Often described as one of the greatest advances in both modern medicine and women’s liberation, the contraceptive Pill is one of the most widely used forms of birth control in the world. In 1961, women in the UK were given the ability to choose what they wanted for their bodies and their families. Since then the Pill has been prescribed to millions due to its multiple benefits such as its ability to treat heavy periods, and its seemingly miraculous effect on acne. In fact, around a third of the women living in the UK aged between 16 and 49 are currently using the combined or the progesterone-only Pill. But How does the contraceptive Pill affect Acne? What about when you come off the Pill? What happens to your skin then?
We are looking into how this little miracle drug – while preventing you from having little miracles of your own – may not be the best thing for you if you’re looking at ways to treat your skin.
The Science – How does the Pill work?
The Science – How does the Pill work?
Essentially the Pill works by switching off your natural ability to release hormones that cause your menstrual cycle. It does this by releasing synthetic female hormones into your bloodstream, tricking your body into believing that you’re pregnant. This means your ovaries don’t produce an egg that month because they think there’s a fertilised one there already.
As you’ll no doubt be aware, acne is a medical condition that causes the skin to have an inflammatory reaction to the naturally occurring hormones within the body. It often worsens during times of hormonal change, such as puberty, and during your menstrual cycle. These reactions result in an excess production of sebum – oil produced by your skin – and dead skin cells caused by increased skin cell turnover. It is Androgens, a group of male hormones including testosterone, present in both men and women, that stimulate the production of sebum. A woman’s ovaries and adrenal glands produce low levels of these androgens, but higher levels can result in excess sebum, which clogs pores, forming acne spots.
The combined contraceptive Pill, containing oestrogen and progesterone, lowers the amounts of androgens in your body to reduce the sebum production and the development of spots, hence why the pill is prescribed to so many to help control their acne symptoms.
Sounds perfect right?
Well, for starters, if you want to use the Pill to treat your acne symptoms, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re put on a combined Pill, as progesterone-only Pills will often make your acne worse. However, if your GP is prescribing the pill for you purely to clear up your spots, the combined Pill is the method they’re likely to prescribe anyway.
The problem is that the Pill doesn’t cure acne; it may take away the hormones that trigger the reaction in your skin, but that reaction would still take place if those hormones are reintroduced, i.e. when you eventually come off the Pill. It offers brilliant results but you’ll only see relief from your symptoms for as long as you’re on the Pill.
For most women, taking the Pill is not a solution that they would choose to stick with long-term. Either because they wish to get pregnant, constantly taking medication every day is no longer practical, changes in relationships, possible side-effects, or any other number of reasons that come down to personal choice.
The point is, when you do eventually decide to come off the Pill, all the hormones that you haven’t been producing get switched back on, and your body ends up playing catch up trying to figure out how to function again now that the autopilot has been taken off. Often women find that as soon as they come off the Pill, the oil glands in their skin will start to over-produce sebum, seemingly to try to compensate, meaning that the acne symptoms you suffered before going on the Pill often pale in comparison to the acne you’ll get afterwards!
What’s the solution?
Don’t get us wrong, the Pill is one of the most commonly used forms of contraception for a reason, and if it’s the form you chose to take because that’s what works for you, we’re not going to tell you anything different.
But if you’re on the pill purely to control your acne, you’re only prolonging the inevitable – and possibly even making life harder for yourself in the long run.
Need help deciding what to buy? Take advantage of the ARA UK and your nearest Accedited Treatment Centre. There’s no such thing as a silly question!
For the best information or treatments, we recommend you visit your nearest Accredited Treatment Centre and speak to a skin specialist.
This website is supported by an educational grant by SkinMed