Drug Therapy

Status Report From the American Acne & Rosacea Society on Medical Management of Acne in Adult Women, Part 2: Topical Therapies

Author and Disclosure Information

In part 1 of this 3-part series, an overview of the epidemiology, visible patterns, and important considerations for clinical and laboratory evaluation of acne vulgaris (AV) in adult women was provided. Proper selection and integration of skin care products is important in the management of AV in this patient population. Part 2 of this series includes a discussion of over-the-counter and prescription topical therapies for adult women with AV. A summary of key randomized controlled trials also is provided. Further well-designed studies are needed, as data on the use of topical agents in this subpopulation are limited.

Practice Points

  • Data from randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) of topical agents used for the treatment of acne in adult women has been gleaned through subanalyses of larger pivotal studies with adapalene gel 0.3%, dapsone gel 5%, clindamycin phosphate 1.2%–benzoyl peroxide 3.75% gel, and adapalene 0.1%–benzoyl peroxide 2.5% gel.
  • Efficacy and tolerability/safety results from RCTs of these topical agents evaluated outcomes for the clinical pattern of mixed inflammatory, comedonal, and non-nodular acne located on the face above the jawline margin.
  • More data are needed on the treatment of acne in adult women with topical agents, systemic agents, and combination regimens, including results for the full spectrum of clinical presentations.



It seems intuitive that clinicians in dermatology would automatically recognize the importance of proper selection and integration of skin care products and techniques in the management of acne vulgaris (AV). However, an understanding of the fundamental importance of skin care in AV management and the scientific basis for maintaining epidermal barrier (EpB) function and repair cannot be assumed. In fact, there is limited scientific information about EpB dysfunction and AV or the adjunctive benefits of specific skin care products. However, some data have emerged that can be successfully applied by clinicians.1-9

In part 2 of this series, emphasis is placed on skin care and topical therapies for the treatment of AV in adult women. In addition to the plethora of cleanser and moisturizer formulations that exist in the marketplace, there are many over-the-counter (OTC) products marketed to treat AV that contain benzoyl peroxide (BP) and salicylic acid. Importantly, women tend to be selective about what they use to cleanse and moisturize their skin, and use of OTC products to treat AV is common among adult women.10,11

A thorough discussion of EpB impairment, related inflammatory cascades, and potential relevance to AV are beyond the scope of this article. In short, appropriate skin care products can reduce the inflammation and sensitivity associated with increased transepidermal water loss and reduced stratum corneum hydration and can mitigate EpB impairments induced by certain acne medications or vehicles.1,12 Available data support the adjunctive benefit of proper skin care in the management of AV by mitigating cutaneous irritation and potentially contributing to a reduction in AV lesions.2-4,7,13 Use of a formulation that also provides broad-spectrum photoprotection also is helpful.3,4

Another challenge is the myriad of cosmeceuticals that are heavily marketed to adult women with AV.13,14 Unfortunately, the scientific evidence supporting these products for treatment of AV is limited, resulting in the clinician’s inability to make specific recommendations. The core message is to incorporate skin care products that can reduce EpB impairment and mitigate cutaneous irritation associated with some AV therapies.1-4,7-9,12

OTC Topical Therapies

The marketplace is replete with several OTC products for treatment of AV, most of which contain BP and salicylic acid.15,16 There is a lack of efficacy data for OTC products for AV, including cleansers and topical medications, although some may be beneficial for milder cases. A variety of formulations are available to choose from, usually without the advice of a clinician. Additionally, heavy marketing is directed at adult women with AV, which may promote the use of therapies that may not be optimal for their respective AV severity or may cause facial skin irritation. Self-treatment may also cause delay in seeking dermatologic care, increasing the risk of persistent or permanent sequelae. Delay in adequate treatment is a major risk factor for the development of acne scars.17

Prescription Topical Therapies

Despite the high prevalence of AV in adult women, there is a paucity of studies evaluating topical therapies for AV in this subset.18-24 Reports in the literature on AV in adult women have focused on systemic hormonal agents (eg, oral contraceptives, spironolactone); however, more recent reports have addressed the use of topical therapies in this subpopulation.11,25-30 Published data on topical formulations are predominantly post hoc analyses from pivotal randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that included adolescents and adults of both genders with facial AV located above the jawline and predominantly moderate in severity.11,26,28,30 Participants in all of these studies presented with non-nodular, mixed inflammatory, and comedonal facial AV above the jawline, with inclusion criteria that required a minimum of 20 comedonal lesions and 20 papulopustular lesions at baseline. An important differentiating factor among these various post hoc analyses evaluating adult women versus adolescent girls with AV are the ages used to separate adults from adolescents. A dividing line of 18 years and older was used in some reports (eg, adapalene gel 0.3%, dapsone gel 5%), while other reports used 25 years and older to separate adolescent girls from adult women (ie, clindamycin phosphate [CP] 1.2%– BP 3.75% gel, adapalene 0.1%–BP 2.5% gel).11,26,28,30

Importantly, these studies included adult women with AV who presented with mixed comedonal and inflammatory AV (mixed pattern AV) similar to adolescents. None of the studies included women with a U-shaped AV pattern or lower facial AV characterized by deep inflammatory lesions that are often tender and few in number. Unfortunately, there is a lack of data evaluating topical therapies for these patterns of AV in adult women, including AV below the jawline and on the trunk. Although mixed pattern AV has been reported to affect 75% to 90% of adult women with AV, epidemiologic data quantifying the clinical AV patterns affecting adult women are limited.11,22,29,31,32 More well-designed studies are needed.


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