If you’re dealing with acne, birth control may help treat it. The synthetic hormones found in some birth control pills can help decrease the secretion of oil from your glands. This can actually lessen breakouts. The ingredients in birth control pills can vary, so you should make sure that your medication contains the right mix of hormones.

Birth Control 101

There are many types of birth control available. The birth control pill is one common form of birth control. The birth control pill contains synthetic hormones that prevent the sperm from fertilizing an egg. These pills can:

  • stop the ovaries from releasing an egg
  • change the consistency of cervical mucus to make it harder for sperm to reach the egg
  • alter the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation

Several birth control pills contain the hormones estrogen and progestin. This type of pill is known as the combination pill. The ratio of estrogen and progestin differ in each type of combination pill. Other birth control pills contain only progestin and are sometimes referred to as minipills.

The birth control pill can offer additional benefits. Those on birth control may experience:

  • lighter, more regular periods
  • fewer menstrual cramps
  • a reduced risk of certain cancers, including ovary, uterus, and colon cancers
  • improved acne

Birth control pills aren’t the only form of contraception available, and you should talk to your doctor about the best option for you. Birth control pills don’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You should consider using a barrier method, such as a condom, to protect against STIs.

Acne 101

Acne is a source of skin irritation that can range from mild to severe. It’s often caused by an increase in the male hormone androgen. This hormone is present in women and becomes active in the teenage years for both men and women. Androgen causes sebaceous glands to produce more oil, or sebum. Acne can manifest in a variety of forms, including:

  • whiteheads
  • blackheads
  • small red, tender bumps
  • pimples
  • nodules
  • cystic lesions

Women can get acne from:

  • hormonal changes during puberty and adulthood
  • medications
  • makeup
  • pressure or rubbing on the skin

Having a family history of acne can make you more prone to getting acne.

Treatment for acne depends on its severity and your reaction to different methods. The first line of treatment includes over-the-counter options, such as cleansers, lotions, and other topical treatments. If your acne doesn’t clear up with these basic methods, you should talk to your doctor about prescription-based options. These include both topical and pill-based medications in the form of antibiotics, retinoids, and others. The birth control pill is an acne treatment option for women.

Read more: Stress and acne: Is there a connection? »

Acne and Birth Control

The hormones present in combination birth control pills can combat acne. This is because the pill decreases circulating androgens, which decreases the production of sebum. The pills must contain both estrogen and progestin to be effective against acne. The minipill only contains progestin, so it doesn’t improve acne.

Many combination birth control pill brands are available. Each contains its own variation of hormones. Pills prescribed for acne should contain progestin with low androgenic possibility.

Most combined birth control pills are equally effective in helping acne breakouts. A recent study by the Cochrane Group looked at 31 trials involving the use of birth control as an acne treatment. After looking at six new trials, the authors concluded that all combination birth control pills treated noninflammatory and inflammatory acne.

The study also suggested there was slight evidence that combination birth control pills containing drospirenone were more effective than those that contained norgestimate or nomegestrol acetate plus 17 beta-estradiol. Combination pills containing drospirenone were then found to be less effective than those containing cyproterone acetate. This distinction isn’t significant enough to favor one type of combined birth control over another, though. PubMed Health concluded in a summary of this study that any claims that one pill can lead to better skin than another should be taken with caution.

If you take combination birth control pills to improve acne, it may take weeks or months before you notice a visible improvement. This is because the hormones need time to get into your system and recalibrate your levels.

Read more: Learn how to reduce pimple redness »

Side Effects of the Birth Control Pill

If you’re prescribed a birth control pill to treat acne, you should be aware of the pill’s side effects.

Some side effects of birth control pills include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • bloating
  • weight gain
  • weight loss
  • changes in your period
  • headaches
  • breast tenderness
  • dizziness
  • fainting

Serious side effects of birth control include deep vein thrombosis, heart attack, and stroke. Those who smoke, are older than 35, and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease are at a higher risk of these severe side effects.

Outlook

Talk to your doctor about what acne treatment might be best for you. A combination birth control pill may be a good option. According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, birth control can be a first-line alternative to antibiotics in the long-term treatment of acne in women. If you’re unable to find a suitable birth control pill that meets your needs, your doctor should be able to help you find another option for treatment.