Drug Therapy

Status Report From the American Acne & Rosacea Society on Medical Management of Acne in Adult Women, Part 3: Oral Therapies

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Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series provided an overview of the epidemiology, visible patterns, and important considerations for clinical and laboratory evaluation of acne vulgaris (AV) in adult women and reviewed the role of proper skin care and topical therapies in this patient population. In Part 3, oral therapies including combination oral contraceptives, spironolactone, antibiotics, and isotretinoin are discussed along with important considerations that clinicians should keep in mind when selecting oral agents for management of AV in adult women.

Practice Points

  • Use of combination oral contraceptives to treat acne vulgaris (AV) in adult women who do not have measurable androgen excess is most rational in patients who also desire a method of contraception.
  • Spironolactone is widely accepted as an oral agent that can be effective in treating adult women with AV and may be used in combination with other therapies.
  • Monotherapy with oral antibiotics should be avoided in the treatment of adult women with AV, and concomitant use of benzoyl peroxide is suggested to reduce emergence of antibiotic-resistant Propionibacterium acnes strains.
  • Oral isotretinoin use in adult women with AV warrants strict adherence to pregnancy prevention measures and requirements set forth by the federally mandated iPLEDGE™ risk management program.



Selection of oral agents for treatment of AV in adult women is dependent on multiple factors including the patient’s age, medication history, child-bearing potential, clinical presentation, and treatment preference following a discussion of the anticipated benefits versus potential risks.1,2 In patients with the mixed inflammatory and comedonal clinical pattern of AV, oral antibiotics can be used concurrently with topical therapies when moderate to severe inflammatory lesions are noted.3,4 However, many adult women who had AV as teenagers have already utilized oral antibiotic therapies in the past and often are interested in alternative options, express concerns regarding antibiotic resistance, report a history of antibiotic-associated yeast infections or other side effects, and/or encounter issues related to drug-drug interactions.3,5-8 Oral hormonal therapies such as combination oral contraceptives (COCs) or spironolactone often are utilized to treat adult women with AV, sometimes in combination with each other or other agents. Combination oral contraceptives appear to be especially effective in the management of the U-shaped clinical pattern or predominantly inflammatory, late-onset AV.1,5,9,10 Potential warnings, contraindications, adverse effects, and drug-drug interactions are important to keep in mind when considering the use of oral hormonal therapies.8-10 Oral isotretinoin, which should be prescribed with strict adherence to the iPLEDGE™ program (https://www.ipledgeprogram.com/), remains a viable option for cases of severe nodular AV and selected cases of refractory inflammatory AV, especially when scarring and/or marked psychosocial distress are noted.1,2,5,11 Although it is recognized that adult women with AV typically present with either a mixed inflammatory and comedonal or U-shaped clinical pattern predominantly involving the lower face and anterolateral neck, the available data do not adequately differentiate the relative responsiveness of these clinical patterns to specific therapeutic agents.

Combination Oral Contraceptives

Combination oral contraceptives are commonly used to treat AV in adult women, including those without and those with measurable androgen excess (eg, polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS]). Combination oral contraceptives contain ethinyl estradiol and a progestational agent (eg, progestin); the latter varies in terms of its nonselective receptor interactions and the relative magnitude or absence of androgenic effects.10,12,13 Although some COCs are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for AV, there is little data available to determine the comparative efficacy among these and other COCs.10,14 When choosing a COC for treatment of AV, it is best to select an agent whose effectiveness is supported by evidence from clinical studies.10,15

Mechanisms of Action

The reported mechanisms of action for COCs include inhibition of ovarian androgen production and ovulation through gonadotropin suppression; upregulated synthesis of sex hormone–binding globulin, which decreases free testosterone levels through receptor binding; and inhibition of 5α-reductase (by some progestins), which reduces conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone, the active derivative that induces androgenic effects at peripheral target tissues.10,13,16,17

Therapeutic Benefits

Use of COCs to treat AV in adult women who do not have measurable androgen excess is most rational in patients who also desire a method of contraception. Multiple monotherapy studies have demonstrated the efficacy of COCs in the treatment of AV on the face and trunk.4,10,12,15,17,18 It may take a minimum of 3 monthly cycles of use before acne lesion counts begin to appreciably decrease.12,15,19-21 Initiating COC therapy during menstruation ensures the absence of pregnancy. Combination oral contraceptives may be used with other topical and oral therapies for AV.2,3,9,10 Potential ancillary benefits of COCs include normalization of the menstrual cycle; reduced premenstrual dysphoric disorder symptoms; and reduced risk of endometrial cancer (approximately 50%), ovarian cancer (approximately 40%), and colorectal cancer.22-24

Risks and Contraindications

It is important to consider the potential risks associated with the use of COCs, especially in women with AV who are not seeking a method of contraception. Side effects of COCs can include nausea, breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding, and weight gain.25,26 Potential adverse associations of COCs are described in the Table. The major potential vascular associations include venous thromboembolism, myocardial infarction, and cerebrovascular accident, all of which are influenced by concurrent factors such as a history of smoking, age (≥35 years), and hypertension.27-32 It is recommended that blood pressure be measured before initiating COC therapy as part of the general examination.33

The potential increase in breast cancer risk appears to be low, while the cervical cancer risk is reported to increase relative to the duration of use.34-37 This latter observation may be due to the greater likelihood of unprotected sex in women using a COC and exposure to multiple sexual partners in some cases, which may increase the likelihood of oncogenic human papillomavirus infection of the cervix. If a dermatologist elects to prescribe a COC to treat AV, it has been suggested that the patient also consult with her general practitioner or gynecologist to undergo pelvic and breast examinations and a Papanicolaou test.33 The recommendation for initial screening for cervical cancer is within 3 years of initiation of sexual intercourse or by 21 years of age, whichever is first.33,38,39


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