Birth Control Pills & Acne
There are a few ways that acne is formed. Blackheads and whiteheads can occur when overactive sebaceous glands block and clog pores. Dead skin cells also shed and clog the inside of pores where the hair follicle grows. Hormonal acne, a type of acne caused by menstruating, may not respond to typical acne treatments. In this situation, your doctor may recommend taking birth control pills to help regulate your hormones and prevent breakouts.
There are three birth control formulations that have been approved by the FDA for treatment of acne, ethinyl estradiol and norgestimate (brand name Ortho Tri-Cyclen), ethinyl estradiol and norethindrone (brand name Estrostep) and ethinyl estradiol and drospirenone (brand name Yaz). These medications combine the female sex hormones estrogen and progestin. The Office on Women's Health reports that, "sometimes, birth control pills are used along with a drug called spironolactone to treat acne in adult females. This medication lowers levels of the hormone androgen in the body. Androgen stimulates the skin's oil glands."
How It Works
Oral contraceptives reduce sebum, the oils that accumulate in the pores and cause inflammation. Because birth control pills only help control the oil-stimulating hormones, if you have acne caused by dead skin cells or bacteria in your pores, you won't see an improvement with oral contraceptives. That's why the Mayo Clinic recommends continuing to use benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid treatments.
It could take several weeks or months before you start noticing an improvement after starting birth control pills. Some people also report seeing their acne getting worse before seeing an improvement.
Like any medications, birth control pill can have side effects. Some people report having headaches, changes in menstruation, tenderness in the breasts, nausea, lower libido and depression. Oral contraceptives can also raise your risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, high potassium and blood clots, especially if you're over the age of 35 and smoke cigarettes.
Of course, if you are planning to get pregnant, you should not take birth control pills.
Who is At Risk
If you are over the age of 35 and smoke cigarettes, have a family history of cardiovascular disease; breast, uterine or liver cancer; or blood clots (called deep vein thrombosis), your doctor may suggest avoiding medications with estrogen and progestin, especially if you have a sister, mother or grandmother with these health problems. Your risk is lower if you have female cousins or other distant relatives with serious health conditions.
Men with severe acne will not benefit from taking oral contraceptives because the same hormones that cause breakouts in women do not affect them.
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