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Do Generic Acne Treatments Work as Well as Name Brands?

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Updated April 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question:  My dermatologist gave me a prescription for an acne medication. When I went to get my prescription filled, the pharmacist asked if I wanted the generic drug instead. He says it’s the same medication.

Are generic acne medications the same as the name brands? Do they work the same? Is there any difference between a generic acne medication and a name-brand version?

Answer:

Think about all the name-brand/generic products you know: Q-Tips and cotton swabs; Kleenex and facial tissue; Tylenol and acetaminophen. Acne medications have both name-brand and generic versions, too. For example:

Isotretinoin is no longer available under the brand Accutane, but you can still get the generic version.

So, do the generic drugs work like the branded versions? Yes. Are the generic drugs and the branded drugs exactly the same? No.

All medications are made up of two parts: the active ingredients (the ingredients that make the medication work) and the inactive ingredients (all the other "stuff" that is needed in the product). Name-brand acne medications and their generic counterparts have the same active ingredients. These ingredients will work in the same way in both branded and generic drugs.

While the active ingredients are the same, the inactive ingredients can be widely different. So if you have a reaction to a name-brand medication, you may possibly be able to use the generic version, or vice-versa.

With topical acne medications, there is another thing to consider - the vehicle. In topical acne medications, the vehicle is essentially the base into which the active ingredient is added.

Think of it like this: The vehicle is the "stuff" you spread on your face that delivers the active, working ingredient into your skin. Even though the branded acne medication and its generic counterpart will both contain the same active ingredient, the vehicle (or base) will be different.

In theory, because each medication contains the same active ingredient, they will work basically the same. Here's where it gets a bit tricky, though. The vehicle can affect how the medication works, too. Because of the differences in the vehicle, your dermatologist may prefer you to use one brand over the other, even if the active ingredient is the same.

Besides the inactive ingredients, another difference you'll see between generic and branded drugs is the price. All in all, generic medications are less expensive.

But this might not make much of a difference to your wallet. Depending on your insurance, your co-pay may be the same for both. And in some cases, the branded medication may actually be less than the generic drug (if your insurance has negotiated a lower price with the manufacturer). Obviously if you're paying for your acne medications out-of-pocket, the price issue is one you'll want to pay attention to.

The best place to get information about generic versus branded drugs is from your doctor. During your appointment, ask if the generic version is okay. Not every medication has a generic equivalent, though. Your dermatologist may have a specific reason for wanting you on a branded drug. Then, if your pharmacist suggests a generic option you and your doctor will be on the same page.

If you need to keep the cost of the prescription low, let your doctor know up-front. Keeping this in mind, your physician can prescribe a medication that will work for you and fit within your budget, whether this is a name brand or generic option.

If you want more information, About.com's Patient Empowerment site has a great article explaining the ins-and-outs of generic versus name-brand medications.

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