Birth Control Pills Approved for Acne

Evidence continues to mount that birth control pills help with acne. Interestingly, it has become apparent that just because a birth control pill is approved for acne, however, does not mean it will produce superior results.

First, it’s important to understand how oral contraceptives (OCs) help with acne. Almost all OCs contain an estrogen component and a progestin component.† The estrogen component helps reduce the production and expression of male hormones which can lead to acne. Depending on the progestin used, the effects of the progestin component can range from relatively inert to theoretically leading to increased male hormone levels. But the estrogen component is much stronger and outweighs progestin, thereby allowing all OCs to help with acne.

An article published in the International Journal of Women’s Health in 2010 took a look at all of the different options and research to date. As it turns out, no matter what OC you take, it will likely produce a 30-60% reduction in acne lesion count. According to the article, “Studies comparing oral contraceptives did not convincingly show superiority of one oral contraceptive to another in the treatment of acne.” They went on to note, “Compilation of evidence was difficult due to variable study designs.  More research needs to be done to draw conclusions about the comparative efficacy of different [oral contraceptives].”

In other words, it appears women who are looking for acne symptom relief with their oral contraceptive are not constrained to “approved” brands.


Important: Whether or not to embark upon hormonal acne therapy requires careful physician screening with a focus on risks and benefits.

†Note: Cyproterone Acetate (Diane, Dianette), which is a synthetic derivative of 17-hydroxyprogesterone approved for contraception in Europe and Canada but not the United States, and which can be used on its own or in combination with an estrogen component, was also considered as authors in this article drew their conclusions.


Isotretinoin (Accutane) is approved to treat people with severe acne. Typically, in order to achieve the best chance of long term acne remission, doctors are advised to prescribe patients relatively high doses of Accutane. Researchers have published two studies in the past two years attempting to gauge whether people with mild to moderate acne can achieve similar long term remission of acne with lower dosages of Accutane, and thus achieve similar success with lower side effects.

Study 1: Italian researchers looked at 150 people with “mild to moderate acne,” although most of them (114) were considered “moderate.” The average person only received around 3/4 of the amount of Accutane that is normally prescribed. After two years, only 13 people had relapsed, which comes to 9.35%, a very good relapse rate, even when compared with high doses of Accutane across the general population.  Note: After their Accutane course, the people in this study were then put on 1 full year of topical adapalene therapy which somewhat confuses the results of the study. 

Study 2: In this study, Korean researchers studied 60 people with “moderate” acne. These people were given either conventional treatment, low-dose treatment, or intermittent treatment (1 week out of each month). Although the amount of people studied was small, and thus we need to take these results less seriously than larger studies, outcomes were similar between people taking conventional and low-dose treatment. One year after therapy was discontinued, 2 out of 16 people in the conventional group and 3 out of 17 people in the low-dose group relapsed. Note: People on intermittent therapy did not fair nearly as well. More than half of these patients relapsed.

What I take from this: As usual, more research is needed on this topic. However, from what these researchers are seeing, as long as someone is not suffering with severe acne, they may be able to get away with less Accutane, and thus suffer lower incidence of side effects. I’ll keep you posted as more research on this topic comes to light. As always, please keep discussing your own personal experiences with Accutane on the messageboards so we can follow along with your particular dosage and results.

You guys have been asking, so here’s what I found to be the most interesting new information on scars and scar treatments:

Subcision plus suction.  Subcision is where a needle is placed sideways underneath a depressed scar and moved around, thereby disconnecting the scar from the skin below and allowing it to float up to the surface. The hope is that a hemorrhage will appear under the scar, leading to new connective tissue and a permanent raising of the scar toward the skin surface. For those of you who have tried this, you may have noticed that it seems to work, but that a large portion of these areas tend to recede again. However, a new common sense treatment is now being added to some subcision treatments. After the initial subcision of the scar an initial hemorrhage forms. Then, 3 days later, a suction machine, normally the same one used in microdermabrasion, is placed over the scar area and “vacuums” the skin up, ultimately reintroducing another hemorrhage under the treatment area.  This suctioning is repeated at least every other day for 2 weeks afterward in an attempt to produce more tissue under the scar. The Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology concluded, “Frequent suctioning at the recurrence period of subcision increases subcision efficacy remarkably and causes significant and persistent improvement in short time, without considerable complication, in depressed scars of the face.” Pretty cool.

Need to wait until 6-12 months after Accutane (isotretinoin) to get aggressive scar treatment? This is a commonly held belief since isotretinoin has been linked to keloids and raised scarring, perhaps because of collagen accumulation. It remains a prudent stance. However, in one very small study, doctors dermabraded one square centimeter on 7 participants faces using a diamond fraise while they were on isotretinoin. After 6 months, the scar revision appeared successful and there were no signs of keloid or raised scarring. Although this is interesting, patients and doctors must continue to proceed with caution in this area until we get more evidence.

Why do we scar in the first place? Scars are the result of wound healing, which is one of the most complex biological processes, and includes the following 3 phases.  Some new info below:

(1) Inflammation: Upon closer investigation through biopsy specimens, researchers found that the initial inflammatory reaction was stronger and had a longer duration in patients who scarred.

(2) Granulation tissue formation:  Next, damaged tissues are repaired, new capillaries are formed, and new collagen begins forming. Researchers are noting, “The balance of collagen types shifts in mature scars to be similar to that of ounwounded skin, with approximately 80% of type I collagen.”  This one is a bit above my head. If anyone knows why this might be interesting, please comment.

(3) Matrix remodeling: As the healing process moves on, extracellular matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) take on the job of deciding how much tissue will be built.  Too much MMPs and you may see a raised scar.  Too little and you may see a depressed scar.  However, why some people have too much or too little MMPs remains a mystery.

I’ve read all the other scar related research that has been published as well. Basically it’s mostly the same stuff we have known before. The bulk of the evidence continues to show (1) significant improvement with ablative lasers (CO2 and Erbium;YAG) with pretty severe down time afterward, (2) somewhat less improvement with fractional lasers and needling but with less down time, and (3) the never-ending search for the perfect filler. If anything remarkable comes out in the near future I will let you know.