Answer from Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D.
Yes, birth control pills (oral contraceptives) may improve acne in women. Birth control pills for acne are typically considered when acne doesn't respond to other treatments, such as prescription medication.
How birth control pills help
Birth control pills for acne work by reducing sebum — an oily substance that lubricates your hair and skin. Acne results from the buildup of sebum and dead skin cells in hair follicles. Bacteria also play a role, by triggering additional inflammation and infection.
Because the pills target only one cause of acne — excess sebum — it's best to use them with other acne treatments, such as medicated creams containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. You may need to take birth control pills for several months before noticing any results, and your skin may get worse before it gets better.
Possible side effects
Though typically safe and effective, birth control pills aren't for everyone. Side effects can include headaches, change in menstrual flow, breast tenderness, and slightly increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and blood clots.
Talk to your doctor about how your health history and age may affect your risks with birth control pills for acne.
Don't take combination estrogen-progestin pills if you:
Are age 35 or older and smoke
Have a history of cardiovascular disease
Have a history of breast, uterine or liver cancer
Have a history of blood clots in your legs or lungs