How Going Off Oral Birth Control Might Affect Your Hair & Skin
Going on or off oral birth control pills is a personal choice—one that people make for a variety of reasons that are certainly not anyone else's business! Not to mention, there are many options available for birth control, each with its own unique formulas that influence the body and hormones in a variety of ways. And of course, our bodies themselves are highly individualized and may be influenced by said changes in birth control vastly differently.
This is why I find it challenging to write about skin and hair changes within the context of hormonal birth control. What one person experiences will not hold true for the rest: There are simply too many variables.
That being said, there are some similar concerns I tend to get asked about more than others. Most notably? Acne flare-ups and hair loss.
Does birth control affect your skin & hair? Maybe.
Now, this isn't to say you're guaranteed to deal with either of these when you wean yourself off birth control. (Cannot stress this enough: Everyone is different!) And perhaps the reason these concerns get brought up more often is because people tend not to flag non-concerns. You're likely not going to complain about your skin and hair if nothing has changed over the course of going off birth control, right?
However, there are valid reasons people may experience either of these according to dermatologists. But, again, derms also note that this is a tricky area in which no one's experience is the same as the rest.
"It's complicated because hormonal birth control comes in many forms and contains different types and levels of hormones. And even the same formulation may affect different people differently," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D.
Why you may experience acne after going off birth control.
Certain subsets of hormonal birth control can improve hormonal acne while on it. "Combined hormonal contraceptives are birth control methods that contain estrogen and progestin," says King, noting these are often found in forms such as the pill, patch, or ring. "Birth control pills that contain these two hormones are often helpful for hormonal acne because the estrogen they contain can suppress the ovaries' production of androgens and increase a protein called sex-hormone binding globulin in the blood. This protein binds free testosterone in the bloodstream, so then less testosterone is available to cause sebum production and acne."
See, sex hormones have several notable influences on our skin. As King noted, estrogen decreases sebum production (and increases collagen and elastin production), while testosterone increases sebum production. If you're genetically predisposed to acne, any increase in sebum production can cause breakouts.
So, when you go off these forms of birth control, the hormonal acne you are experiencing is simply your skin responding to the lack of estrogen from birth control, as well as the resurgence of testosterone.
"When you stop taking oral contraceptive pills, you lose any benefit for acne they were providing, and acne may consequently worsen. Also, for several months after discontinuing OCP, hormone levels go through an adjustment phase, and acne may particularly flare during this window," says King.
What you can do.
The first thing you can do is simply understand what's happening, acknowledge that it's temporary (several months may not feel "temporary," but trust that it is!), and allow yourself some grace.
But of course, there are several ways you can tend to the acne that you are experiencing at this moment:
- Since you're likely experiencing increased sebum production, look for oil-controlling and anti-inflammatory botanicals and products. Jojoba oil is thought to balance sebum and microbial overgrowth. Green tea has been shown to help ease sebum, redness, and inflammation. Finally, lactic acid is a gentle exfoliator that is equal parts hydrating (if you try to dry your skin out too much, it may trigger even more oil!).
- Hormonal breakouts tend to be localized around the mouth and chin. So instead of treating your entire face with acne-specific skin care (which it may not need), you can treat the area at hand. Try multi-masking with a clarifying mask on the lower half of your face while adding a hydrating option elsewhere.
- Consider lifestyle changes. For example, consider whether food and stress are additional triggers. You can try putting yourself on a clear-skin eating plan or at least limit dairy and foods with a high-glycemic-index rating. As for stress, we know that lowering levels of stress can be good for multiple factors—but we also know it's hard to do, so the best advice here is to try multiple modalities until you find one that is right for you.
Why you may experience hair loss after going off birth control.
Hair loss of all kinds is a very common concern for many women. It's a very tricky topic as there are several kinds of hair loss, which are all influenced by a variety of factors. One such factor is birth control, yes.
"One kind of hair loss that can be experienced after stopping OCP is telogen effluvium. Telogen effluvium is a kind of hair loss that takes place after a person undergoes a stress to the body or mind," says King, noting that this can range from physical injury, personal problems, and, yes, hormonal changes. "Abrupt hormonal change—like after childbirth or stopping an oral contraceptive—is one form of physical stress."
The good news is that this form of hair loss is temporary, too.
"Hairs are usually found in all different stages of the hair cycle, but after this stress, a larger percentage of hairs than usual become synchronized, and so when it is time for them to fall out, many more hairs than normal fall out," she says. "This happens usually approximately two to four months after the stress. The good news is that this kind of hair loss is reversible—it does grow back!"
What you can do.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record: The best thing you can do for your body and hair is to understand that this shall pass—and to not panic about it.
From there, you can look to hair-growth practices in the meantime:
- Focus on supportive care. "Things like diet and nutrition, relaxation, sleep, and wellness practices," says King. "Make sure you don't have any vitamin or mineral deficiencies."
- Protect the strands you do have. While you wait for the hair-shedding phase to pass, you'll want to be extra tender to your strands. "Once a hair strand reaches beyond the surface of the scalp, it is physiologically dead. Because of this, it cannot be nourished, only preserved," says King. Keep it hydrated, use heat protectants when styling, and avoid harsh sulfates, which can be drying.
There's no one-size-fits-all answer here. But, if you do happen to experience acne and hair loss after going off birth control, there are valid reasons it's happening. The best thing you can do is to tend to the areas as best you can, give yourself some grace, and allow some time for things to balance themselves out.
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.