Most women get acne, typically starting when they are teenagers, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Because hormone fluctuations often drive acne, women can suffer from the skin disorder in adulthood when they become pregnant or if they have other hormonal changes. While women often find that conventional acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide work well to clear lesions, they also have another treatment choice: birth control pills.
Pimples erupt when the skin’s sebaceous glands, which make the skin’s lubricating sebum oil, produce too much sebum, according to the Mayo Clinic. This skin oil, combined with dead skin cells shed from the skin’s surface, clogs the skin’s pores. Acne-causing bacteria, which lives on the skin, then over-proliferates in this oily environment, causing infection and inflammation. When hormones play a role in acne, it’s because the androgen hormones (male hormones such as testosterone) overstimulate the sebaceous gland.
Meanwhile, female hormones, which include estrogen, can balance androgen hormones, according to the AAD. Birth control pills that also are effective in acne treatment contain a combination of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. When women who suffer from androgen-driven acne begin to take birth control pills, they often find their acne lessens or clears up completely as the female hormones in the oral contraceptives counter the effects of their androgen hormones on the sebaceous glands.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three brands of birth control pills for treating acne: Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Yaz and Estrostep. However, there are literally dozens of different brand-name and generic oral contraceptives available on the market, and dermatologists are free to prescribe any birth control pill they want for acne treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Medical studies have shown that birth control pills work to curb acne. For example, one study, published in 2009 in the “Journal of Drugs for Dermatology,” followed 270 women with moderate facial acne who took oral contraceptives for six cycles, and compared those women to a control group given a placebo. The study found that the birth control pills significantly reduced acne lesions.
Birth control pills aren’t for everyone: Dermatologists generally caution women over 35, or those who smoke or have high blood pressure, to avoid them, according to the AAD. In addition, birth control pills only target one of the causes of acne–excess sebum–so won’t work well in every case. The AAD says that most dermatologists want to try other treatments, such as prescription-strength creams and lotions, before prescribing birth control pills for acne treatment. But for some women, birth control pills work like a charm to reduce their acne lesions.