Any girl will tell you that there’s nothing more demoralizing than waking up to a new pimple, or worse, wearing heavy makeup every day to cover up painful, widespread acne.
Whether it’s genetic or due to our lifestyles, acne can make or break our self-esteem. Because of this, it’s no wonder that so many women are prescribed birth control to supposedly “treat” their acne. You yourself might have awful acne and even been prescribed birth control to balance your hormones.
But let’s not put the cart way before the horse. There’s a lot of assumptions being made here, and probably not enough investigation into why our acne is the way it is, what might be causing it, or steps we can take to mitigate it before making the jump to hormonal birth control.
Here’s what you need to know.
Birth Control for Acne
You might be suffering from anxiety, isolation, and even shame if you’re at this point in your acne treatment journey. It’s unfortunate that this problem has so much control over our daily lives, and we hear positive anecdotes from our doctors and girlfriends all the time about using birth control to treat it, right? That may be so, but if you’re considering birth control to “treat” your acne, there’s bound to be valuable information that you’re not hearing.
But first of all, what is acne again? As Stephanie S. Gardner, MD, explains, acne is caused by an excess of sebum in our glands. Sebum is an oil that our androgens produce which can clog pores and stimulate bacterial growth. With birth control, the idea is that taking artificial hormones like the estrogen and progestin contained in HBC will lower the androgens in your body, causing those androgens to produce less sebum and minimize acne.
Birth control doesn’t really treat anything, not even the things it’s prescribed for besides acne.
Acne can be inflammatory or non-inflammatory. Within the inflammatory category are several subtypes: cysts, nodules, pustules, and papules. Non-inflammatory acne includes whiteheads and blackheads. Blackheads and whiteheads are generally acknowledged to be the least severe type of acne, with the inflammatory categories being the most severe. As many of us know from first-hand experience, the inflammatory types can be extremely painful and the most problematic.
When confronted with all this information, it definitely seems like birth control treatment would be the easiest and simplest way out. But that’s far from the truth.
Birth Control Doesn’t “Treat” Anything
First of all, this treatment is predicated on the idea that birth control can “treat” acne, when in reality, birth control doesn’t really treat anything, not even the things it’s prescribed for besides acne treatment, including so-called “hormonal imbalances.”
As naturopathic doctor Lara Briden explains, “To prescribe birth control for ‘hormone balance’ is simply nonsensical. Birth control does not balance hormones; it switches them off. Birth control switches off ovulation, and so switches off estrogen and progesterone. It induces a kind of ‘chemical menopause’ and then replaces back contraceptive drugs as a substandard type of ‘hormone replacement.’ Which might be okay if contraceptive drugs were as beneficial as our hormones. But they’re not. Contraceptive drugs are not even hormones.”
Birth control does not balance hormones; it switches them off.
In reality, hormonal birth control was never made to treat acne or even balance hormones. This is why we now acknowledge that birth control doesn’t regulate periods — it merely results in withdrawal bleeding and artificial cycles which may mimic real ones.
The Other Options You’re Not Hearing About
When you go into a dermatologist’s office with an acne issue, be sure to consider the following: Before they whip out the prescription pad, have they asked about your diet and lifestyle? Your sleeping habits or phone usage? Even how often you do your laundry, what your parents’ or siblings’ skin issues may be, or have you had a hormone lab panel taken?
All of these factors can contribute to acne, which means that while acne may be a hormonal issue, it’s also a lifestyle issue.
Some things you might not have considered which could be responsible: your diet, your daily water intake, using skincare products that aren’t suited for your skin (which is why it’s important to know your skin type!), sleeping in your makeup, not cleaning your phone, dirty pillowcases, your stress level, not washing your hands, how much time you spend in the sun, and so many other factors.
Before they whip out the prescription pad, have they asked about your diet, sleep, and lifestyle?
Alternative holistic treatments, which are safe and effective, are definite possibilities. These include changing your diet, apple cider vinegar, zinc supplements, tea tree oil, witch hazel toner, exfoliation, lessening your dairy intake, a diet with a lower glycemic index, exercising frequently, or changing your laundry detergent. There’s a whole host of alternative options depending on your individual experience, and over 77% of people with acne have tried some form of alternative treatment.
Why are alternative choices so crucial to understanding our options when it comes to acne treatment? Because when you sign up to take birth control for acne treatment, you’re not just signing up for it to target your acne and only your acne. You’re also signing up for weight gain, headaches or migraines, mood swings, nausea, bloating, and potentially a negative response from your mental health. You’re also signing up for potential side effects to your fertility, ones that are rarely discussed but with far-reaching consequences.
Birth control is finally being exposed for the iceberg that it is — a choice with many visible “benefits” and a whole host of possible side effects below the surface. Clear skin may be a great plus to birth control, but at what price?
Believe it or not, birth control has ramifications that go far beyond a few years for acne treatment. Birth control isn’t made for acne treatment, nor is it made to balance hormones.
Many women who’ve chosen to educate themselves on their fertility and its potential are finding out what hormonal birth control really is, and what it can do to us. And many of us have also decided that we deserve much better.
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