Clinical Review

From Breakouts to Bargains: Strategies for Patient-Centered, Cost-effective Acne Care

Author and Disclosure Information

A range of treatment options are available for both mild to moderate and moderate to severe acne, and these options vary widely in their clinical uses, effectiveness, and costs. With the continued rise of dermatologic drug prices and increased cost-sharing due to high-deductible health plans, the importance of cost-effective treatment continues to grow. Failure to consider cost-effective, patient-centered care may lead to increased financial toxicity, reduced adherence, and ultimately worse outcomes and patient satisfaction. Combination topical products offer improved efficacy and convenience, which are associated with better adherence and outcomes. Generic fixed-dose adapalene–benzoyl peroxide (BPO) and fixed-dose clindamycin-BPO can be highly cost-effective options for patients with mild to moderate acne. Hormonal agents such as combined oral contraceptives (COCs) and spironolactone are inexpensive and likely reflect a highly cost-effective option that could reduce reliance on oral antibiotics in patients with moderate to severe acne. Doxycycline and isotretinoin also are cost-effective options for more severe acne. Frequent laboratory monitoring for spironolactone and isotretinoin continues to be prevalent despite little evidence to support its clinical utility, and it is associated with a major cost burden to the patient and health care system. The reduction of laboratory monitoring is an opportunity to provide higher-value care.

Practice Points

  • For mild to moderate acne, fixed-dose combination adapalene–benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin–benzoyl peroxide are highly cost-effective options for most patients.
  • For moderate to severe acne, doxycycline or hormonal therapy (ie, combined oral contraceptives, spironolactone) are highly cost-effective options.
  • Reduction of laboratory monitoring for spironolactone and isotretinoin is an opportunity to provide higher-value care.



In the United States, acne affects 85% of adolescents and can persist into adulthood at a prevalence of 30% to 50% in adult women. 1,2 The pathogenesis of acne is multifactorial and involves hyperkeratinization of the follicle, bacterial colonization with Cutibacterium acnes , and increased androgen-induced sebum production, which together lead to inflammation. 3,4 A wide range of treatment guideline–recommended options are available, including benzoyl peroxide (BPO), topical retinoids, topical and oral antibiotics, antiandrogens, and isotretinoin. 5 However, these options vary widely in their clinical uses, effectiveness, and costs.

Why Cost-effective Acne Care Matters

Out-of-pocket spending by patients on acne treatments can be substantial, with surveys finding that acne patients often spend hundreds to thousands of dollars per year.6,7 In a poll conducted in 2019 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 3 in 10 patients said they had not taken their medicine as prescribed because of costs.8 A mixed methods study by Ryskina et al9 found that 65% (17/26) of participants who reported primary nonadherence—intended to fill prescriptions but were unable to do so—cited cost or coverage-related barriers as the reason. With the continued rise of dermatologic drug prices and increased prevalence of high-deductible health plans, cost-effective treatment continues to grow in importance. Failure to consider cost-effective, patient-centered care may lead to increased financial toxicity, reduced adherence, and ultimately worse outcomes and patient satisfaction. We aim to review the cost-effectiveness of current prescription therapies for acne management and highlight the most cost-effective approaches to patients with mild to moderate acne as well as moderate to severe acne.

In this review, we will take a value-oriented framework.10 Value can be defined as the cost per outcome of interest. Therefore, a treatment does not necessarily need to be inexpensive to provide high value if it delivers outstanding clinical outcomes. In addition, we will focus on incremental cost-effectiveness relative to common alternatives (eg, a retinoid could deliver high value relative to a vehicle but still provide limited value compared to other available retinoids if it is more expensive but not more efficacious). When possible, we present data from cost-effectiveness studies.11,12 We also use recent available price data obtained from GoodRx on August 11, 2023, to guide this discussion.13 However, as comparative-effectiveness and cost-effectiveness studies rarely are performed for acne medications, much of this discussion will be based on expert opinion.

Treatment Categories

Topical Retinoids—There currently are 4 topical retinoids that are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of acne: tretinoin, tazarotene, trifarotene, and adapalene. These drugs are vitamin A derivatives that bind retinoic acid receptors and function as comedolytic and anti-inflammatory agents.5 In general, generic tretinoin and adapalene products have the lowest cost (Table).

Costs of Acne Treatment Options

In network meta-analyses, tretinoin and adapalene often are highly ranked topical treatment options with respect to efficacy.14 Combined with their low cost, generic tretinoin and adapalene likely are excellent initial options for topical therapy from the standpoint of cost-effectiveness.15 Adapalene may be preferred in many situations because of its better photostability and compatibility with BPO.

Due to the importance of the vehicle in determining retinoid tolerability, efforts have been made to use encapsulation and polymeric emulsion technology to improve tolerability. Recently, polymeric lotion formulations of tretinoin and tazarotene have become available. In a phase 2 study, tazarotene lotion 0.045% was found to have equivalent efficacy and superior tolerability to tazarotene cream 0.1%.16 Although head-to-head data are not available, it is likely that tretinoin lotion may offer similar tolerability improvements.17 Although these formulations currently are more costly, this improved tolerability may be critical for some patients to be able to use topical retinoids, and the additional cost may be worthwhile. In addition, as these products lose market exclusivity, they may become more affordable and similarly priced to other topical retinoids. It is important to keep in mind that in clinical trials of tretinoin and adapalene, rates of dropout due to adverse events typically were 1% to 2%; therefore, because many patients can tolerate generic tretinoin and adapalene, at current prices the lotion formulations of retinoids may not be cost-effective relative to these generics.14

Trifarotene cream 0.005%, a fourth-generation topical retinoid that is highly sensitive for retinoic acid receptor γ, recently was FDA approved for the treatment of acne. Although trifarotene is efficacious for both facial and truncal acne, there is a lack of active comparator data compared to other topical retinoids.18 In a 2023 network meta-analysis, trifarotene was found to be both less efficacious and less tolerable compared to other topical retinoids.19 Thus, it is unclear if trifarotene offers any improved efficacy compared to other options, and it comes at a much higher cost (Table). In a tolerability study, trifarotene was found to be significantly more irritating than tazarotene lotion 0.045% and adapalene gel 0.3% (P<.05).20 Therefore, trifarotene cream 0.005% is unlikely to be a cost-effective option; in fact, it may be overall inferior to other topical retinoids, given its potentially lower tolerability.


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