Alternative Treatment Options for Acne During Pregnancy
What Treatment Options, Besides Medication, Are Available to Treat Acne When Pregnant?
The Essential Information
Acne sometimes flares during pregnancy, particularly during the third trimester.
Treating acne during pregnancy with traditional medications is difficult because:
- Several common prescription acne medications are unsafe to take during pregnancy.
- It is hard to know for sure how safe prescribed acne medications are because it is not ethnical to perform studies on pregnant women.
Therefore, women often look toward alternative treatments that do not include oral or topical medications. Two common alternative treatments that women and their doctor's explore are:
- Light therapy: We are talking about regular light therapy, not photodynamic therapy, which is a more serious procedure with more side effects. Regular light therapy involves shining blue light, red light, blue + red light, or a type of light called narrowband-ultraviolet B phototherapy (NBUVB) light on the skin. Light therapy on its own will not clear acne, but can help reduce it.
- Laser therapy: Laser therapy can also help reduce acne during pregnancy.
Important notes on light therapy and laser therapy:
- Folic acid: Light and lasers can reduce folic acid levels in the body. If you are treated with any kind of light or laser therapy make sure your doctor tests the levels of folic acid in your blood and be certain to have a conversation with your doctor about folic acid supplementation. Important: Never supplement with folic acid without talking to your doctor, as too much is toxic.
- Skin oil glands: In some studies, both light and laser therapy have produced longer-term clearing of acne months after treatment ends. This is likely due to skin oil glands becoming semi-permanently, or perhaps permanently altered by the light or laser therapy. However, this begs a question. What does permanently altering skin oil glands lead to in the following decades of life? Will it cause the skin to prematurely age, or will it lead to any other issues? This research has not been performed.
Risky alternative therapies should be avoided, including:
- Dietary restriction
- Herbal treatments
Always consult your doctor: If you want to treat your acne during pregnancy, be sure to talk to your doctor. Light and laser therapies likely are safe to use during pregnancy, but it is unclear how effective they are, and your doctor may have other options.
Treating acne during pregnancy is difficult because there is scarce direct evidence concerning the safety of most acne medications and pregnancy. In addition, some acne medications, such as isotretinoin, are not safe to take during pregnancy because of serious risk to the fetus. Alternative treatments such as light and laser therapy show some degree of promise for treating acne during pregnancy, though results are mixed and often are mediocre. Other alternative treatments, such as dietary restriction and herbal treatments, are potentially dangerous.
First, let's look at how pregnancy can affect acne, and then we will consider both the challenges of treating acne during pregnancy and the available alternative treatments.
Pregnancy and Acne
Pregnancy affects acne in unpredictable ways. While many women experience improvement in their acne during pregnancy, others experience acne flares, or even a first episode of acne, during pregnancy.1
Skin oil glands become more active during the second half of pregnancy, especially during the third trimester. Skin oil glands produce skin oil, which is implicated in acne. Excessive amounts of skin oil can result in clogged pores and inflammatory acne lesions. Because pregnancy affects the skin oil glands, it also can affect acne. If acne flares during pregnancy, this occurs usually during the third trimester.1
Challenges of Treating Acne During Pregnancy
Treating acne during pregnancy is difficult for the following reasons:
- There is little scientific evidence concerning the safety of various acne medications during pregnancy. Because of possible risk to the fetus, clinical studies are not performed on pregnant women.2
- Some prescription acne medications, such as isotretinoin, anti-androgens, and the most commonly prescribed antibiotics for acne, tetracycline, minocycline, and doxycycline, are unsafe for pregnant women because they can harm the fetus.2,3
- Doctors are cautious when prescribing other medications, such as retinoids (tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene) to pregnant women as well.
- Even over-the-counter acne medications have not been studied sufficiently in pregnant women.
Because of the potential risks of acne medications to the fetus, some researchers recommend aiming for symptom improvement rather than clearing of the skin during pregnancy.2 These risks also make alternative treatments a more interesting option for treating acne during pregnancy.
Alternative Treatment Options for Acne During Pregnancy
Alternative treatments available for acne during pregnancy include:
- Light therapy
- Laser therapy
Light therapy is a somewhat promising treatment for acne. There are several types of light therapy, including:
- Blue light, red light, and combination blue and red light therapy
- Narrowband-ultraviolet B phototherapy (NBUVB)2,4
While there is limited evidence concerning the effectiveness of light therapy, some studies suggest that it is beneficial for acne. Light therapy also is safe, making it a sensible treatment to use during pregnancy.4
Blue light, red light, or a combination of blue and red light may be effective for treating acne. Two studies using these light therapies demonstrated promising results.
Expand to read details of studies
A 2006 study in the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy found that a combination of blue and red light therapy reduced acne lesions by 46% after four weeks and by 81% after 12 weeks.5
A small 2009 study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology showed a significant decrease in acne lesions after eight weeks of blue light therapy.6
Doctors use narrowband-ultraviolet B phototherapy to treat other skin conditions, such as psoriasis, during pregnancy. Scientists believe that this therapy suppresses inflammation in the skin and kills acne bacteria. However, there is only a single case report of a woman whose acne was successfully treated with NBUVB during her pregnancy.
Expand to read details of case report
As a 2013 article in Dermatologic Therapy reports, "In one case report, a woman who was 5 months pregnant with new onset acne vulgaris was treated with escalating doses of NBUVB phototherapy three times weekly for 2 months, eventually leading to resolution of most of her inflammatory papules and pustules."2
Special note on photodynamic therapy: Photodynamic therapy is another light treatment for acne in which a substance containing a photosensitizer, which helps the skin absorb light better, is put on the skin immediately before light treatment. However, the photosensitizing substances that are commonly used along with the PDT are not safe to use during pregnancy. Therefore, PDT should not be used during pregnancy.2
Laser therapy is a promising alternative treatment for pregnant women who have acne. Several studies have shown laser treatment to be effective in treating acne. While many of these studies are small and sometimes unreliable, they show 36% to 83% improvement in acne symptoms. However, laser therapy alone does not completely clear acne.2,7-15
Laser treatment reduces the number of acne lesions, decreases the amount of skin oil produced, and reduces the number of inflammatory molecules in the skin. Laser therapy generally is safe. However, it is important to note that there have not been studies looking specifically at the safety or effectiveness of laser in pregnant patients.2
Important: All of these forms of light treatment, including laser therapy, which is a form of light, can reduce the level of folic acid in the body, and maintaining an adequate level of folic acid in the blood is vital during pregnancy. Therefore, women who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant and are treated with any form of light therapy should have the level of folic acid in their blood tested and take folic acid supplements if necessary.2
While there is some research indicating that a low-glycemic diet reduces acne symptoms, there is no evidence that any type of dietary restriction will dramatically improve acne. In addition, restricting calories or making radical changes to the diet during pregnancy can cause problems and is not recommended.4
People have used different herbal treatments to treat acne, but there is not much evidence concerning their effectiveness and safety. In addition, over-the-counter herbal remedies are not regulated in the United States, and their ingredients vary among products. Herbal products are not recommended to treat acne during pregnancy for these reasons.4
Always Consult Your Doctor
If you want to treat your acne during pregnancy, be sure to talk to your doctor. Light and laser therapies likely are safe to use during pregnancy, but it is unclear how effective they are. In addition, if you are treated with any kind of light therapy, make sure your doctor tests the levels of folic acid in your blood so that you can take folic acid supplements as necessary. Never supplement with folic acid without talking to your doctor, as too much is toxic.
- Yang, C. S., Teeple, M., Muglia, J. & Robinson-Bostom, L. Inflammatory and glandular skin disease in pregnancy. Clin Dermatol 34, 335 - 343 (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27265071
- Pugashetti, R. & Shinkai, K. Treatment of acne vulgaris in pregnant patients. Dermatol Ther 26, 302 - 311 (2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5555287/
- Chien, A. L., Rainer, B., Sachs, D. L. & Helfrich, Y. R. Treatment of acne in pregnancy. J Am Board Fam Med 29, 254 - 262 (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26957383
- Meredith, F. M. & Ormerod, A. D. The management of acne vulgaris in pregnancy. Am J Clin Dermatol 14, 351 - 358 (2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23996075
- Goldberg, D. J. & Russell, B. A. Combination blue (415 nm) and red (633 nm) LED phototherapy in the treatment of mild to severe acne vulgaris. J Cosmet Laser Ther 8, 71 - 5 (2006). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16766484
- Gold, M. H., Andriessen, A., Biron, J. & Andriessen, H. Clinical efficacy of self-applied blue light therapy for mild-to-moderate facial acne. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol 2, 44 - 50 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20729943
- Kim, B. J. et al. Pilot study on photodynamic therapy for acne using indocyanine green and diode laser. J Dermatol 36, 17 - 21 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19207432
- Tzung, T. Y., Wu, K. H. & Huang, M. L. Blue light phototherapy in the treatment of acne. Photodermatol, Photoimmunol Photomed 20, 266 - 9 (2004). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15379878
- Ross, E. V. Optical treatments for acne. Dermatol Ther 18, 253 - 66 (2005). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16229726
- Haedersdal, M., Togsverd-Bo, K. & Wulf, H. C. Evidence-based review of lasers, light sources and photodynamic therapy in the treatment of acne vulgaris. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 22, 267 - 278 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18221341
- Seaton, E. D. et al. Pulsed-dye laser treatment for inflammatory acne vulgaris: Randomised controlled trial. Lancet 362, 1347 - 52 (2003). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14585635
- Elman, M. & Lask, G. The role of pulsed light and heat energy (LHE) in acne clearance. J Cosmet Laser Ther 6, 91 - 5 (2004). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15203999
- Prieto, V. G., Zhang, P. S. & Sadick, N. S. Evaluation of pulsed light and radiofrequency combined for the treatment of acne vulgaris with histological analysis of facial skin biopsies. J Cosmet Laser Ther 7, 63 - 8 (2005). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16537210
- Jung, J. Y. et al. Prospective randomized controlled clinical and histopathological study of acne vulgaris treated with dual mode of quasi-long pulse and Q-switched 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser assisted with a topically applied carbon suspension. J Am Acad Dermatol 66, 626 - 33 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22033354
- Lee, E. J. et al. An open-label, split-face trial evaluating efficacy and safety of photopneumatic therapy for the treatment of acne. Ann Dermatol 24, 280 - 6 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412236/