New FDA warning on popular acne treatments

Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, the most common skin condition in the United States is acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin disorder and affects 40 to 50 million Americans. Many treatments promise to clear up the condition, but they may be hazardous.

We recently got this question from a viewer:

Dear Dr. Manny,
The government recently issued a warning on certain popular acne products claiming that they can cause potentially life-threatening allergic reactions. My teenage daughter uses a bunch of different acne cleansers, so how can I be sure if what she is using is safe?

The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that certain over-the-counter (OTC) acne products can cause rare but serious allergic reactions or irritations.

However, the FDA does not know which ingredient is causing the severe reactions. It may be the active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, or the inactive ingredients like salicylic acid— or a combination of both.

“Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are very commonly used OTC and because they’re not required by prescription, many people think they are automatically safe,” Dr. Doris Day, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center told

The FDA warned that these ingredients could potentially cause hypersensitivity reactions including throat tightness, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, swelling of the eyes, face, lips, or tongue, and a development of hives or itching on the skin where the topical treatment was used.

Day said the government warning is a perfect reminder that anyone can be allergic to any type of product, even if it is OTC and doesn’t require a prescription.

“One thing I recommend is not to start too many new products at once,” Day said. “You might want to start with one [new product] and add in one new one every week to make sure that if you do have an allergic reaction, you know which product you’re reacting to.”

If consumers experience an allergic reaction from an OTC acne product that contains benzoyl peroxide and/or salicylic acid they should stop using the product and seek immediate medical attention.

There are acne treatments available that don’t contain salicylic aide or benzoyl peroxide.

“One product I recommend that doesn’t have those ingredients is called Aczone [a prescription product]. It’s an anti-inflammatory that helps all the different kinds of pimples I see, whether they’re papules, pustules or those ones under the skin that can be very annoying,” Day said.

While the new FDA warning advises consumers to always check for allergic reactions and carefully read labels, Day said it’s always a good idea to check in with your dermatologist to find a treatment that works for you.

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