Peeling Agents Can Speed Resolution for Acne in Darker Skin

Ted Bosworth

December 01, 2020

Within a multidrug therapeutic regimen to control acne in patients with relatively dark skin, chemical peels should be considered to reduce the time to an acceptable cosmetic result, according to an expert, who cited both published data and empirical experience at the virtual Skin of Color Update 2020.

Because of the risk of exacerbating hyperpigmentation, superficial peels must be used judiciously, but "peels do add some benefit in terms of resolving the hyperpigmentation more rapidly," Andrew Alexis, MD, chair of the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Morningside and Mount Sinai West, New York, said at the meeting.

Addressing hyperpigmentation in skin of color is a critical goal. For many patients, the postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) that accompanies acne in Fitzpatrick skin types IV or higher imposes a greater burden than the acne itself.

"PIH is one of the driving forces among patients with darker skin coming to a dermatologist," said Alexis, who is also professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. "Patients often describe these hyperpigmented macules as scars, and they are concerned that they are not reversible."

In darker skin, the combination of treatments used for acne should address the pathogenic factors that contribute to acne and PIH at the same time, according to Alexis. He advised describing the goals and the timeline of acne and PIH resolution at the very first visit.

Of these two goals, resolution of PIH is often the more challenging. First-line topical retinoids have anti-inflammatory effects, but Alexis suggested that additional agents, such as topical antibiotics, topical dapsone, and benzoyl peroxide, are commonly needed to fully control inflammation.

"Topical retinoids serve as the foundation of acne treatment, especially in skin of color due to their dual action on acne and PIH," he said. However, he added that this needs support with a "well-rounded combination therapy to address as many pathogenic factors as possible."

One of these factors is subclinical inflammation. Citing studies first initiated at Howard University, Washington, Alexis said there are now compelling data showing T lymphocyte infiltration and increased expression of proinflammatory cytokines even in clinically uninvolved skin in acne patients with darker skin.

In patients with significant PIH, he considers oral antibiotics for their systemic anti-inflammatory effects, singling out sarecycline as a narrow-spectrum agent with a potent effect on Cutibacterium acnes. This tetracycline, a relatively recent addition to acne treatment options, has specifically been shown to be "superior to placebo across a diverse patient population" that includes those with darker skin tones.

"Another addition that can be leveraged for anti-inflammatory effects is topical minocycline foam. This has also been studied in diverse patient populations and shown to be superior to vehicle," Alexis said.

For acne, the response to most of these therapies is relatively rapid, but control of PIH takes longer. After resolution of acne, he considers superficial chemical peels to speed the healing of PIH.

In a small randomized trial he cited, superficial glycolic acid peel added to a modified Kligman formula (hydroquinone 2%, tretinoin 0.05%, and hydrocortisone 1%) provided significantly lower scores in the mean Hyperpigmentation Area and Severity Index at 12 weeks (P = .004) and 21 weeks (P < .001 relative to the Kligman formula alone). Alexis said he has had the same clinical experience with chemical peels

For many acne patients with darker skin, good results are achieved after four weeks on a multidrug combination with a topical retinoid backbone. One week after stopping the combination, the superficial chemical peel can be started at a very low dose on an every-other-night schedule. If tolerated, the dose can be slowly increased.

Slow up-titration of all topical agents in skin of color, not just superficial chemical peels, is prudent, according to Alexis. For patients new to retinoids, he also recommended every-other-night dosing to avoid the irritation that might exacerbate PIH. He said the risks of adverse reactions come early. "We need to hold the hands of our patients through the first 2 weeks. Warn of dryness and pealing. Recommend moisturizers and keep the doses low."

The benefits and risks of acne treatment are different in dark relative to light skin, Alexis emphasized. He added that a measured approach that includes specific strategies for PIH delivers results.

Providing treatment with a strategy that addresses both acne and PIH, he said, "we can have excellent outcomes time and time again for acne in patients with darker skin types."

There is an evidence basis for making effective treatment of PIH a specific goal in the treatment of acne. In a study that evaluated the psychosocial impact of PIH in 50 patients with acne, 54% responded that PIH was a source of embarrassment. The study was one of the first to evaluate the impact of PIH as a separate source of impaired quality of life in acne patients.

"To improve the patient"s quality of life, the dermatologist should treat acne and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation at the same time," said Katlein Franca, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology, University of Miami.

In particular, Franca, who led the PIH study, suggested that PIH, like acne, is a source of low self-esteem. In regard to PIH, "most patients feel embarrassed about the spots," she said in an interview.

"Strategies to hide the hyperpigmented spots include the use of makeup and even different hairstyles to cover the affected areas," she added, indicating that treatments provided to clear PIH as well as acne can remove a source of stress and threat to a sense of well-being.

Alexis reports financial relationships with many pharmaceutical companies, including those that make acne drugs.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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