Oral contraceptives as anti-androgenic treatment of acne

J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2002 Jul;24(7):559-67. doi: 10.1016/s1701-2163(16)31058-1.


Although acne is seldom associated with high serum levels of androgens, it has been shown that female acne patients have definite increases in ovarian and adrenal androgen levels when compared to appropriate controls. As shown in several pilot and in multiple open and comparative studies, oral contraceptives (OCs) are effective in causing a significant regression of mild to moderate acne. These results have been confirmed by multicentre randomized trials where low-dose OCs did not cause side effects different from those of the placebo-controlled group. The beneficial effect of OCs is related to a decrease in ovarian and adrenal androgen precursors; to an increase in sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which limits free testosterone; and to a decrease in 3a-androstenediol glucuronide conjugate, the catabolite of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) formed in peripheral tissues. The estrogen-progestin combination containing cyproterone acetate (CPA) is particularly effective in treating acne, since this progestin also has a direct peripheral anti-androgenic action in blocking the androgen receptor. Only two open studies and one randomized study on small numbers of patients have reported some efficacy of spironolactone used alone or in combination with an OC in the treatment of acne. The new non-steroidal anti-androgens flutamide and finasteride are being evaluated for the treatment of hirsutism. Oral antibiotics are prescribed to patients with inflammatory lesions, where they are effective in decreasing the activity of microbes, the activity of microbial enzymes, and leukocyte chemotaxis. Concomitant intake of an OC and an antibiotic usually prescribed for acne does not impair the contraceptive efficacy of the OC. A second effective contraceptive method should be used whenever there would be decreased absorption or efficacy of the OC (digestive problems, breakthrough bleeding), lack of compliance and use of a type or dose of antibiotic different from that usually prescribed for acne.Overall, the various approaches for the treatment of acne depend on the needs of the patient and on the therapeutic objectives. Low-dose OCs are effective in improving acne and have side effects similar to placebo. They can be used alone or in combination with other anti-acne agents. The physician prescribing an OC as an anti-androgen intervention should take into account the multiple factors involved in acne and be familiar with current non-hormonal agents for treating mild to moderate acne. Individuals presenting with moderate to severe acne, or not responding to an estrogen-progestin combination, should be referred to a dermatologist.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Acne Vulgaris / etiology*
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chemistry, Pharmaceutical
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal / chemistry
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal / pharmacology
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / complications*
  • Patient Selection
  • Progestins / pharmacology
  • Progestins / therapeutic use
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Regression Analysis
  • Research Design
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal
  • Progestins