Military Dermatology

Fighting Acne for the Fighting Forces

In Partnership With the Association of Military Dermatologists

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Acne vulgaris is one of the most common dermatologic diseases, ranging from comedonal or inflammatory papules to large, painful, disfiguring cysts. Numerous treatment approaches are available, each with their own risks and benefits that must be weighed when selecting the best option for an individual patient. Active-duty military servicemembers face additional levels of complexity when pursuing acne therapy. Untreated acne may interfere with their assigned duties, while various therapies also may limit their medical readiness and fitness for duty. We present a review of various acne treatment modalities with a focus on the military population. Additionally, we present a case in which the pulsed dye laser (PDL) was successfully used to treat inflammatory acne in an active-duty servicemember to highlight the use of PDL as an available and effective treatment option for acne in this population.

Practice Points

  • Acne is a common disease that may cause considerable physical and psychological morbidity. Numerous therapies are available, each with their respective risks and benefits.
  • Military servicemembers face unique challenges in the management of acne due to operational and medical readiness considerations.
  • Less conventional treatments such as photodynamic therapy and pulsed dye laser may be available to military servicemembers.
  • Pulsed dye laser is an effective alternative treatment of acne, especially in an age of growing antibiotic resistance.



Acne treatment presents unique challenges in the active-duty military population. Lesions on the face may interfere with proper fit and seal of protective masks and helmets, while those involving the shoulders or back may cause considerable discomfort beneath safety restraints, parachute harnesses, or flak jackets. Therefore, untreated acne may limit servicemembers from performing their assigned duties. Treatments themselves also may be limiting; for instance, aircrew members who are taking oral doxycycline, tetracycline, or erythromycin may be grounded (ie, temporarily removed from duty) during and after therapy to monitor for side effects. Minocycline is considered unacceptable for aviators and is completely restricted for use due to risk for central nervous system side effects. Isotretinoin is restricted in aircrew members, submariners, and divers. If initiated, isotretinoin requires grounding for the entire duration of therapy and up to 3 months following treatment. Normalization of triglyceride levels and slit-lamp ocular examination also must take place prior to return to full duty, which may lead to additional grounding time. Well-established topical and oral treatments not impacting military duty are omitted from this review.


Minocycline carries a small risk for development of systemic lupus erythematosus and other autoimmune treatment-emergent adverse effects. It has known gastrointestinal tract side effects, and long-term use also can lead to bluish discoloration of the skin.1 Systemic minocycline is restricted in aircrew members due to its risk for central nervous system side effects, including light-headedness, dizziness, and vertigo.2-5

A topical formulation of minocycline recently was developed and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a means to reduce systemic adverse effects. This 4% minocycline foam has thus far been safe and well tolerated, with adverse events reported in less than 1% of study participants.1,6 In addition, topical minocycline was shown in a recent phase 3 study to notably reduce inflammatory lesion counts when compared to control vehicles at as early as 3 weeks.7 Topical minocycline may emerge as a viable treatment option for active-duty servicemembers in the future.

Doxycycline is not medically disqualifying. Even so, it may still necessitate grounding for a period of time while monitoring for side effects.4 Doxycycline can lead to photosensitivity, which could be difficult to tolerate for active-duty personnel training in sunny climates. Fortunately, uniform regulations and personal protective equipment requirements provide cover for most of the body surfaces aside from the face, which is protected by various forms of covers. If the patient tolerates the medication well without considerable side effects, he/she may be returned to full duty, making doxycycline an acceptable alternative to minocycline in the military population.

This novel compound is a tetracycline-class antibiotic with a narrower spectrum of activity, with reduced activity against enteric gram-negative bacteria. It has shown efficacy in reducing inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions, including lesions on the face, back, and chest. Common adverse side effects are nausea, headache, nasopharyngitis, and vomiting. Vestibular and phototoxic adverse effects were reported in less than 1% of patients.1,8 The US Food and Drug Administration approved sarecycline as a once-daily oral formulation for moderate to severe acne vulgaris, the first new antibiotic to be approved for the disease in the last 40 years. Sarecycline is not mentioned in any US military guidelines with regard to medical readiness and duty status; however, given its lack of vestibular side effects and narrower activity spectrum, it may become another acceptable treatment option in the military population.


Isotretinoin is well established as an excellent treatment of acne and stands alone as the only currently available medication that alters the disease course and prevents relapse in many patients. Nearly all patients on isotretinoin experience considerable mucocutaneous dryness, and up to 25% of patients on high-dose isotretinoin develop myalgia.9 Isotretinoin causes serious retinoid embryopathy, requiring all patients to be enrolled in the iPLEDGE program ( and to use 2 methods of contraception during treatment. Although it is uncommon to have notable elevations in lipids and transaminases during treatment with isotretinoin, routine laboratory monitoring generally is performed until the patient reaches steady dosing.

Isotretinoin is not permitted for use in active aircrew members, submariners, or divers. Servicemembers pursuing isotretinoin therapy are removed from their duty and are nondeployable for the entirety of their treatment course and several months after completion.4,5


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