Acne most commonly appears in teenagers. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology, or AAD, says that each year, 85 percent of all teens will have acne. But people older than 20 aren't immune to pimples, and acne often affects people as old as age 50. In women who get acne as adults, a hormonal imbalance often is to blame.
Acne has several causes, including oily skin, too many dead skin cells and bacterial overgrowth. In the case of acne that's due to a hormonal imbalance, high levels of hormones called androgens overstimulate the glands that produce the skin's oil. The oil then combines with the dead skin cells to form a pasty substance that clogs pores, and also nurtures bacteria, leading to infection. Pimples and inflammation result.
Some women who suffer from acne due to a hormonal imbalance have a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. Women with PCOS typically have high levels of androgens circulating in their bodies, which lead to acne, irregular or absent menstrual cycles, and other health problems. According to WomensHealth.gov, as many as 5 million women in the United States have PCOS, and it can affect girls as young as 11 years old. In addition to acne, symptoms include facial hair growth and weight gain.
Most women with hormonally-driven acne do not have PCOS, and many have normal androgen levels. These women generally have oil-producing glands that are especially sensitive to fluctuating hormone levels, which makes the glands overreact as hormones ebb and flow during a normal menstrual cycle. That's why many women tend to experience acne breakouts just before or during their periods.
Oral contraceptives can treat acne that occurs due to a hormonal imbalance because they tend to lower levels of androgen hormones in the body while lessening hormonal swings. A 2009 study published in the medical journal "Contraception" concluded that oral contraceptives effectively treat moderate acne that resulted from abnormal levels of circulating androgens. In that study, women treated with oral contraceptives experienced a 55 percent reduction in acne lesions after six months.
Women who experience acne that they believe is linked to a hormonal imbalance should get checked out by a physician, especially if they have other symptoms of PCOS, such as facial hair growth or irregular menstrual periods. PCOS treatments include oral contraceptives, lifestyle modifications, and possibly other types of medications. Women without PCOS symptoms but who get acne that seems to be related to their menstrual cycle should schedule a visit with their physician to determine if oral contraceptives can help with their acne breakouts.
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