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Does birth control help acne?

The answer to this question is more complicated than a simple yes or no because different birth control methods work in different ways. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at skin changes and in particular which birth control can help acne and which methods may make it worse. We’ll also take a look at alternative acne treatment options and how going hormone-free can help you understand your skin changes throughout your menstrual cycle.

Acne is incredibly common and affects approximately 85% of people between ages 12 to 24. It can occur at any life stage and is thought to be increasing in adults. Acne can be uncomfortable, painful and sometimes scarring. It’s no wonder so many of us are searching for a way to manage it.

How does birth control help acne?

Most hormonal acne is caused by an increase in a group of hormones known as androgens (these include the sex hormone testosterone). These typically male sex hormones can cause skin to produce more oil, which in turn can aggravate acne and cause breakouts. 

Certain types of birth control such as the combined contraceptive pill contain a varying dose of the hormone estrogen. In females, this can help regulate androgens, and therefore reduce hormonal breakouts. This is why the birth control pill is often prescribed to help with hormonal acne. That said, hormonal birth control has its own set of side effects, so it’s worth discussing with your doctor your full set of options before you start taking the pill.

Does NuvaRing help acne?

As well as combined birth control pills, there are a couple of other methods that contain the hormone estrogen. These are the vaginal ring (NuvaRing) and the birth control patch. Both of these methods can help reduce acne and, unlike the pill, you don’t have to think about them every day. The ring and the patch are typically worn for three weeks at a time with a week’s break before they need to be swapped out and replaced with a new ring or patch. 

Best birth control pills for acne 

Different birth control pills contain different doses of hormones, however, recent research into treating acne with birth control found that there was no significant difference between the brands of pills used. 

This research looked at a total of 31 previous studies with around 12,500 participants. All of the birth control pills tested were able to improve acne, although it’s worth keeping in mind none of them were tested against non-hormonal acne treatments. 

When considering using birth control to treat, you should take into account a number of factors including your medical history, lifestyle, and preferences. The first step to finding the best birth control for acne in your specific situation is to have a conversation with your healthcare provider. They can assess your needs and together you can discuss options to find the right fit.

Can birth control cause acne?

Not all contraceptive methods contain estrogen, in fact, there are a large number of birth control methods that use only progestin. This is the synthetic equivalent of the hormone progesterone. These methods include the hormonal IUD, the birth control shot, the mini pill, and the implant. These progestin-only methods are often prescribed to those who can’t use birth control containing estrogen.

Progesterone has the opposite effect of estrogen and can encourage increased production of the androgens that cause hormonal acne. For this reason, some types of birth control containing this hormone can cause skin problems or make acne worse for those already living with it.

A 2020 study looking into acne and contraception, found that users with no history of acne were more likely to experience it while using the hormonal IUD, in comparison to those using a combined oral contraceptive. Surprisingly this was also the case for the hormone-free copper IUD. For those with a history of acne, it seemed that using both of these types of IUDs also made acne worse, compared to those using the combined birth control pill. 

How to get rid of acne caused by birth control

If you’ve found your acne has worsened while using hormonal birth control, you should talk to your healthcare provider to seek out another form of treatment. You may also want to consider using an alternative type of birth control or another treatment to see if that reduces acne. 

While birth control pills are commonly prescribed to treat skin problems, you are not limited to these solutions. Here are some other ways to treat acne without using the pill:

  • Over-the-counter gels or creams - these usually contain benzoyl peroxide which works as an antiseptic getting rid of bacteria on the skin, it also has an anti-inflammatory effect
  • Topical retinoids - these work by exfoliating the skin’s surface to remove dead skin cells and preventing a build-up inside hair follicles 
  • Topical antibiotics - these come in the form of a lotion or gel when applied to the skin kill the bacteria that can infect hair follicles
  • Azelaic acid - this is usually offered as an alternative to those who are sensitive to topical treatments or retinoids, it works in a similar way, killing bacteria and removing dead skin
  • Antibiotic tablets - these are taken orally and are usually used in combination with a cream, gel, or lotion to treat more severe acne such as cystic acne

Healthy habits and acne regulation

While many of us are more prone to skin changes than others, and it may feel like there’s not much we can do, there are steps you can take in your everyday life that may help you regulate and reduce acne. These include:

  • Try not to wash affected areas more than twice a day
  • Use a mild soap or cleaner with water that's not too hot or cold as this can irritate skin
  • Avoid squeezing spots or blackheads as this can make them worse or cause scarring
  • Avoid oil-based skincare or makeup products
  • Remove makeup before going to bed 
  • Use emollients to treat dry skin
  • Shower soon after exercising as sweat can irritate acne
  • Wash your hair regularly and try to keep it off your face

There is also research suggesting that diet may affect acne and its treatment. Again this is individual, and only you will know what works for your body. However, you may find it helpful to monitor breakouts with changes in your diet or other lifestyle changes to get a better understanding of what works for you.

PCOS and acne

Simply treating acne without knowing the cause can mask symptoms of underlying cycle conditions. Research has shown that there is also a link between polycystic ovary syndrome and acne. 

While birth control can regulate the cycle and reduce unwanted symptoms such as skin changes and hair growth, it’s useful to know the root causes for these bodily changes to have a wider understanding of why we’re experiencing them and consider alternative treatments.

Caring for your skin with hormone-free birth control

Coming off the pill and opting for hormone-free birth control can feel like an extra worry if you’ve struggled with acne in the past. While it’s common to notice changes to your skin when switching birth control methods, there can be a great deal of knowledge and learning that comes with going hormone-free. 

At Natural Cycles, we’ve made it easy to track skin changes so you can spot patterns, record breakouts, or notice when your skin is naturally at its best. With this power comes the knowledge of how your skin changes throughout the cycle. For some this is enough to monitor or manage acne without using hormonal birth control such as the pill. Remember, everyone is different, so talk to your healthcare provider to find out what’s right for you! 

Did you enjoy reading this article?

Are you ready to go hormone-free with Natural Cycles?

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written By

Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray is an award-winning writer with more than five years’ experience covering reproductive topics ranging from birth control to planning pregnancy. She is passionate about providing women with accurate information grounded in science they can use to take charge of their own health - while also dispelling myths that exist within the field of women’s health. She holds a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Ireland.

Jack in a suit and tie holding a microphone and giving a presentation.

Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

Dr. Jack Pearson is a previously HCPC registered Embryologist with a PhD in reproductive medicine. Prior to joining Natural Cycles leading Medical Affairs, he worked for more than 10 years in a clinical setting working at some of the busiest fertility clinics in the UK. Today he spends most of his time working with experts at the world’s leading institutions to carry out important research with the vision to further the field of female health. He earned his PhD from the University of Sheffield specializing in Sperm Metabolism and currently lives in London.

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