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A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan

Know Your Options for Getting Clear Skin

By Paula Chiarino
November 5, 2021
Health & Beauty

Has your skin suffered during the pandemic, too? For many, maskne—acne developed from the use of masks—has become a serious issue. And now that masks are here to stay, it’s time to address it.

Even before masks damaged our skin barrier to protect us from a deadly virus, acne was already a widespread affliction with no single cure. If you’ve had skin troubles over the past months, there are treatments available.

Breakouts may become more serious, difficult to clear and leave scars if left untreated. Here are some of the options for treating acne in Japan.

Waking up to a pimple: drugstore skincare

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by Paula Chiarino

Pimples appear at inconvenient times. To get rid of a pimple fast, you could head to the drugstore. Go past the miraculous serums and patches that falsely promise to make your pimple disappear in a few hours, and head to the pharmacy area instead. There, next to the plethora of topical ointments for skin dryness and itchiness, you’ll find a somewhat limited array of products for acne.

The products available, however, are generally formulated with effective ingredients proven to kill bacteria, reduce inflammation and prevent infection, such as ibuprofen piconol, resorcinol and isopropyl methylphenol.

Do these sound strangely unfamiliar? These ingredients are not commonly found in most over-the-counter skin care products overseas, while Western favorites like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are usually not included in Japanese products. However, all of them do the trick.

While drugstore skin care may help you get an occasional pimple under control, more serious or persistent cases require care from professionals.

When in doubt: visit a dermatologist

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by iStock

After a few breakouts, over-the-counter products may begin to fall short. Perhaps you notice that the affected area has expanded, or you feel that the product you’re using simply may not be what you need. You may start to wonder whether it’s just a rash, a hormonal breakout or something more serious.

It’s time for a doctor’s diagnosis. A visit to the dermatologist can also be a good time to get your yearly skin check-up for moles and dark spots.

Dermatologists in Japan are open and flexible, and they know that skincare is different in the West. For that reason, you should be specific about any treatments you’ve received before as well as any you’d like to try and establish your budget. Doctors are usually interested in your history and preferences, and will gladly take your ideas into account.

Doctors will usually opt for one of the following paths:

  •   Medical skincare
A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by Paula Chiarino

Medical skincare is dermatologist-tested and usually stays away from skin irritants, like fragrance or alcohol. It is sold over-the-counter and is usually targeted to sensitive skin with specific conditions.

La Roche Posay and Bioderma, for example, are well-known medical skincare brands trusted by dermatologists around the world. In Japan, however, most medical skincare falls under the realms of one brand: NOV.

A Japanese brand developed by dermatologists in 1985, NOV formulates and products that are hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. Unlike pricey medical skincare from overseas, NOV is a middle-ranged option (think ¥2200 sunscreen) that can be easily found in most cosmetic stores in Japan.

NOV sells three different product lines dedicated to acne, so your doctor will probably identify an NOV product worth incorporating into your skincare routine.

  •   Antibiotics (oral and topical)
A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by Paula Chiarino

If your skin does not respond to an over-the-counter skincare routine, you may become a candidate for either oral or topical antibiotics.

Antibiotics are sold under medical prescription and are, in most cases, covered by health insurance. Adapalene gel was the first topical antibiotic to be covered by insurance in Japan. Like most retinoid treatments, it can have adverse side effects, including skin dryness and flakiness. However, if your doctor believes it’s right for you, applying adapalene on the affected area could reduce inflammation and scarring for a moderate price tag.

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by Paula Chiarino

Despite its popularity overseas, Adapalene is not the most frequently indicated treatment in Japan, where many doctors recommend Japanese products instead. A popular alternative is Zebiax lotion, which contains ozenoxacin, a drug with similar properties to adapalene.

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by iStock

If your doctor determines oral antibiotics to be the best option for you, you will visit them often to track your progress and to receive your next batch of medication—you’re usually given about a month’s worth of treatment at a time. Commonly prescribed oral antibiotics in Japan include minocycline, roxithromylin and metronidazole.

Searching for specifics: skin clinics specialized in acne

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by iStock

Compared to general dermatology clinics, specialized skin clinics in Japan offer a wider array of services, like BHA chemical peelings, laser therapy, photo facials and oral retinoids like isotretinoin, to name a few.

Most of the services offered in these clinics are not covered by health insurance, though. Additionally, some charge a considerable fee not just for consultations but also for having you do a preliminary check-up or blood test. Make sure to inquire about costs before scheduling your first visit.

Despite their often hefty cost, these clinics can help patients who are looking for a specific treatment or for those who want to see results fast.

Just for fun: the beauty salon

A Complete Guide to Treating Acne in Japan© Photo by iStock

If you want to pamper yourself and improve your skin texture, visiting a beauty salon may be the relaxing and invigorating experience you’re looking for.

Beauty salon services like micro-needling and facial spas render mostly cosmetic improvements and will in no way cure a skin disorder, but they may help you clear your mind as well as your skin, a win-win situation as long as your doctor approves of it.

The takeaway: Getting a tailored treatment

Acne affects the quality of life of many and is underestimated by most. If your skin is making you uneasy, reach out to a doctor. Treating acne, as challenging as it is everywhere in the world, can be affordable and effective in Japan.

If your skin is making you uneasy, reach out to a doctor.

You can trust doctors and specialists to take your concerns seriously and suggest a course of action based on your lifestyle and needs.



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