Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder that affects females. It is characterized by ovaries with a high number of cysts, irregular ovulation, and high male hormone levels. Because high male hormone levels in the body tend to produce acne, females with PCOS very often struggle with acne.
Polycystic ovary syndrome often first appears in adolescence, making diagnosis difficult because the symptoms overlap with normal symptoms of puberty, such as acne.
Acne associated with PCOS is more inflamed and appears on a larger portion of the body than normal acne that appears during puberty.
Females with moderate-to-severe acne, or with acne that persists into adulthood and doesn’t respond to typical acne medications, should be evaluated for PCOS.
Medications for PCOS-associated acne, such as combined oral contraceptives (COCs - a.k.a. the birth control pill), reduce male hormone levels and can help treat PCOS as well as the acne associated with it.
Special Note: If you are a female with moderate-to-severe acne, be sure to talk to your doctor about the possibility of PCOS.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder that affects adolescent girls and adult women. It is characterized by:
- Polycystic ovaries, which means that the ovaries possess an abnormally high number of cysts. Cysts in ovaries are not always problematic, as healthy ovaries sometimes have a few cysts.1
- Dysfunctional ovulation, meaning that the ovaries produce eggs on an irregular schedule
- High levels of androgens (male hormones found in both males and females)
The increase in androgens causes symptoms such as:
- Hirsutism (excessive hair that grows in a male pattern, such as on the chest and face)
- Irregular periods that occur either more often than usual or less often than usual. Not all women with PCOS experience irregular periods.
- Obesity, especially abdominal obesity
- Insulin resistance. This is when the body does not respond to the hormone, insulin, normally. In PCOS, insulin resistance causes the body to produce even more insulin, which can result in too much of it in the bloodstream.1
Hormonal Fluctuations in PCOS
The high level of androgens in PCOS is part of a chain reaction involving several different hormones. The final result is an increase in androgens, and very often, acne.
- The body produces too much of a hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH). Too much LH causes the ovaries to produce excessive amounts of androgens.
- At the same time, too little of a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) causes dysfunctional ovulation.
- Finally, too much insulin in the bloodstream also stimulates the ovaries to produce more androgens. Excess insulin also increases androgens by reducing the levels of another hormone called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which normally keeps androgen levels from rising too high.1
This graphic illustrates the chain reaction:
Polycystic ovary syndrome often appears during adolescence. However, diagnosing it in adolescents is difficult because symptoms such as irregular menstruation and acne are often a normal part of puberty. Because of this, PCOS most frequently is diagnosed between the ages of 25 and 35 years and is much less frequently diagnosed before age 20. Because there are no tests that can diagnose PCOS, it is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that it is diagnosed after ruling out all other possible conditions.1,2
Because PCOS symptoms such as irregular menstruation and acne overlap with normal puberty symptoms, they are not reliable indicators of PCOS. During the teen years, the most reliable symptoms that indicate PCOS are:
- The presence of high levels of androgens in the blood
- A persistent pattern of irregular periods that lasts for at least two years after the onset of menstruation
- Ovaries that have at least 25 cysts3
For females of any age, the following symptoms should raise suspicion of PCOS:
- Acne and hirsutism, especially when they accompany irregular periods or polycystic ovaries.
- Obesity, especially obesity that is located in the belly. In PCOS, obesity is a result of hormone imbalances that cause weight gain.4
How Is PCOS Related to Acne?
As we have seen, PCOS comes with increased androgen levels. Androgens stimulate the skin to produce more skin oil, called sebum. Excess sebum increases the chance of the development of acne. Therefore, when acne appears as a symptom of PCOS, we can say that the acne is caused by the high level of androgens.5
Interestingly, PCOS-related acne tends to be different from normal acne that appears during puberty. Pubertal acne involves non-inflammatory lesions, such as whiteheads, and inflammatory lesions, such as pustules and cysts. In addition, pubertal acne in females appears mostly on the face. In contrast, PCOS-related acne appears mostly as inflammatory lesions on the lower face, but also on the neck, chest, and upper back.5
Moderate-to-severe acne in all women is an indicator of PCOS.
According to a 2014 review in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, “Women with moderate to severe acne should be investigated for PCOS, because 19% to 37% of [female] patients with moderate to severe acne meet the criteria for this disorder.”4 This review also recommends that women with acne that persists into adulthood and does not respond to traditional acne treatment be examined for PCOS.5
What PCOS Medications Can Be Used to Treat Acne?
Different medications are available to treat the various symptoms of PCOS. Since androgens cause the acne that appears as a symptom of PCOS, treatment of PCOS-related acne aims to reduce androgen levels.
The most commonly used medications for PCOS-associated acne are:
- Combined oral contraceptives (COCs), also known as the birth control pill
- Cyproterone acetate (CPA)
Let's take a look at each of these medication options.
Combined Oral Contraceptives
Combined oral contraceptives are birth control pills that contain a combination of ethinyl estradiol (synthetic estrogen, a female hormone that is present in both males and females) and a progestin (synthetic progesterone, another hormone that is present in both males and females).5
Different COCs contain different progestins. While all COCs reduce androgen levels, certain progestins, such as CPA, drospirenone, and CMA, possess specific anti-androgen properties. Some research suggests that these progestins are somewhat more effective in treating acne than COCs that contain progestins without these properties. However, many studies show that all COCs are effective in reducing androgen levels and clearing acne.3,4Numerous studies investigated the efficacy of COCs in women with PCOS-associated acne and have all found a significant improvement in acne in the women studied. We can conclude from these studies that all COCs work equally well in treating acne but that COCs that contain an anti-androgen progestin, such as CPA or drospirenone, may be more effective for treating acne accompanied by other androgen-related symptoms, such as hirsutism. Based on these studies, women with PCOS-related acne who use a COC can expect a 50%–87% improvement in their acne, though some women’s acne may clear completely.6-14
A 1997 study in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology examined the effectiveness of a COC that contained CPA. This study included 82 women with PCOS and moderate to severe acne. The authors found that after 18 4-week cycles of the COC, acne cleared in 87% of the women, and after 24 cycles, acne cleared in all 82 women.6
A small 2004 pilot study in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care looked at the effectiveness of a COC containing drospirenone in 13 women with PCOS-associated acne. This study found a significant improvement in acne after six months of treatment.7
A 2010 study in the journal, Contraception, compared the effectiveness of a COC containing drospirenone with a COC containing desogestrel, which does not have specific anti-androgen properties, in 60 women with PCOS. This study found that of the women who had acne, 50% of those who took the COC containing drospirenone experienced improvement in their acne, compared to 30% of those who took the COC containing desogestrel. The authors did not mention the effectiveness of the two medications, but they did state that there was no clinical difference in how the women’s acne responded to them.8
Another 2010 study in Contraception compared the effectiveness of a COC containing CMA in 15 women with PCOS to 15 women who received no COC treatment. The women who received the COC treatment experienced significantly more improvement in their acne after six months than the women who received no COC.9
A 2012 study in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology compared the effectiveness of two COCs that each contained an anti-androgen progestin: one with drospirenone and one with CMA. This study included 59 women with mild to severe acne and PCOS, who randomly were assigned to one of the two COCs for six months. Both groups experienced a significant reduction in acne: the drospirenone group experienced a 71% reduction, and the CMA group experienced a 65% reduction.10
Another 2012 study, published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research, investigated the effectiveness of a COC containing desogestrel in 42 women with PCOS. After 12 months of treatment, the percentage of women with acne decreased from 54% to 18%.11
A 2014 study in Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics randomly assigned 52 women with PCOS to take a COC containing either CPA or drospirenone for 12 months. Acne improved by 50% in the CPA group and by 66% in the drospirenone group, though the difference between the two was not statistically significant.12
Another 2014 study, in Fertility and Sterility, compared three different COCs: one containing desogestrel, one containing CPA, and one containing drospirenone. This study included 171 women with PCOS. Acne decreased in all three groups after 12 months of treatment, with no significant difference between the three COCs. However, the authors concluded that when they considered androgen-specific symptoms, such as hirsutism, in addition to acne, CPA showed the strongest anti-androgen activity.13
A 2016 study in Gynecological Endocrinology evaluated the effectiveness of a COC containing CPA in 41 women with PCOS. This study found that acne improved by 87% in only three months.14
Side effects of COCs include nausea, headache, and breast pain, but also can raise the risk of some more severe side effects, such as heart disease and thromboembolism (blood clot).
Cyproterone Acetate (CPA)
While doctors almost always prescribe CPA with a COC, it also can be used alone. Because CPA is anti-androgen, it can cause birth defects in a male fetus. This means that women taking CPA alone must also use birth control.
The recommended dose of CPA when used alone is 50–100 mg/day for a 10-day cycle.
Most COCs containing CPA have about only 2 mg of CPA.
Side effects include headache, weight gain, breast tenderness, loss of libido (sex drive), and mood changes. In high doses, CPA also can cause liver damage.4
Because CPA rarely is used alone, there is not much research concerning its efficacy for PCOS-related acne. One small 1987 study found that acne improved significantly after two months of solo CPA therapy. However, when the treatment was stopped, acne returned quickly. In addition, the women using CPA experienced either irregular menstruation or a complete cessation of their periods.15
Spironolactone is an anti-androgen that usually is prescribed as an additional medication along with a COC. Because spironolactone is an anti-androgen, it can cause birth defects in a male fetus, so using birth control while taking it is important.1
The typical dosage of spironolactone is between 50–200 mg, the preferred dose being 100 mg/day. Side effects, especially in higher doses, include breast tenderness, irregular periods, and headache, among others.4
Studies show us that when spironolactone is prescribed on its own and not with a COC to females with both acne and hirsutism, it may be beneficial for hirsutism, but not for acne.16,17
Researchers in a 2005 study in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation gave 25 women with PCOS 100 mg/day of spironolactone for 12 months. Only 8 of the women had acne. After 12 months of treatment, 4 women experienced improvement in their acne. According to this study, it appears that 50% of the women experienced improvement. However, so few women had acne to begin that we shouldn’t conclude anything from this study.16
A 2009 systematic review (a rigorous literature review that provides the highest level of evidence) published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews compared spironolactone with a placebo in treating women with both acne and hirsutism. This review found that while the women experienced improvement in their hirsutism, their acne did not improve. The authors concluded that there is some evidence that spironolactone is effective in decreasing hair growth but not acne.17
Flutamide is another anti-androgen that can be prescribed on its own or with a COC. Again, because it can cause birth defects in a male fetus, women taking it should also use birth control.3
Sometimes doctors incorporate flutamide if a COC alone is not enough to resolve PCOS symptoms. Low doses of flutamide (less than or equal to 250 mg/day) generally are better tolerated, with less effects. Since low doses are as effective as higher doses, and high doses can damage the liver, researchers recommend staying with a low dose.3
There is only one small study evaluating the effectiveness of flutamide on its own in women with acne, and results showed that it did in fact work to clear acne. One study evaluating the effectiveness of flutamide with a COC also found a dramatic clearing of acne.18-20
Researchers in a small 1993 study in Clinical Endocrinology gave 10 women with hirsutism 250mg of flutamide twice per day for one year. Five of these women also had acne, and five did not. This study found that the five women with acne experienced a dramatic reduction in their acne within the first month of treatment. After two months, their acne cleared. None of the women experienced any significant side effects. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the study was small, so we shouldn’t conclude anything.18
A 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism examined the effectiveness of three doses of flutamide (125mg, 250mg, and 375mg) combined with a COC and compared it to a placebo. This study included 131 women with hirsutism and acne. After 12 months of treatment, the women using flutamide with a COC experienced a reduction of more than 80% in their acne. The women in the placebo group experienced only a 46.4% reduction. The authors found that while all doses of flutamide worked better than placebo, higher doses were not more effective than lower ones.19
A 2010 study in Gynecological Endocrinology investigated the long-term effects of flutamide in women with acne who had not been diagnosed with PCOS and did not have hirsutism. This study found that low doses of flutamide (between 62.5 and 125 mg/day) did not affect liver function. This study looked only at side effects of flutamide and did not indicate what effect it had on acne.20
Finasteride is not an anti-androgen, but it prevents testosterone (an androgen) from being converted to its more active form. It is commonly known by its brand name Propecia(r), used to treat hair loss in men. Its effectiveness at the recommended dose of 5 mg/day is similar to that of anti-androgens.4
There are no studies looking specifically at the effectiveness of finasteride for acne. There are, however, two studies evaluating the effectiveness of finasteride for hirsutism, both of which found that it treated hirsutism equally well to anti-androgens.21,22 Since hirsutism and acne are related to excessive androgen levels, finasteride might be beneficial also for PCOS-related acne.
A 2000 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism compared the effectiveness of spironolactone, flutamide, and finasteride in 40 women with hirsutism. After six months of treatment, there was no difference in effectiveness between these three medications.21
A 2004 study in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics compared the effectiveness of finasteride with CPA in 40 women, 29 of whom had PCOS. This study found that each treatment was equally effective in reducing hirsutism.22
Side effects in women include increased hair growth, sweating, and hot flashes. Finasteride also carries a high risk of causing birth defects in a male fetus, so women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not take this medication.
If you are a female who is struggling with acne, particularly acne on both your face and body, and you are also experiencing excessive hair growth, weight gain, or menstrual irregularities, be sure to ask your doctor about the possibility of PCOS.
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- McCartney, C. R. & Marshall, J. C. Polycystic ovary syndrome. N Engl J Med 375, 54–64 (2016).
- Lo, J. C. et al. Epidemiology and adverse cardiovascular risk profile of diagnosed polycystic ovary syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 91, 1357–1363 (2006).
- Spritzer, P. M. & Motta, A. B. Adolescence and polycystic ovary syndrome: current concepts on diagnosis and treatment. Int J Clin Pract 69, 1236–1246 (2015).
- Conway, G. et al. The polycystic ovary syndrome: a position statement from the European Society of Endocrinology. Eur J Endocrinol 171, P1–19 (2014).
- Housman, E. & Reynolds, R. V. Polycystic ovary syndrome: a review for dermatologists. J Am Acad Dermatol 71, e1–10 (2014).
- Falsetti, L., Ramazzottto, F. & Rosina, B. Efficacy of combined ethinyleostradiol (0.035mg) and cyproterone acetate (2 mg) in acne and hirsutism in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. J Obstet Gynaecol 17, 565–568 (1997).
- Palep-Singh, M., Mook, K., Barth, J. & Balen, A. An observational study of Yasmin in the management of women with polycystic ovary syndrome. J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care 30, 163–165 (2004).
- Kriplani, A. et al. Effect of oral contraceptive containing ethinyl estradiol combined with drospirenone vs. desogestrel on clinical and biochemical parameters in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. Contraception 82, 139–146 (2010).
- Uras, R. et al. Endocrinological, metabolic and clinical features of treatment with oral contraceptive formulation containing ethinylestradiol plus chlormadinone acetate in nonobese women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Contraception 82, 131–138 (2010).
- Colonna, L. et al. Skin improvement with two different oestroprogestins in patients affects by acne and polycystic ovary syndrome: clinical and instrumental evaluation. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 26, 1364–1371 (2012).
- Bhattacharya, S. M., Ghosh, M. & Basu, R. Effects of ethinyl estradiol and desogestrel on clinical and metabolic parameters in Indian patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. J Obstet Gynaecol Res 38, 285–290 (2012).
- Kahraman, K. et al. Comparison of two oral contraceptive forms containing cyproterone acetate and drospirenone in the treatment of patients with polycystic ovary syndrome: a randomized clinical trial. Arch Gynecol Obstet 290, 321–328 (2014).
- Bhattacharya, S. M. & Jha, A. Comparative study of the therapeutic effects of oral contraceptive pills containing desogestrel, cyproterone acetate, and drospirenone in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. Fertil Steril 98, 1053–1059 (2012).
- Feng, W., Jia, Y. Y., Zhang, D. Y. & Shi, H. R. Management of polycystic ovarian syndrome with Diane-35 or Diane-35 plus metformin. Gynecol Endocrinol 32, 147–150 (2016).
- Couzinet, B., Le Strat, N., Brailly, S. & Schaison, G. Comparative effects of cyproterone acetate or a long-lasting gonadotrophin-releasing hormone agonist in polycystic ovarian disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 63, 1031–1035 (1986).
- Zulian, E. et al. Spironolactone in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome: efficacy on clinical features, insulin sensitivity and lipid profile. J Endocrinol Invest 28, 49–53 (2005).
- Brown, J., Farguhar, C., Lee, O., Toomath, R. & Jepson, R. G. Spironolactone versus placebo or in combination with steroids for hirsutism and/ or acne. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 15, CD00194 (2009).
- Couzinet, B., Pholsena, M., Young, J. & Schaison, G. The impact of a pure anti-androgen (flutamide) on LH, FSH, androgens and clinical status in idiopathic hirsutism. Clin Endocrol (Oxd) 39, 157–162 (1993).
- Calaf, J. et al. Long-term efficacy an tolerability of flutamide combined with oral contraception in moderate to severe hirsutism: a 12-month, double-blind, parallel clinical trial. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 92, 3446–3452 (2007).
- Paradisi, R. et al. Retrospective, observational study on the effects and tolerability of flutamide in a large population of patients with acne and seborrhea over a 15-year period. Gynecol Endocrinol 27, 823–829 (2011).
- Moghetti, P. et al. Comparison of spironolactone, flutamide, and finasteride efficacy in the treatment of hirsutism: a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 85, 89–94 (2000).
- Beigi, A., Sobhi, A. & Zarrinkoub, F. Finasteride versus cyproterone acetate-estrogen regimens in the treatment of hirsutism. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 87, 29–33 (2004).