Adult Acne & Birth Control
Most women get acne as teenagers; the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that acne, the nation's most common skin condition, affects between 40 million and 50 million people each year, most of them in their teen years. But adult women can suffer from pimples as well, and because adult acne often is driven by hormone fluctuations or changes, women have a hormonal option for clearing their skin: birth control pills.
According to the Mayo Clinic, three main factors combine to form acne: excess oil production, shedding of dead skin cells and bacterial infection. Glands below the skin's surface normally produce skin oil, called sebum. If these glands produce too much sebum, the excess oil can combine with dead skin cells and form soft white plugs in pores at the skin's surface. The pore swells into a pimple. The excess oil provides a favorable place for acne-causing bacteria to grow, leading to infection and additional inflammation in acne-prone skin.
Hormones play a role in sebum production, the AAD says. If your body has too high a level of "male" androgen hormones such as testosterone, your glands will produce too much sebum. If, however, your androgen hormones are balanced properly with estrogen and progesterone, both considered "female" hormones, your oil-producing glands will slow down their sebum production. That's where birth control pills come in. When used for acne control, birth control pills balance hormonal levels, which ultimately calms the sebum-producing glands and leads to fewer pimples.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three brands of oral contraceptives specifically for acne treatment. These include Estrostep, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and Yaz. However, dermatologists and other physicians are free to use any brand or generic version of oral contraceptives they prefer as acne treatment, and so your prescription may be written for a different product if your doctor has found it's effective in controlling acne.
Once you start birth control pills, acne may take up to six months to dissipate. One medical study, published in the journal "Clinical Drug Investigations" in 2008, looked at oral contraceptives as acne treatment in 44 adult women. Participants began to see acne clearing after three months of oral contraceptive treatment, and they saw more improvements, including smaller pores and fewer acne lesions, after their sixth month of treatment.
The AAD warns that some adult women who take birth control pills to control their acne may see their complexions worsen before their acne begins to clear. In addition, oral contraceptives aren't appropriate for every woman, and dermatologists may be reluctant to prescribe them for smokers, for women over age 35 and for women who have high blood pressure. And because birth control pills only fight one cause of acne--the excess sebum--you may need to try an additional acne treatment, such as a medicated skin cream, in addition to birth control pills to fully clear your skin.
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