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Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Whether you’re trying to have children or simply don’t feel like using hormonal birth control anymore, there are numerous reasons to stop taking the pill.
For the most part, stopping birth control is an easy process. If you’re stopping hormonal birth control for other reasons, but are still worried about pregnancy, you’ll need to switch to another form of contraception.
However, from a hormonal perspective, it’s a smooth and simple process, with your body naturally picking up where it left off.
Unfortunately, stopping hormonal birth control can often have negative effects on your skin. Because the hormones in some birth control pills help treat and prevent acne, going off the pill can cause you to break out more often and experience more whiteheads, blackheads and other pimples than normal.
Sometimes known as “post-pill acne,” dealing with acne outbreaks after you stop using birth control is not fun. Luckily, there are several ways you can get your post-pill acne under control to keep your skin clear and acne-free without the use of birth control pills.
Below, we’ve explained why post-pill acne happens, as well as the best treatments to keep your post-pill acne under control.
Currently, the FDA has approved three birth control pills as treatments for acne: Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen®.
All of these pills contain a combination of progestin and estrogen hormones. Used together, this combination of hormones can suppress your body’s production of androgenic hormones such as testosterone.
The higher your testosterone levels, the more sebum (a type of natural oil used to protect your skin) your body produces. By reducing your body’s production of testosterone, combined birth control pills can cut your sebum levels significantly, resulting in less oily skin.
While it’s good to have some amount of sebum on your skin, high levels of sebum can worsen your acne. Sebum can clog your pores and, as a breeding ground for bacteria, cause everything from minor pimples to inflamed, painful cystic acne.
When you start using a combined birth control pill like Yaz, Estrostep or Ortho Tri-Cyclen, your circulating testosterone levels gradually decline. This is why you might notice fewer pimples and acne breakouts over the first two to three months of using birth control.
Post-pill acne is what happens when this process goes in reverse. When you stop taking birth control, your body’s testosterone levels can jump from suppressed back to normal, ramping up your sebum production in the process.
Because it takes some time for your body to start producing normal levels of sebum, post-pill acne usually isn’t immediate. Even if you’re prone to acne, your skin may usually stay clear for some time after you stop taking hormonal birth control. There’s no exact time frame, because every person — and every person’s body — is different.
Post-pill acne affects everyone differently. It’s possible that your skin will go back to the same state as it was in before you started using the pill. This means that if you had light acne before using birth control, your post-pill breakouts will probably also be light.
It also means that if you had severe, inflamed or cystic acne before using the pill, you’ll need to be prepared for the likelihood that your breakouts will return.
However, depending on when you first went on the pill and how long you were on it for, you may not experience any adverse acne breakouts — many women don’t. It’s not uncommon to “grow out” of acne from the time you start taking it to the time you decide to stop.
Either way, the best thing for you to do is keep open and honest communication with your healthcare provider. They’ll be able to help you understand your post-pill acne situation and recommend treatments that work best for you, your type of skin and your lifestyle.
Everyone’s post-pill acne experience is different. Some people experience a period of acne breakouts after stopping birth control before their acne disappears on its own, all without the use of any treatments.
Post-pill acne is often at its worst during the first few months after you stop taking your hormonal birth control pill. As your body ramps up its production of androgens, your skin is more prone to breaking out, resulting in worse breakouts and more pimples.
Most of the time, if you’re similar in age to when you started using the pill, it is likely your acne will be the same as it was before you started using hormonal birth control.
Because of this, it’s usually best to actively treat post-pill acne instead of hoping it will go away on its own.
If your post-pill acne doesn’t disappear within a few months, you can use several medications to treat it. The most effective treatments for post-pill acne are topical medications such as tretinoin and clindamycin.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid. It’s usually sold as a cream and works by speeding up the rate at which your body produces new skin cells.
While tretinoin doesn’t directly reduce your skin’s sebum production, it cuts down on the amount of dead skin on the surface of your face. This, among other things, makes it harder for sebum to clog your pores and cause pimples to develop.
As well as preventing acne, tretinoin also has several interesting anti-aging benefits. It’s linked to reductions in the visibility of wrinkles and smile lines, as well as improvements in discolored, hyperpigmented patches of skin.
Tretinoin takes two to three months to start stopping acne, during which you’ll notice a gradual improvement in your skin. Most people notice the full benefits of tretinoin after six to 12 months of daily use.
Our guide to using tretinoin for hormonal acne goes into more detail on how tretinoin works, as well as how you can use it to treat post-pill acne breakouts.
Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic. It works by getting rid of the bacteria that live on the surface of your skin and worsen acne breakouts.
Like tretinoin, clindamycin doesn’t directly reduce your sebum levels. However, it plays a major role in preventing acne outbreaks from becoming infected and inflamed, helping you reduce your risk of experiencing cystic acne breakouts.
Clindamycin is sometimes used with tretinoin. The two medications fight acne from different angles, with tretinoin reducing your risk of experiencing breakouts and clindamycin helping to make any breakouts that do occur less severe.
Our guide to using clindamycin for acne goes into more detail on how topical clindamycin works, as well as how you can use it to treat post-pill acne breakouts.
While science-backed medications like tretinoin and clindamycin will always give you the best results, there are numerous other things you can do to fight back against acne breakouts after you stop using the pill:
Wash your face regularly. It’s best to wash your face at least twice-daily to keep sebum at a healthy level. If you have naturally oily skin, keep it as clean as possible by using an acne prevention facial wash once in the morning and once in the evening.
Remember that excessive washing can irritate your skin, making acne worse. At most, wash your face twice a day to keep oil levels moderate without causing any damage to your skin.
Avoid oily environments. Oily environments like commercial kitchens can worsen your acne by exposing your skin to extra oil. Whenever possible, avoid spending time in oily, greasy environments that could worsen your acne.
Carry oil-absorbing sheets. If you get oily skin, add a pack of oil-absorbing sheets to your bag. Wiping away oil can help you avoid pimples in areas like your nose, upper lip and forehead, which often become oily over the course of the day.
Got a pimple? Leave it alone. As tempting as it might be, touching your pimples (or worse yet, popping them) isn’t a good way to prevent acne. If you get a pimple, avoid touching it, as your fingers can often transfer harmful bacteria onto your skin.
Use non-comedogenic cosmetics. When you’re shopping for makeup, check that the products you buy say non-comedogenic. Non-comedogenic makeup uses an acne-safe formula that’s designed to prevent blocked pores and keep your skin blemish-free.
Shower after working out. After you exercise or spend time in a humid environment, make sure you shower. Showering just after working out limits the amount of time that your skin is exposed to sweat, reducing your risk of acne breakouts.
Drink green or black tea daily. While green and black tea won’t prevent acne, both of these teas have mild anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they may make your acne breakouts less severe and irritating.
If you’ve previously used birth control pills to treat and prevent acne, it’s important for you to be prepared if you decide to stop taking the pill.
Post-pill acne can range from a few extra pimples to severe, painful breakouts. Using the topical treatments we recommended above, you can usually keep post-pill acne under control and stop future breakouts from occurring.
Want to learn more about treating acne? Our guide to the causes of acne goes into more detail on the two most common types of acne, and our guide to acne treatments goes into more science-backed treatments you can use to protect your skin, get rid of pimples and keep breakouts at bay.