The impact of isotretinoin on the pituitary-ovarian axis: An interpretative review of the literature

Reprod Toxicol. 2021 Sep:104:85-95. doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2021.06.017. Epub 2021 Jul 2.


Isotretinoin (13-cis-retinoic acid), a derivative of vitamin A, is used in the treatment of severe acne resulting in sebum suppression induced by sebocyte apoptosis. Isotretinoin treatment is associated with several adverse effects including teratogenicity, hepatotoxicity, and dyslipidemia. Isotretinoin's effects on endocrine systems and its potential role as an endocrine disruptor are not yet adequately investigated. This review presents clinical, endocrine, and molecular evidence showing that isotretinoin treatment adversely affects the pituitary-ovarian axis and enhances the risk of granulosa cell apoptosis reducing follicular reserve. Isotretinoin is associated with pro-apoptotic signaling in sebaceous glands through upregulated expression of p53, forkhead box O transcription factors (FOXO1, FOXO3), and tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis inducing ligand (TRAIL). Two literature searches including clinical and experimental studies respectively support the hypothesis that isotretinoin's toxicological mode of action on the pituitary-ovarian axis might be caused by over-expressed p53/FOXO1 signaling resulting in gonadotropin suppression and granulosa cell apoptosis. The reduction of follicular reserve by isotretinoin treatment should be especially considered when this drug will be administered for the treatment of acne in post-adolescent women, in whom fertility may be adversely affected. In contrast, isotretinoin treatment may exert beneficial effects in states of hyperandrogenism, especially in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome.

Keywords: Acne vulgaris; FOXOs; Isotretinoin; Menstrual irregularities; Pituitary-ovarian axis; mTORC1; p53.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / chemically induced
  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy
  • Acne Vulgaris / metabolism
  • Adolescent
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isotretinoin / toxicity*
  • Ovary / drug effects
  • Pituitary Gland / metabolism
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / chemically induced
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Teratogenesis
  • Teratogens / toxicity*


  • Teratogens
  • Isotretinoin