Contraceptives and Acne
Acne, the most common skin condition in the United States, affects mostly teenagers. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, known as the AAD, 85 percent of American teens will suffer from pimples each year. Most will treat their acne with over-the-counter topical treatments such as benzoyl peroxide, although some will seek prescription medications from their dermatologists. For women, oral contraceptives prescribed by a dermatologist may help treat their acne.
Hormones tend to drive acne. According to MayoClinic.com, hormonal surges and fluctuations common in teenagers and in adult women can overstimulate the skin's oil-producing glands, causing them to produce too much oil. This excess oil then irritates and clogs pores. Once these clogged pores form whiteheads and blackheads, bacterial infection often sets in, resulting in inflammation and acne lesions.
Oral contraceptives tend to calm these common hormonal fluctuations, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. When used to treat acne, oral contraceptives lead to less skin oil production, which helps to reduce the formation of new acne lesions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three brands of birth control pills specifically to treat acne: Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep and Yaz. However, other brands may work just as well, and a physician can make the determination as to what pill should be used.
Medical studies back the use of oral contraceptives to treat acne. In one study, published in the journal "Contraception" in 2009, researchers led by Dr. Gerd Plewig compared oral contraceptives to a placebo in acne treatment. About 40 percent of the women treated with oral contraceptives reported excellent improvement or complete resolution of their acne, and 70 percent said their improvement was "satisfactory." A study led by Dr. James M. Maloney, published in the "Journal of Drugs in Dermatology" in 2009, also reported significantly better results in the oral contraceptive group than in the placebo group.
Oral contraceptives won't clear acne overnight, or even within the first month of use. The AAD says that women taking them for acne should expect results after about three months. Before that, acne may even get worse. In addition, women may need to stay on oral contraceptives long-term, potentially for years, to keep their skin clear, and may need to supplement oral contraceptive acne treatment with a topical medication for the best results.
Oral contraceptives aren't an appropriate treatment for everyone. Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Lawrence E. Gibson warns that women over 35, smokers, or those with high blood pressure, migraines or a history of cancer should not take oral contraceptives. In addition, the medication can cause side effects that include headaches, changes in menstrual flow, breast tenderness, decreased libido and depression. Women with hormonally driven acne should consult with their physicians to determine if oral contraceptives can help them clear their pimples.
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