What Is the Actual Relapse Rate of Accutane (isotretinoin)?

Isotretinoin Does Not Always Achieve a Long-term Result

What Is the Actual Relapse Rate of Accutane (Isotretinoin)?

Article Summary

Isotretinoin, though effective, is not a cure for acne. Relapse rates following isotretinoin treatment vary between 14.6% to 52% and are higher than scientists previously believed. Several factors, including male gender, more severe acne, hormonal imbalance, and lower treatment dosages increase the likelihood of acne relapse.

Isotretinoin also comes with numerous and sometimes severe and long-term side effects. Before considering isotretinoin, it is important to completely understand the research regarding the chance of relapse and to speak with a medical professional to determine if you are a good candidate for isotretinoin treatment. 


Accutane (isotretinoin) is a highly effective acne treatment. This effectiveness has led many to believe that isotretinoin acts as a cure for even the most severe acne. Research, however, has shown that 14.6% to 52% of patients experience a relapse of acne after undergoing isotretinoin therapy. 

Chance of Relapse After Taking Accutane
When we look at 15 studies from 1989 through 2013 that look at acne relapse after isotretinoin, we can see this relapse range of 14.6 - 52%. The reason there is such a wide range is because of different study designs and definitions of exactly what "relapse" means. Some people may not report a relapse of their acne because their acne is improved compared to how it was before isotretinoin therapy, and therefore, they do not consider themselves to have "bad acne" like they did before they took isotretinoin, even though their acne did come back to a lesser degree.

Factors That Increase Relapse after Isotretinoin Treatment

Several factors may increase the rate of relapse in patients treated with isotretinoin. These include:

  • Severity of acne: people with more severe acne, and acne on the body, relapse more frequently
  • Treatment dosage: people receiving lower dosages relapse more frequently
  • Taking isotretinoin with food: Isotretinoin is much better absorbed when taken with an adequate amount of dietary fat. People who take isotretinoin without a meal that contains an adequate amount of fat may not absorb as much medication.
  • Hormonal imbalances (especially in women): women with hormonal imbalances relapse more often 
  • Gender: males relapse more often than females

Factors Affecting Acne Relapse Rate After Accutane (isotretinoin) Treatment
Here are the studies that show us how these factors can increase the chances of relapse after isotretinoin treatment:

Expand to read details of studies on factors that increase chances of relapse 

British Journal of Dermatology

A 1993 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology studied 88 patients for relapse during a nine-year period following isotretinoin treatment. There were 27 patients who relapsed during the 9 years, with 96% of those relapses occurring during the first 3 years. The researchers also reported that patients who had back or chest acne, severe acne, and who took a lower isotretinoin dose relapsed more frequently. However, this study did not find a correlation between gender or age and relapse rates.4


A 2006 review published in Dermatology mentioned 2 studies that researched the relapse rate after isotretinoin therapy. They found that younger age, male gender, more severe acne, and hormonal imbalances (especially in women) were correlated with higher relapse rates. Of all patients studied, 29% to 39% of patients relapsed, with 12% never achieving clear skin even while using isotretinoin.5


A 2009 article published in Dermatoendocrinology described the effectiveness of isotretinoin to treat acne. The authors stated that “males with extensive [body] acne, more severe acne, and/or suffering from acne for less than seven years fail to respond as well as and relapse more quickly that female patients with predominately facial acne of a less severe grade.” This means that males with more severe acne are more likely to relapse than females with less severe acne.6

International Journal of Dermatology

A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Dermatology investigated the relapse of acne following isotretinoin treatment in 96 patients who either had, or did not have, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a disease of the ovaries that leads to excess male hormones in women. The researchers found that out of the 24 patients who relapsed, 18 had PCOS. Therefore, they concluded that hormonal disorders, like PCOS, affect the relapse rate of isotretinoin.7

Studies that identified the factors of treatment dosage and taking isotretinoin with food with relapse

A collection of seven studies published in various journals between 1983 and 1998 found that increasing the dose of isotretinoin decreased the rate of acne relapse. However, each study compared different daily and cumulative doses of isotretinoin during the treatment. These dosage inconsistencies prevent researchers from comparing the studies to identify which dosage of isotretinoin is optimal to reduce acne relapse rates.8-14

Do People Need Maintenance Therapy after Isotretinoin?

Often, dermatologists prescribe other acne medications as a maintenance therapy following isotretinoin treatment. Patients using a maintenance therapy may topically apply adapalene, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, or combinations of these medications to keep acne at bay. Scientists have found that continuing a maintenance therapy after isotretinoin is the best way to prevent an acne relapse. However, this points to the reality that to keep acne at bay after isotretinoin, ongoing medication may be required.


A 2012 study published in Dermatology Research and Practice observed 20 male patients for acne relapse following isotretinoin treatment. The researchers found that men using a maintenance therapy had, on average, 38.7 less acne lesions than men who did not use a maintenance therapy.18


A 2013 study published in Dermatology studied 70 patients with moderate acne to determine if a maintenance therapy prevented relapse after isotretinoin treatment. This study found that only 2.94% of patients experienced an acne relapse if they used adapalene and benzoyl peroxide daily for one year following isotretinoin treatment. Although this study did not look past one year, it still reported much lower rates of relapse than previous studies lacking a maintenance therapy.3

The Bottom Line 

Relapse after isotretinoin may be higher than people expect. While in many cases acne is reduced, in 14.6 to 52% of people, acne will return to some degree, necessitating ongoing maintenance therapy with other treatments. 

Since isotretinoin is such a serious medication that changes the skin and the rest of the body forever, and can come with lifelong side effects, it is vitally important that people with acne take all of these things into consideration before embarking on isotretinoin therapy. 

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The Experts at Acne.org

Our team of medical doctors, biology & chemistry PhDs, and acne experts work hand-in-hand with Dan (Acne.org founder) to provide the most complete information on all things acne. If you find any errors in this article, kindly use this Feedback Form and let us know.


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  16. Del Rosso JQ. “Face to face with oral isotretinoin: a closer look at the spectrum of therapeutic outcomes and why some patients need repeated courses.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 5(11), 17-24 (2012).
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