Health Topics

Prescription Medications for Skincare

Prescription Medications for Skincare

Improving Skin with Medication

There are many prescription products available to help improve the look of your skin. Many of the prescription products contain the same ingredients as those available over-the-counter, but are in higher dosage strengths. Examples of such products include:

  1. Products to slow the growth of, remove or lighten unwanted facial hair
  2. Products to grow hair in scalp areas lacking hair
  3. Exfoliant products including certain alpha-hydroxy acid products

If you’ve already tried certain over-the-counter treatments, make sure you let your dermatologist know this. In any case, he or she will work with you to determine those that best suit you.

Prescription products for skin

Before you visit your doctor, it might be beneficial to know a little bit about the different types of products available. We’ve listed some of the more common prescription drugs below. This information should not replace the professional advice of a dermatologist.

Tretinoin (Retin-A® and Renova®)

Retin-A® is a prescription medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1971 to treat acne. Since then, the drug has also been shown to improve skin texture and color when used over an extended period of time. This drug exfoliates (removes a layer of skin cells) the skin, helps even out pigmentation and minimizes fine lines.

Side effects of tretinoin include redness, peeling, tightness, and swelling. You may be able to minimize these side effects by initially using tretinoin every other night and then, over the first month, gradually increasing the frequency to nightly. Tretinoin also makes the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet rays from the sun. Therefore, a broad-spectrum sunscreen must be used to prevent sun damage.

If you are pregnant, you should not use Retin-A® products as they can cause birth defects. If you are nursing, you should tell your doctor, and he or she will advise you as to their safety.

Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)

Like tretinoin, salicylic acid is an exfoliant that can improve the texture and color of skin. It penetrates oil-laden hair follicle openings and, as a result, can also help with acne.

Salicylic acid is available in many products. Some are available over-the-counter and others require a doctor’s prescription. If you have used an over-the-counter treatment with beta-hydroxy acid with no success, be sure you let your dermatologist know this.

Studies have shown salicylic acid to be less irritating than alpha-hydroxy acid-containing products, while providing similar improvement in skin texture and color.


This lightening cream is used to treat darker spots, such as those that occur with melasma (hyperpigmented areas on the face). Melasma (cholasma) occurs in both men and women.

If you’ve tried over-the-counter hydroquinone with no success, you may require a higher strength prescription product. Prescription hydroquinone is available in three and four percent concentrations. This product can be used in combination with tretinoin to treat melasma, but follow your doctor’s advice on treatment procedure. Whenever you’re using hydroquinone, you should always use sunscreen, as the treatment will increase your sensitivity to light.


Propecia® (finasteride) is the first and only FDA-approved drug to treat men who have male-pattern baldness (hair loss starts at the top and front of the head). Male-pattern hair loss can be caused by stress, hormonal and dietary causes, certain types of medications, thyroid disease, radiation or chemotherapy, or and other causes.


Eflornithine cream (Vaniqa®) is prescribed to women who seek to slow the growth of unwanted facial hair. The drug does not remove hair, and it may require several weeks before you begin to see results. It is applied twice daily. Side effects can include stinging, tingling, burning, or rash. If you are pregnant or nursing, you should discuss this with your physician. This medication must be used continuously to maintain the effect of decreased hair growth.