The Science of Beauty: Here's What Roaccutane Does to Your Body

Lindsey Metrus
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Amster Labs

A pimple can easily feel like the end of the world, especially if it’s large, painful, red, and… you get the picture. For those of us with the unfortunate but occasional breakouts or acute smatterings of blemishes across our face and body, topical creams and medicated cleansers (or, in some cases, antibiotics) usually do the trick. But for those with an excessive amount of pimples, visible redness, and deep-rooted cystic acne, these topicals and low-grade prescription medications aren’t aggressive enough; you’re still left with unsightly marks that physically affect your skin and, in turn, tarnish your self-confidence.

In these cases, when patients can’t achieve a clear complexion with OTC treatments or antibiotics (or, in some instances, birth control), a dermatologist may suggest Roaccutane.

The name alone may scare people away. After all, it carries a stigma: Harmful internal maladies and depression are bandied about as side effects which paints it as a taboo and potentially dangerous kind of drug. Despite its setbacks, however, Roaccutane can actually be a “cure” of sorts, for those with chronic acne, a sentiment Dr. Hadley King, a dermatologist at Skinney Medspa, agreed with when we spoke with her last month. “Accutane [the name of the drug in the U.S.] can be a life-changing medication for people who suffer from severe acne,” King says. “For severe recalcitrant acne, isotretinoin [the medical term] is an excellent option.”

So how does this otherwise miracle pill work? According to Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care, “One of the main effects acne has on the body is in the sebaceous glands of the skin. [Roaccutane] reduces sebum production and makes the pores less ‘sticky’ so they don’t get clogged and cause acne.” For a visual guide to Roaccutane's potential effects, see the graphic below.

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Original Illustration by Ellie Benuska

As you can see, along with the fact that it prevents new acne from forming while healing current blemishes, there are quite a few potential side effects of Roaccutane—but the operative word here is potential. Yes, dry skin and chapped lips are almost a given, as oil production is practically halted while on the drug, but joint pain, rash, intestinal symptoms, and depression were reported 15% or less of the time while users were on the drug, so as with most medications, not all side effects are guaranteed.

On the flip side, the American Osteopathic College of Medicine argues that “there is nothing else in the world that comes close to being this effective for severe acne.” The pill, which is a derivative of vitamin A, was found to essentially “cure” about half of those who take it, meaning they’ll never have to treat acne again. Pretty amazing, right?

We asked a recent Roaccutane user, Taylor Kelly, about her experience on the pill, and while she found it to be very effective, it surely wasn’t without its faults.

Says Kelly, “The monthly doctor appointments and blood collection were tedious, but my skin cleared up very rapidly. During the six months I was on it, I was not allowed to be in any sunlight and was advised against drinking heavily. My lips shed about three times a day. Layers of skin would literally just wipe off.” She jokes, “It would leave me with a pretty sexy, smooth and colourful lip, however.”

“Honestly,” Kelly continues, “there were periods of time while I was on Accutane that I would get very emotional for no reason and couldn’t explain why. One of their listed side effects is that the medicine can make you sad, but whenever the doctor asked me those monthly questions [regarding my emotional behaviour], I would say nothing is unusual. I was sure that if I said yes to any of their questions, they would stop the medicine immediately, and I would not be able to see the full effect. It has been months since I have met the full dosage and stopped taking Accutane, and so far, I do not break out as much as I used to, and when I do, the pimples are not deep or cystic like they used to be.”

Kelly’s experience brings up an important point: Even though she endured the emotional side effects in her quest for clear skin, it’s important to be honest and open with your doctor each time you meet for a check-up. Let the professional work with you to decide how to adjust your prescription if you’re noticing negative repercussions, whether physical or emotional. As effective as Roaccutane can be, it’s not worth jeopardising your health.

Want to read more firsthand experience with the medication? Take a look at our discussion with six other women and their trials with Roaccutane.

Explore: accutane, Health

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