What the Pill is Actually Doing to Your Skin

Aly Walansky
birth control pills

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Decades ago, when women were given the option of the pill, it wasn’t about their skin. Freedom from acne became an awesome potential side benefit, making the pill attractive to even those not currently feeling they needed birth control.

Puberty, pregnancy, and our periods all mess with our oil glands, causing excess sebum. “This is caused by the change in hormone levels. This change triggers acne breakouts, resulting in clogged pores, which usually manifest as deeper bumps around the mouth and jaw line,” says Beverly Hills Aesthetician Gina Mari of Gina Mari Skincare. To get a handle on what the pill is actually doing to your skin, read on below.

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Regulating hormones

Birth control pills or oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) themselves don’t have an effect on the skin — at least directly. What they do have an effect on is hormone levels. For many of us, our drama with acne is due to fluctuations in hormone levels. Birth control pills can help with that. As a result, acne often improves. “Other than having some affect on acne (and again it depends on the brand and this does not happen for all women), OCPs do not have any other effects on the skin,” says  Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, Director of Mariwalla Dermatology.

Many women have realized this connection and turned to birth control in hopes of achieving clearer skin. “Birth control pills give your body extra estrogen, which can stop hormones called androgens from producing excess oil. This leads to fewer breakouts,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger of LovelySkin.com, a dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon.  Everyone’s skin reacts differently, however, and it could take some time for your body to adjust to the hormone levels. This method of fighting problem skin has proven to be so successful that the FDA has approved certain brands of birth control to treat acne. There are some issues, however, and these can even include scary medical problems like blood clots, so it’s important to know the risks and talk with your doctor before you begin taking any medication.

Birth control pills can regulate these hormone levels, slowing the excess sebum production because of the hormones contained. “Estradiol, the synthetic hormone for estrogen, found in birth control such as Estrostep, decreases testosterone levels, making skin clearer with a moderate to high dose,” says Mari, who says  Ortho Tri-Cyclen affects hormone levels in the same way and can be very effective for the treatment of acne, as does Yaz, a combination oral contraceptive, which increases globulin. SHBD decreases testosterone levels, and is effective for moderate acne.

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Unfortunately, the acne often returns once you stop taking birth control. Your hormone levels shift and your skin produces excess oil, leading to more frequent breakouts. “As bad as this may sound, acne is no excuse to stay on birth control if you’re ready to quit. This post-pill acne is easily treatable with a good skin care regimen and a customized treatment plan from your dermatologist,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

The hormones found in birth control can also create an uneven skin tone. Some women develop melasma, which looks like symmetrical patches of darker skin that appear on the cheeks, forehead, nose or upper lip. Ask your doctor about other acne treatment options if you notice a change in your skin tone.