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Last updated November 25, 2019. 4 minute read

Clindamycin for acne treatment: how it works

The oral version of clindamycin isn’t prescribed as often as the topical version for acne. If your doctor does prescribe it to you, it will typically be in gel, lotion, solution, foam, or other form. Clindamycin is sold under different names, too.

Screen Shot 2020 01 28 At 2 52 04 Pm Written by Maria Del Russo
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

When you develop a pimple, one of the first questions you probably ask yourself is, “why am I breaking out?” The fact is that pimples can sprout up for a number of reasons, from hormonal spikes to a reaction to a certain makeup or skincare product. Acne can also be caused by bacteria, and when that happens, it can be a little more difficult to treat.

In cases like this, your healthcare provider might prescribe you a medicine called clindamycin. It’s an antibiotic that comes in both pill form and topical form, although, for acne days, it’s usually prescribed topically. Since it’s an antibiotic, clindamycin can also be used to treat a variety of other illnesses and diseases when given orally, like malaria and vaginal infections. Topically, it can be used to treat other skin conditions, such as folliculitis—when your hair follicles become inflamed.

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Unsure if clindamycin is right for you and your acne? Well, only your dermatologist can decide that. But we’re breaking down everything about clindamycin, from its uses to its side effects, below.

What is clindamycin?

“Clindamycin is an antibiotic, using its oral form to treat various bacterial infections and in topical form to treat acne and other acne-like skin conditions” dermatologist Julia Schwartz, MD. Topical treatments work to kill bacteria that can get trapped inside of pores as well as decrease inflammation, which are things that cause acne.

While it seems like just about anything can cause you to break out, acne is typically caused by three things:

  • Hair products and cosmetics that are comedogenic. Products that use oil can wind up clogging pores, which lead to breakouts. That’s why it’s important to look for products that are labeled as non-comedogenic.
  • Blocked pores. This is typically what causes whiteheads and blackheads. Blocked pores occur because of extra sebum, dead skin cells, or other reasons.
  • Bacteria that gets trapped in a blocked pore. Bacteria is typically what causes infected, painful, inflamed zits. You know those cystic bumps that actually hurt when you press them? They’re typically caused by bacteria.

According to Dr. Schwartz, clindamycin doesn’t do anything to affect your skin’s sebum production, so it won’t help zits that are caused by extra oil. What it does do, though, is kill the bacteria that could make those zits become inflamed and infected. So in a way, it keeps your acne from going from bad to worse.

The oral version of clindamycin isn’t prescribed as often as the topical version for acne, according to Dr. Schwatz. If your healthcare provider does prescribe it to you, it will typically be in gel, lotion, solution, foam, or other form. Clindamycin is sold under different names, too. These include:

  • Cleocin-T
  • ClindaMax
  • Clinda-Derm
  • Clindagel
  • ClindaReach
  • Clindets
  • Evoclin
  • Z-Clinz

There are other oral antibiotics that are sometimes prescribed for acne.

How safe and effective is clindamycin?

According to Dr. Schwartz, topical clindamycin is very safe. “However, I prefer not to use it as a solo treatment for acne, due to high rates of bacterial resistance,” she says. In other words, in an era when some bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, using monotherapy against acne may not be fully effective.

Clindamycin is categorized by the FDA as a pregnancy class B. That means that animal studies have failed to demonstrate a risk to the fetus, and there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women. It can excrete into your breast milk when breastfeeding, though, so other medications may be preferred for lactating individuals.

“Clindamycin is more effective in treating acne when combined with other topicals, such as benzoyl peroxide or a retinoid, such as tretinoin,” Dr. Schwartz says. This is because clindamycin does nothing to affect your body’s oil production, so it doesn’t prevent certain steps in the development of acne on its own. However, when used with medicines that do prevent the other steps, it can be a great way to treat zits and keep new ones from sprouting up.

Studies back this up, too. One study found that, after six months, people who used alternate-day isotretinoin along with a 1% clindamycin gel found it to be a good treatment for moderate acne with very few side effects. And a review of three studies showed that a mix of benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin in topical gel form was an effective treatment against acne.

Because of its usefulness in combination treatment, clindamycin is used as an active ingredient in some combination acne medications. Like Dr. Schwartz suggested, these medicines combine two treatments in one. Some of these combo treatments include:

  • Acanya, which is a combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide
  • Benzaclin, which is a combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide
  • Duac, which is a combination of clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide
  • Ziana, which is a combination of clindamycin and tretinoin

Topical clindamycin comes in gels, toners, foams, lotions, medicated pads, and more. Your healthcare provider will decide which option is best for you. Most treatments will be applied twice a day, but it should be used however it is prescribed. How quickly it works depends entirely on your skin and how it reacts to topical medications like this one.

Potential risks and side effects of topical clindamycin

Like most acne medications, clindamycin can have possible side effects. For the most part, according to Schwartz, these side effects are mild and include:

  • Dryness
  • Flakiness
  • Minor peeling
  • Burning or tingling upon application
  • Mild skin irritation

Serious side effects are incredibly rare, but you should talk to a healthcare provider immediately if you develop one of the following:

  • Severe headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloody stool
  • Allergic reaction

Along with another active ingredient, topical clindamycin could help clear up your inflammatory acne. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if this treatment is right for you.