Birth Control Pills and Acne Treatment
Many women find they continue to suffer from acne even once they are out of their teen years, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Acne normally begins around age 11 or 12, as puberty starts, but pimples can plague adults in their 20s, 30s and, even, 40s, the AAD says. Oftentimes, acne in women is driven by hormone fluctuations. In these cases, women may find that birth control pills work well as acne treatment.
It is not entirely clear what causes acne, but hormones appear to play some role, notes the Mayo Clinic. Hormones known as androgens stimulate the skin's sebaceous glands to produce sebum, a thick oil that lubricates the skin. When the body has too much androgen circulating, the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum. The sebum then combines with dead skin cells to clog hair follicles at the surface of the skin, bacterial infection sets in, and acne results.
Birth control pills interfere with sebum production by balancing the androgen hormones (which are male-type hormones, such as testosterone) with the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, states the AAD. Fewer circulating androgen hormones and more circulating estrogen means less sebum, and less sebum means fewer clogged pores and less acne for women who use birth control pills as acne treatment.
Three birth control pills have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically as acne treatment: Yaz, Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Estrostep. All three combine small doses of both estrogen and progesterone. However, physicians are free to prescribe any oral contraceptive on the market, and some dermatologists have other brands or, even, generic birth control pills they prefer to use for acne treatment.
Medical studies generally back the use of birth control pills in acne treatment. For example, one study, published in the medical journal "Clinical Drug Investigations" in 2008, looked at 44 acne-prone women between the ages of 18 and 37 who took birth control pills for six months. The study found reduced acne lesions and smaller pores in women after they had been on birth control pills for six menstrual cycles, with positive changes beginning at the three-month mark.
Birth control pills effectively treat acne long-term, but dermatologists do not recommend them as the first line of treatment, because they only treat excess sebum production, not any of the other causes of acne, the AAD says. Because of this, birth control pill acne treatment often is combined with other treatments that target clogged pores and acne-causing bacteria. In addition, oral contraceptive side effects, while rare, can be serious, the AAD warns. Women who want to consider birth control pills as acne treatment should discuss their treatment options with their personal physician.
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