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Isotretinoin: Uses, Side Effects And Everything You Need To Know


When other acne treatments fail, your doctor may prescribe isotretinoin – the gold standard for treating cystic acne when nothing else gets the job done. Should you take it?

Success stories abound. But the highly regarded oral medication also comes with a number of safety warnings – and a somewhat controversial history since it was introduced in the early 1980s.

Confused? You’re not alone. We broke down some basic facts about isotretinoin to help you sort out any concerns. As always, consult a doctor before trying any prescription.

1. It Has A High Success Rate When Taken Properly

Isotretinoin, an internal retinoid that is a form of vitamin A, is typically taken daily for four to six months. When followed correctly, about 85 percent of patients see clear skin after one course of treatment, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

2. It Attacks Acne Four Ways

Isotretinoin acts on all four major factors that cause acne: It decreases oil production, reduces the presence of acne bacteria, slows cell turnover within pores thereby reducing clogging and calms inflammation.

3. Your Acne Might Get Worse At First

Though the medication has a high overall success rate, don’t be alarmed if you don’t see results immediately. It has been known to actually make the acne worse in the first few days and can take up to two months before you’ll notice results.

4. There Are Some Serious Side Effects

The highest concern with isotretinoin is that it can cause serious birth defects. Female patients on the drug must take two forms of birth control. Less severe side effects can include dry skin and lips, thinning hair, muscle and joint pain, elevated cholesterol and liver toxicity.

5. You Should Visit Your Doctor Regularly

Since isotretinoin comes with some significant risks, you’ll need to see your doctor every month during your treatment. You should discuss how your condition is progressing and any changes you’ve noticed in terms of other health or mental problems. Typically, at that appointment the doctor will give you the next 30-day supply with no refills to properly monitor your progress.

6. Make Your Doctor Aware Of Other Conditions

While some patients may experience side effects even if they are in good overall health, people with certain conditions should be extra careful when considering isotretinoin. Make your doctor aware if you or a family member has a history of: depression, heart disease, high cholesterol, intestinal disorder, osteoporosis, diabetes, asthma, an eating disorder or liver disease.

7. You’ll Be Extra Sensitive To Sunlight

Since your skin is undergoing a major overhaul from the inside out, you will be more sensitive to sunlight. That means you should avoid unnecessary or prolonged exposure to the sun, wear protective clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen to help prevent complications.

8. Avoid Waxing, Laser And Other Skin Treatments

We know you want to be on the fast track to clear, healthy skin, but adding other procedures while taking isotretinoin can be detrimental to your skin in the long run. It’s best to avoid waxing, laser therapy and dermabrasion while on isotretinoin and for six months after your treatment as it can increase the risk of scarring.