How Birth Control Affects Acne

Medically reviewed by Nicole Galan, RN on February 3, 2016Written by Natalie Silver on February 3, 2016

If you have acne that can’t be managed with topical treatments alone, you may be wondering what else to try. For women, birth control can be an option for treating acne because it regulates hormones that cause breakouts.

Birth Control Pill Basics

Oral contraceptives, commonly known as birth control pills, are medications that prevent pregnancy. Birth control pills contain the hormones estrogen and progestin. These hormones prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg and change the lining of the uterus. Women who take birth control pills can have monthly menstrual cycles or cycles every 12 weeks, depending on the type of pill.

Common side effects of hormonal birth control can include:

  • nausea
  • weight gain
  • sore or swollen breasts
  • spotting between periods
  • lighter periods
  • mood changes

Birth control pills may increase your risk for other conditions. More serious side effects may be a sign of a complication. These side effects can include:

  • abdominal pain
  • chest pain
  • headaches
  • blurred vision
  • swelling of the legs or thighs

If you experience any of these symptoms while taking birth control, contact your doctor immediately.

Birth Control and Acne

Birth control use and acne breakouts are linked, but in most cases it’s for positive reasons. One of the main causes of acne is the presence of male hormones, particularly androgens. Androgens are found in both men and women. These hormones are very active during puberty, which is one of the reasons acne is so common in the teenage population. Acne occurs in 70 to 87 percent of teenagers.

Acne occurs when androgens increase the size of the sebum glands and increase oil secretion. Oil and dead skin cells trap hair follicles. This can result in the following:

  • whiteheads
  • blackheads
  • pimples
  • other painful sores on or under the skin’s surface

Should You Pop Your Pimples?

Acne occurs commonly on certain parts of the body, such as the:

  • face
  • shoulders
  • back
  • chest

What Causes Acne?

Although fluctuating hormone levels in adolescence are a main contributor to acne, adults of all ages can experience it. Other causes of acne include:

  • medications
  • diet
  • stress
  • hormone changes around the menstrual cycle
  • tight clothing and headgear
  • weather conditions, such as high humidity

How Is Acne Treated?

Acne can range in severity. Mild cases of acne may require only over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. Moderate and more severe cases of acne may need prescriptions from your doctor.

Treatments for acne vary and can include:

  • OTC options such as gentle cleansers and oil-free lotions
  • prescribed topical medications, including creams, lotions, or other ointments containing antibiotics or retinoids
  • prescribed oral medications, including antibiotics, birth control for women, and isotretinoin
  • light therapy
  • chemical peels
  • injectable treatments

You may find that one or a combination of these treatments work to alleviate your acne.

How to Reduce Pimple Redness

Birth Control as Acne Treatment

Birth control can be used as an acne treatment in women because it controls hormones. This means that it can reduce the amount of acne-causing androgens in the body. Over time, this can result in clearer skin. If you experience acne breakouts near your menstrual cycle, birth control pills may help.

Birth control pills that combine estrogen and progestin are helpful in treating acne in women and adolescent girls. Some birth control pills that include this combination are:

  • Ortho Tri-Cyclen
  • Estrostep Fe
  • Yaz

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says that when prescribing a birth control pill to treat acne, a pill with low androgens should be prescribed. Qualifying birth control options include:

  • Norlutin
  • Aygestin
  • Zovia
  • Ortho-Cyclen

When using birth control pills to treat acne, you should expect it to take a few months before your skin clears.

A recent study by the Cochrane Fertility Regulation Group reviewed 31 research reports on birth control and acne. It examined the effectiveness of birth control in treating acne and concluded that the hormonal birth control pills studied effectively treat acne for the most part.

Birth Control Pills vs. Antibiotics

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology compared the effectiveness of antibiotics and birth control pills in treating acne. The study concluded that at six months of treatment, birth control pills are equivalent to antibiotic treatments for acne. As such, birth control pills may be a better first-line treatment for women than antibiotics.

Deciding What’s Right for You

Birth control pills can be an effective way to control acne. If you’re looking to treat acne and take a contraceptive, the birth control pill may be for you. Be informed of the side effects of the pill, and be aware of how your body responds to it. Talk to your doctor about alternative treatments if you experience moderate or severe side effects from your birth control pill.

Birth control isn’t the only method for treating acne. You can explore other options if you aren’t interested in taking a birth control pill. Talking to your doctor can help you determine various treatment plans for acne.

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