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Oral Contraceptives

Treating Acne with Birth Control Pills


Updated May 16, 2014

Birth Control/Acne
Don Farrall Collection/Photodisc/Getty Images

Oral contraceptives, also known as birth control pills, can effectively treat acne in some women. For years doctors have used oral contraceptives off-label as acne treatments. Today, a handful of oral contraceptives are also FDA approved as acne treatments. They include:

  • Ortho Tri-Cyclen
  • Estrostep
  • YAZ


Oral contraceptives are not used as a first line of defense against acne. They are often prescribed after other treatment options have been tried, or if a woman needs a form of birth control anyway. For best results, oral contraceptives are used in conjunction with other acne treatments, such as topical retinoids, or benzoyl peroxide.


How it Works

Oral contraceptive pills are made up of a combination of progestin and estrogen. They alter the natural female reproductive cycle and hormonal patterns. The majority of birth control pills use ethinyl etradiol as the estrogen ingredient. Since birth control pills reduce the amount of testosterone within the body, they often improve hormonal-based acne breakouts. When testosterone production is suppressed, the amount of oil produced by the sebaceous glands is reduced. The chance of pore blockages is also reduced.


For women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), oral contraceptives can be particularly helpful in clearing acne brought about by this condition. Certain birth control pills, such as Yaz and Yasmin, contain a progesterone that can help limit the amount of androgen hormones within the body, thereby reducing breakout activity. The pill can also help with other symptoms of PCOS, such as excessive hair growth.

Depending on the formulation, some oral contraceptives may raise testosterone levels in the body. This, in turn, could actually worsen acne. If you are looking for a birth control pill that will help reduce acne breakouts, let your doctor know. He or she can prescribe a brand that will work with the goal of improving acne as well.


Common Usage Directions

Oral contraceptive pills are taken daily, preferably at the same time each day. Three weeks of "active" pills are taken, followed by one week of placebo "reminder" pills, during which time menstruation will occur.


It can take three months or longer to notice any changes in acne after you begin taking oral contraceptives. It is not uncommon for acne to worsen before it improves.


Possible Side Effects

As with all systemic medications, side effects may occur while taking oral contraceptives. Common side effects may include:
  • nausea
  • weight gain
  • breast tenderness
  • menstrual spotting
  • mood swings


Less commonly, more serious side effects may occur. These include:

  • blood clots
  • stroke
  • headaches
  • gallstones
  • increase in blood pressure
  • depression




Oral contraceptives can be used as a long-term acne therapy for women who also need a form of birth control. They can effectively control mild to moderate acne breakouts, especially acne that tends to worsen during ovulation and menstruation. For women with more severe acne, birth control pills can be used in conjunction with other acne treatment medications.


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