Birth control has shown to be an effective treatment for women with mild, moderate, or severe acne. The hormones in certain birth control brands can help counteract the effects of acne-causing hormones in the body. However, there may be other side effects to consider and certain women who should not take these types of contraceptives. Learn more about how birth control can help control acne and how to find out whether these pills are a good match for your needs and your personal health history.
Androgens (male hormones), which are found in both men and women, stimulate the growth of skin, hair, and sebaceous glands. However, if the body produces too much of these hormones, or if the skin is more sensitive to the effects of androgens, extra sebum is produced. This will block the sebaceous glands and cause infections and inflammation in the skin, leading to the development of acne on the face, forehead, chest, shoulders, and/or upper back.
Hormonal production is usually the cause of acne in teens. Because androgen levels increase during puberty, acne is often associated with the teenage years. However, adults can get acne if their body continues to produce high levels of androgens.
Anti-Androgens to Stop Acne
Combination birth control pills contain estrogen and progesterone to prevent pregnancy. Since estrogen has an inhibitory effect on acne, theoretically all combination pills can be used to reduce breakouts. Since combination birth control pills also deliver a more consistent level of hormones in the body, they may also be able to reduce PMS/menstrual-related acne by alleviating the hormonal fluctuations that cause it.
Some combination pills contain an anti-androgenic progestins that may reduce acne by counteracting the production of male hormones. Androgens can contribute to acne by increasing the production of sebum in the skin, which can cause breakouts to develop. By counteracting those hormones, the anti-androgens in some birth control pills can help minimize acne symptoms.
It can take some time to see any results after starting hormonal treatment for acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you’ll need to take the pill for two to three months before you see any results. It’s best to wait at least 90 days before trying other birth control pills since your body needs time to adapt to the additional hormones that are being introduced.
Also, keep in mind that your skin may initially break out more when you start taking a new birth control pill. That’s because your skin may react to the progesterone, resulting in a pseudo-testosterone effect, which causes breakouts. If your breakouts don’t start to lessen after a few months, talk to your doctor about other birth control options for treating acne.
Other Possible Causes of Acne
It’s important to keep in mind that birth control pills containing an anti-androgen may not result in clear skin. That’s because not all acne breakouts are caused by hormones. Some medications, including testosterone, corticosteroids, and lithium, may contribute to acne breakouts. Wearing greasy makeup can also clog the pores and cause acne to develop. In some cases, acne is hereditary.
While stress doesn’t cause acne, it can make it worse. Other factors, like pollution, high humidity, and skin irritation can also contribute to more severe acne. If acne tends to develop in one area, consider possible irritants like pressure from tight collars, backpacks, or bike helmets.
Acne-Fighting Birth Control Brands
Four birth control pill brands have been approved by the FDA to treat acne:
There are a number of birth control pill brands that may help reduce acne breakouts, including:
- Junel Fe 1/20
- Microgestin FE 1.5/30
- Necon 0.5/35
- Norgestimate-Ethinyl Estradiol
- Pirmella 1/35
- Pirmella 7/7/7
Studies have found that contraceptive pills can reduce the appearance of inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne. Though it can take several months for the results to appear, the effects are typically noticeable.
Possible Side Effects to Consider
As with any medication, there are possible side effects when taking birth control pills to treat acne. Therefore, it’s important to know what they are. Side effects that may result from taking these pills include the following:
- Breast tenderness
- Breakthrough bleeding or spotting
- Elevated blood pressure
- Deep vein thrombosis
Because there are so many brands from which to choose, you should discuss your options with your healthcare provider. Each pill has a variety of benefits and potential side effects to be considered before you select the one you’ll take to try to combat acne.
Who Should Not Take Birth Control for Acne?
Some people won’t be able to take birth control pills to treat their acne due to their age, lifestyle, or personal health history. For example, you should not take combination birth control pills if you:
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Are a smoker over age 35.
- Have high blood pressure that’s not under control.
- Have migraines with aura.
- Have a history of certain health conditions, such as blood clots, stroke, heart disease, or breast cancer.
- Have complications from diabetes.
- Will be immobilized due to surgery or other health complications.
Be sure to discuss your health history in detail when talking to your medical provider about taking combination birth control pills to reduce acne breakouts. You may need to consider alternative acne treatments if the pill is not a good fit for you.
Additional Ways to Fight Acne
There are a number of things you can do to help treat your acne. If you’re taking birth control to reduce breakouts, be sure to take your birth control pills at the same time every day. This schedule is required for the best pregnancy protection, but it will also deliver steady amounts of medication to combat high androgen levels in your body.
You can also pursue other acne-fighting treatments to reduce breakouts even further. Consider using over-the-counter products containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. You can visit a dermatologist to inquire about topical prescription treatments that kill bacteria or reduce oil. There are certain antibiotics like minocycline, which help to reduce inflammation and prevent bacteria growth. Laser therapy, light therapy, chemical peels, and other dermatological procedures may also be used to treat acne.
If you’re currently taking birth control to reduce acne breakouts, follow these skin care tips to get the best results:
- Wash your face with gentle cleansers.
- Don’t scrub or pick at your skin.
- Avoid touching your face throughout the day.
- Shampoo daily to prevent oily hair from worsening your breakouts.
- Protect your skin from sun damage.