A Crash Course on Accutane

Mention the word “Accutane” to a large group of people, and you will get mixed reactions. One person may say the drug cleared up their skin and improved their life. Another may call it poison. If you don’t know what Accutane even is, these opposite opinions can cause confusion. In case you haven’t heard of it, Accutane is the former brand name for a drug called isotretinoin. The name “Accutane” no longer exists, and isotretinoin is now sold under many names. However, Accutane is still the name people use most commonly. Accutane is a retinoid used to cure (and yes, in most cases, I mean CURE) severe nodular, or cystic, acne. It essentially shrinks your oil glands, and if that sounds scary, it's because it is. Accutane is a serious drug with serious side effects, so this is not a quick and easy fix by any means. Many people refer to Accutane as a “last-resort drug,” meaning you should only consider taking this drug if you have already tried everything else. “Everything else” refers to topical cleansers and treatments (including prescription), antibiotics, birth control, changes in diet, and anything else your dermatologist suggests. Once you have tried all of these options with no success, your dermatologist may suggest Accutane. Before taking such a huge step, there are some basic things you need to know.

Unfortunately, this process is much more difficult to go through if you are a woman. Isotretinoin causes major birth defects (and I mean MAJOR), so if you have the physical ability to become pregnant and you live in the US, the government gets involved. In order to go on the drug, you have to take a pregnancy test and start birth control one month before you can even start taking the pills. After this month, you must take another pregnancy test, answer questions about your birth control usage online, and then you can finally start your first month of Accutane. Most people stay on Accutane for about 4-6 months, and every month you have to repeat the same process: pregnancy test, dermatologist appointment, complete the questionnaire, then finally pick up your prescription. It is stressful and frustrating, but there is no way around it.

There are many side effects that come with Accutane, but they do not have to be scary. Dry lips, skin, and hair are almost unavoidable, so be sure to invest in moisturizing products. If you have struggled with acne your whole life like I have, you are probably accustomed to harsh acne-fighting products and have no idea what to look for in gentle, moisturizing skincare. I spent hours scouring the internet for skincare tips before I started on Accutane, and I think I finally found some products that help with my dry, sensitive skin. For a cleanser, look for something gentle, like CeraVe or Cetaphil, and definitely invest in a good moisturizer. Some of my must-haves contain hyaluronic acid, which adds moisture on a deep level.

Keep in mind that your lips will dry out like CRAZY, so be sure to have lip balm on hand at all times, no matter what. My favorites are Aquaphor, the Bite Beauty Lip Mask, and Burt’s Bees. Accutane also makes my skin extremely sensitive to the sun, so sunscreen is vital. As for the more serious, but less common side effects, I have experienced back pain and small patches of eczema, but nothing that affects my life too much. I have heard that most people go through a “purge” phase in the first month, where their acne worsens before it gets better, and I know that fatigue and depression are also possible side effects. Side effects and their severity can vary greatly, and my experience has been fairly mild, so definitely do your own research.     

After all of this, the question remains: Is clear skin worth jumping through bureaucratic hoops and enduring a multitude of side effects? For me, it is absolutely worth it, but for others, it may not be. I remember the effect acne had on my self esteem all through high school, and the idea of not feeling the need to hide my face makes everything worth it for me. Accutane is not the right choice for everybody, but if it is the right choice for you, know that there is nothing shameful or scary about it. There has always been a bit of a stigma surrounding this drug and acne, but my hope is that we can clear up some of the mystery so we feel confident taking the steps we deem necessary to feel good in our own skin.

The author two years ago, before Accutane and before learning how to take a decent selfie:

The author 2 months into Accutane:


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