC Treatment of Acne

Jenna Birch
·Contributing Writer
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Now you can get clearer skin without a prescription. (Photo: Getty Images)

For decades, countless patients have been prescribed retinoids by their dermatologist to treat acne — a condition affecting some 50 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. As of this month, the FDA is cutting out the middleman. The agency just approved 0.1 percent Differin gel for over-the-counter use, effective immediately.

The move marks the first time a retinoid will be available without a prescription. “Millions of consumers, from adolescents to adults, suffer from acne,” Lesley Furlong, MD, deputy director of the FDA’s Office of Drug Evaluation, said in a press release. “Now, consumers have access to a new safe and effective over-the-counter option.”

What is a retinoid, exactly? Joshua Zeichner, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explains that these “derivatives of vitamin A” are a little bit of a cure-all — used for a variety of skin issues, ranging from acne to anti-aging.

“Perhaps the most well-known OTC retinoid is retinol, which is a common ingredient in creams targeted to treat fine lines and wrinkles,” Zeichner tells Yahoo Beauty. “Other topical retinoids are used as a staple prescription to treat acne. They help unclog blocked pores that lead to pimples and reduce skin inflammation.”

Topical retinoids are usually combined with other drugs, like “benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, and topical dapsone” as part of a prescription regimen from your dermatologist, says Zeichner. “They are useful in treating all forms of acne, and they’re a go-to medication for blackheads and whiteheads.”

It’s a huge deal that Differin has finally been cleared for OTC use in the treatment of zits. Twenty years of studies have confirmed the drug’s initial clinical tests on safety and efficacy over time, leading to that final approval this month. “The FDA regulates OTC products that target acne,” Zeichner explains, “and there have been no changes to the FDA’s OTC acne monograph for decades, up until now. OTC treatments for acne were limited to benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur.”

Zeichner says adapalene 0.1 percent (the generic name for Differin) is especially great for women who suffer breakouts and might need a minor boost to their skin care regimen. “It is a full-face treatment to clear the pimples you have, and keep your pores clear for preventing future pimples,” he says. “It can be used by itself, or combined with other acne fighters like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.”

There are several precautions to take, though. Pregnant women, women planning to become pregnant, or those who are breastfeeding should not use Differin without talking to a doctor first. If you choose to grab the gel over the counter, use it just once a day, applying a thin layer to affected areas of skin. Follow the label’s instructions and stop using it or talk to your derm if the skin becomes inflamed.

Zeichner says that skin may be sensitive for the first two to four weeks, so feeling a little irritation is normal. “Be cautious about additional skin irritation, and wear sunscreen, as retinoids can increase your risk of sunburn,” he says.

In an era where ease is everything, a superpowered OTC acne treatment is sure to make a lot of women happy.

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