Are There Birth Control Pills That Help with Acne?
Birth control pills, also known as oral contraceptives or “the pill,” are a common form of hormonal birth control. Birth control pills have been studied for over 50 years, and were approved by the FDA for contraceptive use in 1960. Since then, the pill has become one of the most convenient, popular, and accessible methods of birth control, and is designed to work effectively for a variety of body types. For many years, doctors have been prescribing birth control pills for acne in women of all ages.
To find out if birth control pills that help with acne may be right for you, it is important to understand what causes acne in the first place and how birth control pills work to fight it.
Who Gets Acne?
Both men and women usually develop acne at some point in their lives, especially during puberty. Males tend to have more severe forms of acne than females, but male acne is more likely to disappear when puberty ends. In some women, acne will flare up during puberty and improve once adulthood arrives. In others, acne can be a persistent problem all the way through adulthood, and even through menopause. This article will discuss acne in females to better explain how birth control pills and acne are related.
What is Acne?
Acne is a skin disorder that appears most commonly on the face, back, neck and shoulders. Acne appears when increased levels of sebum are produced, which generates an oily substance under the skin that can block skin pores. The result is the uncomfortable pimples and acne outbreaks that form on the surface of the skin.
What Causes Acne in Women?
Many different factors can lead to acne outbreaks in females.
- Puberty – During puberty, a girl’s body generates new hormones, known as androgens, which include testosterone. Androgens cultivate an increase in sebum, which can lead to higher bacteria levels on the surface of the skin, and ultimately more acne.
- Natural cycles – More so than in men, acne in women is usually cyclical, meaning that it worsens during specific times in a woman’s menstrual cycle and will get better on its own. Hormonal changes throughout a woman’s cycle can create more androgens and less estrogen, which are usually the root cause of acne. Acne that forms around the chin and jawbone are often directly linked to hormonal changes and imbalances.
- Diet – While diet may not be the root cause of acne, a poor diet can also exacerbate acne symptoms and outbreaks. Eating foods high in oil, sugar, and fats can worsen acne. Fresh fruits and vegetables and foods high in water content can help improve acne during an outbreak.
- Medicine – Some medicines can cause acne to flare up. Talk to your doctor about the side effects of any medication you are taking if you are concerned that it will make your acne worse.
- Stress – High levels of stress may worsen acne outbreaks. There is no direct scientific correlation, but often a woman’s diet, sleeping schedule, and exercise regimen will change when she is under stress, which in turn can exacerbate the symptoms of acne.
- Make-Up – Some types of make-up -especially concealer and foundation that have a lot of contact with the skin- can clog pores and make acne worse. Make sure you thoroughly remove all make-up before going to bed to avoid clogging your pores. Some make-ups are better designed than others to let the skin “breathe.”
- Genetics – If women in your family have struggled with acne, you may be predisposed to deal with it, as well.
Speak to your healthcare provider about how acne affects your life, to see if birth control pills that help with acne may be right for you.
How Do Birth Control Pills Work?
There are dozens of varieties of birth control pills available with a prescription from a healthcare provider. All birth control pills contain varying levels of hormones, which are released into a woman’s body to prevent pregnancy. The main functions of the hormones in birth control pills are to halt ovulation, which prevents the release of an egg, and to thicken the mucus surrounding the cervix, which keeps sperm cells from reaching the eggs. Birth control pills work by minimizing the chances of fertilization, which thus reduce the risk of pregnancy.
The hormones in birth control pills can have other effects on a woman’s body. The most common are:
- Breast tenderness
- Spotting/Light, bleeding not during a menstrual cycle
- Temporary weight gain
*If these symptoms persist for more than one to two months, contact your physician.
The benefits of birth control pills are being explored now more than ever. Benefits include:
- Reduced risk of ovarian cancer
- Improvement in acne
- Fewer symptoms associated with pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Less chance of bone thinning
It is always important to note that no brand of birth control pills protects against sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), and thus you should use an appropriate barrier form of birth control (such as female or male condoms) to protect yourself against the spread of infections and diseases.
Birth control pills must be taken on a daily basis as prescribed to ensure the consistent release of hormones throughout a woman’s cycle. The side effects of birth control pills vary with each type and brand.
Types of Birth Control Pills
There are two main types of birth control pills:
- Combination pills
- Progestin-only or “minipills”
Combination pills contain both of the hormones progestin and estrogen. Both of these hormones work together to lower the level of androgens (those nasty acne-activating hormones) in a woman’s body. Currently, there are only three brands of combination birth control pills for acne in women. In fact, doctors do not recommend progestin-only pills for the treatment of acne in women, as hormone pills that lack estrogen can exacerbate acne and make outbreaks worse.
This variety of birth control pills is very common and is available three main forms:
- 28-day packs – 21 “active” pills (contain hormones) and 7 “inactive” or sugar pills (do not contain hormones)
- 21-day packs – all “active” pills (contain hormones)
- Extended cycle packs – usually contain 84 “active” pills and 7 “inactive” pills
The levels of hormones contained in these pills vary throughout the month to help your body prevent pregnancy most effectively.
When using either the 28- or 21-day packs of combination birth control pills, you will still have a monthly menstrual cycle. Different brands of birth control pills offer different quantities of hormones, and can affect the flow, timing, and side effects associated with your monthly period. When using extended-cycle packs, your period will only come four times a year. Other methods will completely eliminate your period, and require taking an active dosage pill every day continuously. Your doctor can help you decide if these options are appropriate for you.
What is the Best Birth Control Pill for Acne?
The three brands of combination birth control pills approved by the FDA and prescribed solely to treat acne are:
- Estrostep – This combination pill includes estrogen as well as norethindrone, which is the main ingredient in most progestin-only pills. These pills come in 28-day packs. The amount of estrogen in each pill can be adjusted to help combat the oil-producing hormones that cause acne. Pharmacists recommend waiting several months to see the acne-fighting effects of Estrostep.
- Ortho Tri-Cyclen – This pill also comes in 28-day packs and is a combination of estrogen and a synthetic version of progestin called norgestimate. Your doctor can manipulate the quantity of norgestimate in each pill, which blocks the production of androgens, and has been proven to treat adult acne.
- YAZ – YAZ is one of the most common combination birth control pills used today. YAZ comes in a 28-day pack (with 24 active pills and 4 inactive pills) It contains estrogen and drospirenone, another synthetic version of progestin. YAZ addresses hormonal acne outbreaks by moderating the amount of androgens that your body produces. Women who take YAZ report blood clots slightly more often than women who take other birth control pills for acne.
Are Birth Control Pills for Acne Right for You?
To be eligible to use birth control pills that help with acne, you should:
- Be at least 14-15 years old
- Be able to take oral contraceptives (ie. you are not currently pregnant)
- Have already entered puberty (started menstruating)
- Be willing to adhere to the schedule of taking daily oral contraceptive pills
Speaking with your doctor is the best way to determine which is the best birth control for acne for your body and lifestyle.
Other Acne Treatments
If you and your doctor decide that taking a form of birth control pill for acne is the best choice for you, you may consider complementing this method with other acne treatments. Using over the counter acne treatments like salicylic acid, toners, and cleansers may help reduce your acne outbreaks. While birth control addresses hormonal acne, these other therapies may help address environmental and stress-related acne outbreaks. Staying hydrated, eating well, and being active are the best ways to fuel the fight against acne!
It can take several months for birth control pills to combat your acne issues. In fact, in the first month as your body adjusts to the introduction of hormones, you may experience more severe outbreaks. These effects should dissipate as your body gets used to the pills. If any side effects persist for longer than two months, contact your doctor to discuss your expectations of your birth control pills.
How PlushCare Works
In today’s age of unpredictable waiting rooms and swamped doctors, online services like PlushCare save you time and stress. All of our visits with patients are confidential and convenient and require as little as a phone or video consultation.
We are able to help with various concerns, including birth control, and work with local pharmacies to make sure you get your prescription quickly and efficiently. Our team of medical professionals has extensive experience consulting with patients about their birth control options, including starting and prescribing birth control pills, changing birth control methods, and understanding how birth control interacts with your body. Book an appointment with a PlushCare here.
Read more in our Birth Control series: