When all else fails, Accutane offers a solution to acne … with a risk


Photo: Luke Sheidler

Dozens of over-the-counter products and prescription drugs are used in the battle against acne. For serious cases, Accutane offers hope, but it comes with some risks.

Pimples, zits, blemishes. No matter what they’re called, acne can take a psychological and physical toll on any teenager, and getting rid of it is a goal of many.  Many different facial creams and medicines are available, but Accutane, a prescription drug, can work wonders for some of its users. However, the drug also presents the possibility of extreme side effects, which causes some to shy away from it.

In 1982, the FDA approved a type of isotretinoin that treats severe nodular acne. This drug, now called Accutane, is used by some teenagers, and the results can be phenomenal.  After 4 to 6 months, it can provide either long-lasting reduction or complete elimination of acne for its patients. This is due to the medicine’s ability to decrease the size of the skin’s oil glands, thus removing the bacteria that causes breakouts in acne.

Before being prescribed Accutane, the patient must be approved by a dermatologist after a standard blood test. However, the doctor only provides this if the acne is extreme or if multiple other medications have failed.

This was the case for Matt McMahon, an upcoming junior at Fairmont, who took the drug this past year.

“I tried different methods for treating my acne, like Proactiv and other medicines, and nothing was working,” McMahon said. “I remember hearing about Accutane and decided to give it a shot.”

After he finished, McMahon said he realized that for him, it was worth the wait.

“After taking Accutane, my skin was definitely clearer and I no longer suffered from numerous breakouts,” he said.

Jason Guadalupe, a 2015 Fairmont grad is currently taking the drug.

“After trying over-the-counter medicines that didn’t work, I tried Accutane,” Guadalupe said. “So far, my skin has definitely been getting clearer.”

However, due to numerous lawsuits against the drug, the original manufacturer stopped making it in 2009.  Nonetheless, some generic brands of the prescription are still available.

Why the lawsuits? Side effects. Although all prescription drugs have side effects, Accutane’s seem to vary in probability and intensity. Most of the side effects with high chances of occurring aren’t extreme, including chapped lips, dry skin and some mild nosebleeds. But the drug brings the chance of more extreme side effects, like severe depression, bowel disease or joint pain.

Guadalupe says he hasn’t suffered these serious effects.

“So far, I have only been experiencing chapped lips and dry skin from the drug,” he said.

McMahon said he didn’t suffer any extreme problems either.

“I was warned about the possibility of severe depression and redness of skin. But the only reactions I felt were dry skin and dehydration,” he said.

Accutane can also take a heavy toll on the patient’s liver because it can increase the level of triglycerides, a form of blood fat that raises the chances of heart and liver disease. Therefore, drinking alcohol or taking aspirin while on the prescription can create liver disease or failure.

Before patients can be given Accutane, they must run through a few tests, a process that’s much easier for males than females.

Guadalupe remembers going through this process — and how easy it was.

“All the doctor had to do is run a simple blood test,” Guadalupe said. “After that, all I need to do is return monthly for blood work.”

A female who wants to take the drug, however, must take two pregnancy tests at the beginning, along with routine tests while on Accutane. That’s because women who take the drug during pregnancy have a serious risk of a baby with physical abnormalities, including cleft palate, facial dysmorphism and central nervous system problems.

Natalie Heindl, an upcoming junior, is against the idea of Accutane, due to the possibility of serious problems.

“My acne would have to be all over my face and body before I’d consider taking the drug,” Heindl said. “I get really nervous when it comes to side effects and blood tests, and would not want to risk it for better skin.”

Despite the threat of side effects, Accutane remains popular because of its overwhelming success in treating severe acne.

“I think that people are scared to take it because of the multiple side effects, but those are very rare,” Guadalupe said. “Once they get their clearer skin, they will realize that it was all worth it.”