How Much Does Birth Control Really Help Your Skin?

When you think of birth control, your brain immediately goes to preventing unwanted pregnancy. You're on the right track — the vast majority of women taking oral contraceptives report doing so in order to avoid getting pregnant. But we don't all choose to take the pill for that reason alone.

The Guttmacher Institute released a study showing that 58 percent of all the women taking oral contraceptives do so for reasons other than avoiding pregnancy. Prescriptions are written left and right for lighter periods, lessened menstrual cramping, and protection against ovarian and endometrial cancer. Fending off the pregnancy is just the beginning when it comes to the potential benefits of taking the pill — which is part of why lobbyists and activists are pointing to all of these secondary benefits of birth control as part of the fight for the pill to be covered by all health insurance.

Another big incentive to take the pill? Less acne. Why does the pill clear up so many women's dermatological problems? It's the combination of estrogen and progestin in the pill that contributes to clear skin (which we'll get into in more detail about below). While we millennials may have only recently discovered the uncanny link between oral contraceptives and blemish-free skin, it's actually been on doctors' radars for decades before us, even before that particular use was FDA-approved and publicly acknowledged.

Even if you're a woman who can personally thank the pill for your lack of acne, you may not know all the details about the connection. Here are eight facts about how birth control really affects your skin:

1. Many Women Go On The Pill Solely Because It Wipes Away Acne

The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology released a study in 2014 proving that oral contraceptives are just as likely to grant clear skin as the antibiotics prescribed by dermatologists. This came as no surprise to women who been using the pill for years to nix acne, though. In fact, 9 percent of women currently using this form of birth control are not even sexually active, and out of that group, 26 percent are taking the pill primarily for acne.

Generally, dermatologists won't recommend the pill as treatment for acne unless all other topical methods have been exhausted. If you decide on the pill, your dermatologist should send you to an OB-GYN, with whom you can discuss the details about the decision, and understand both the risks and the benefits of opting in for the pill.

In my personal life, I've met countless women who admit to only going on the pill because they couldn't find any other effective solution for their acne. I even remember being in high school and hearing of non-sexually-active friends who were prescribed this contraceptive after constantly losing the battle to raging pimples. The bottom line? Using the pill to clear up acne is pretty common, and science can't deny that it truly does work.

2. Only A Few Pills Have Been Approved By The FDA For Acne Use

Even though the connection between oral contraceptives and acne relief is irrefutable, the FDA has only approved three birth control pills to be used to treat acne: Estrostep, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and YAZ. It's not really clear whether these particular pills are more effective at clearing your skin compared to their counterparts — and if they are, how much more effective. It could just be that the other birth control companies chose not to apply for approval of acne use for whatever reason.

Despite this, though, dermatologists have been recommending variations of the pill to their patients for many years, regardless of whether that particular brand has received the formal stamp of approval as an acne remedy. So if your dermatologist recommends another pill for your acne, don't be alarmed — as long as the OB-GYN has cleared the decision and written the prescription, you're safe.

3. The Pill Clears Up Acne By Reducing The Hormone Testosterone

The pill is a magic worker for acne because it decreases the levels of androgens — the so-called "male hormones" — in your system, the most common being testosterone. The more testosterone you have in your system, the more sebum oil is created. Sebum oil clogs your pores and sends your face straight to breakout town. By significantly reducing that well-known male hormone, though, your face will see less and less oil buildup, which will them make it much harder for pimples to pay a visit.

4. It Works Best When Used Together With Topical Treatments

Birth control is rarely used entirely on its own when it comes to addressing acne. Doctors usually also prescribe topical creams and lotions that are meant to fight everyday zits, such as benzoyl peroxide and retinoid. There isn't any research out there to determine whether the pill is as effective on its own compared to its impact alongside topical treatments, but we do know that it's quite common for dermatologists to encourage their patients to use both.

5. Not All Birth Control Pills Help Acne, Though

Some forms of oral contraceptives raise levels of androgens in your body, and they might even cause your acne to get worse. So if you're going in to see your doctor with a specific desire to defeat persistent pimples, say so. You don't want to end up with the wrong prescription and see your acne flare up even more. A few examples of androgen-based progestin pills that might have this effect (and that you may want to avoid if you're concerned about acne): Alesse, Estrostep FE, Loestrin, and Oval.

6. In The Long Run, The Pill Might Be Better For Acne Than Antibiotics

Not only did that 2014 study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology show that the pill is just as formidable an enemy to acne as antibiotics are — researchers actually found that it may beat out antibiotics as the number one acne fighter. From 32 controlled trials, they found that, after three months, the antibiotics were more effective; however, after the six-month mark, they ran tests again to find that oral contraceptives were creating the best acne-busting results.

Dr. Alyssa Dweck, OBGYN and author of V is for Vagina, told Women's Health these results make it pretty clear: Birth control is a great way for women of any age to get a handle on any persistent acne they might have, especially if you want to kill two birds with one stone and prevent pregnancy.

7. If You're Coming Off The Pill, Your Skin May Get Worse Again

Dr. Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist based in New York, told the Huffington Post that, when you stop taking the pill, "things tend to get tricky." This is because your body will experience hormonal shifts when you go off oral contraceptives. Therefore, you shouldn't be surprised if those shifts result in a breakout. This is especially likely if you used to struggle acne before you shacked up with the pill.

If you're concerned about breakouts, experts recommend that you keep a close eye on your diet when you're transitioning off the pill. Kiss refined carbs, sugar, and dairy goodbye for the moment, and eat plenty of low-glycemic foods. This will discourage your skin from becoming inflamed.

Of course, speak with your own medical professional to figure out how to incorporate all this information into your own routine. Just because you're giving up the pill doesn't mean you have to wake up the following mornings with a spotted face.

8. But The Risks May Outweigh This One Benefit

This all sounds pretty rosy, eh? Why not take the pill? Flawless skin all around! Pump the brakes before you rush into any decisions, though. It's important to remember that the pill still comes with some serious risks, and it may not be worth it for you.

There are some health concerns to take into account if you're thinking of getting on the pill. Women who take the pill are at a much higher risk for forming blood clots than those who don't — four times more likely, in fact. Discuss this, and other health concerns, with your OB-GYN before starting any kind of birth control — your doctor will help you take your individual health risks into account, and together you can figure out if taking the pill for acne is worth it for you.

It's also worth considering that even if the pill clears up your acne, that still might not be the end of your skin problems. Meg Richichi, an integrative women's health practitioner, told the Huffington Post that, at the end of the day, birth control is just a surface solution for the acne you might be experiencing. Sure, it clears up your skin in the short term, but it doesn't fix whatever issue was causing the acne to begin with.

There's nothing wrong with taking the pill to clear up your acne — and there's nothing wrong with deciding it's not worth it to you, either.

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