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Is Hormonal Contraception an Effective Acne Treatment?

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Updated June 10, 2014

Question: Is Hormonal Contraception an Effective Acne Treatment?

Acne, most commonly occurring on the face or shoulders, is a skin condition that causes whiteheads, blackheads and inflamed red lesions (papules, pustules, and cysts) to form. Androgens, the dominant sex hormones in men, can be responsible for these conditions. Women normally have low levels of androgens, but abnormally high levels of androgens can cause acne. Given that hormonal contraception can reduce the levels of free androgen in your system, certain combination birth control pills can be a very effective acne treatment.

Answer:

Over two-thirds of women living in the United States will use hormonal birth control (like the Pill) at sometime during their reproductive years. If you using this type of birth control, you may not even be aware of its noncontraceptive benefits. Certain hormonal contraceptives have been shown to be an effective acne treatment. It is important to note that women may react differently to specific contraception, so this information is intended as a general overview. Please keep in mind that hormonal contraception is meant to be used for birth control (to prevent an unintended pregnancy) -- potential noncontraceptive benefits can be considered when determining which hormonal birth control method to use.

The following is a list of various prescription birth control methods that have been shown to be a helpful acne treatment:

  • Combination OCs: All of these birth control pills have the potential to treat acne because they can reduce the levels of free androgen in your body (androgens initiate and maintain the acne and hair growth). Androgenic effects refer to the likelihood that the progestin (in contraception) may cause unpleasant side effects. Progestins with higher androgenic activity may increase the chances of androgen-related side effects like acne. Pills with formulations of higher estrogen, lower androgen potencies tend to be better at reducing acne. Some of these pill brands include, Mircette (a low dose estrogen pill); Brevicon, Modicon and Ortho Tri-Cyclen (regular dose estrogen pills) -- For women who want to use the Pill for birth control, Ortho Tri-Cyclen is indicated for the treatment of moderate acne in females who are at least 15 years of age and have been unresponsive to topical anti-acne medications. Though not specifically FDA-approved to treat acne, research has suggested that the lower estrogen Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo pill is also helpful in the treatment of acne.


  • Yaz: In two multicenter, double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies (consisting of 889 subjects, ages 14 to 45 years, with moderate acne) Yaz was shown to be an effective acne treatment. A greater percentage of women who used Yaz showed improvement in acne lesions and reported “clear” or “almost clear” skin than those women who were given placebo pills. In women who wish to use the Pill for birth control, Yaz is clinically proven and FDA-approved to treat moderate acne in girls 14 years old or older..


  • The Patch: It appears that the patch can combat some androgen-related issues, similar to that of certain combination OCs. Because of this, the patch can have a positive effect on androgenic conditions such as acne.


  • Ineffective: Combination birth control pills have the potential to improve acne because they increase sex hormone binding globulin which leads to the reduction of the levels of free androgen. Because it is not taken orally, the NuvaRing may have a lesser effect on sex hormone binding globulin, so it does not show the same ability to improve acne. Progestin-only pills are not normally considered an effective acne treatment either.

Sources:

Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals. "YAZ(drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol) Tablets: PHYSICIAN LABELING." Accessed: February 24, 2011. http://labeling.bayerhealthcare.com/html/products/pi/fhc/YAZ_PI.pdf?WT.mc_id=www.berlex.com

Huber J, Walch K. Treating acne with oral contraceptives: Use of lower doses." Contraception. 2006; 73(1):23-29. Full article accessed via private subscription.

Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals. "FAQ: Ortho Tri-Cyclen." Accessed: February 24, 2011. http://www.thepill.com/thepill/faq.html

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Noncontraceptive uses of hormonal contraceptives." Practice Bulletin No. 110, Jan 2010 115:206-218. Accessed via private subscription.

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