Acne is a source of skin irritation that can range from mild to severe. It’s often caused by an increase in androgens, which are male sex hormones.
Androgens are present in women and become active in the teenage years for both men and women. They cause sebaceous glands to produce more sebum, or oil.
If you’re a woman who has 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.
The birth control pill contains synthetic hormones that prevent the sperm from fertilizing an egg. It does this by:
- stopping the ovaries from releasing an egg
- changing the consistency of cervical mucus to make it harder for sperm to reach the egg
- altering the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation
Several birth control pills contain synthetic forms of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These types of pills are known as combination pills. The ratio of the hormones differs in each form of the combination pill.
Other birth control pills only contain progestin, the synthetic form of progesterone. They’re sometimes referred to as minipills.
The birth control pill can offer a variety of benefits. Those on birth control may experience:
- lighter, more regular periods
- fewer menstrual cramps
- a reduced risk of certain cancers, including ovarian, uterine, and colon cancers
- improved acne
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The hormones in combination birth control pills can help reduce acne. The pills decrease the circulation of 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. This means the progestin has less androgenic side effects, such as oily skin and acne.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the following pills for use in the treatment of acne:
- Beyaz, which combines drospirenone, ethinyl estradiol, and levomefolate calcium
- Estrostep Fe, which combines norethindrone acetate, ethinyl estradiol, and ferrous fumarate
- Ortho Tri-Cyclen, which combines norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol
- Yaz, which combines drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol
However, other combination pills that aren’t on this list may still help to improve acne.
Most combined birth control pills are equally effective in helping acne breakouts. A 2012 review by Cochrane Reviews 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.
In a summary of this study, the concluded that any claims that one pill can lead to better skin than another should be taken with caution.
A 2018 review confirmed that all of the different hormones in combination birth control pills are effective in reducing inflammation of acne.
Acne can manifest in a variety of forms, including:
Women can get acne from:
- hormonal changes during puberty and adulthood
- rubbing or placing pressure on the skin
Having a family history of acne can also make you more prone to getting acne.
If you’re prescribed a birth control pill to treat acne, you should be aware of the pill’s side effects.
Side effects of birth control pills may include:
- stomach cramps
- weight gain
- weight loss
- changes in your period
- breast tenderness
Serious side effects of birth control include deep vein thrombosis (DVT), heart attack, and stroke. People who smoke, are older than 35, and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease are at a higher risk of these severe side effects.
Treatment for acne depends on its severity and your reaction to different methods. The first line of treatment includes over-the-counter (OTC) options, such as cleansers, lotions, and other topical treatments.
Prescription-based options include both topical and pill-based medications in the form of antibiotics, retinoids, and others.
If your acne doesn’t clear up with basic OTC methods, you should 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 take combination birth control pills to improve acne, it may take anywhere from a few weeks to 2 to 3 months before you notice a visible improvement. This is because the hormones need time to get into your system and recalibrate your levels.
If you’re unable to find a suitable birth control pill that meets your needs, your doctor can help you find another treatment option.