Pregnancy Acne: What Causes It, How To Alleviate It

Published July 20th, 2022 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Everyone knows that getting pregnant can lead to symptoms like changes in appetite, weight gain, missed periods, and morning sickness.

But some symptoms are less talked about in comparison.

One of these is pregnancy acne, a common occurrence that’s just as frustrating as all the others.

So what exactly causes pregnancy acne? And how can it be fixed? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Pregnancy Acne?

Acne is an inflammatory disorder of the skin in which the hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells. It can cause red bumps on the skin and whiteheads, blackheads, or other blemishes.

Pregnancy acne is not a particular form of acne – it’s just acne. It’s just that some people seem to have much more trouble with it during pregnancy than they do when they’re not bearing a child.

It’s most common in the first trimester but can also occur in the second or third trimester.

In most cases, acne does not cause physical discomfort, and it does not pose any harm to the baby.

However, it can look unsightly, and if you scratch open a pimple or zit, you risk infection.

What Causes Pregnancy Acne?

There are many different reasons why pregnant individuals might experience more acne than others. Here are some of the most common.

Hormone Changes

It’s no secret that hormones run amok during pregnancy, which is one of the main causes of pregnancy acne. 

Sebaceous glands are tiny glands near the skin's surface that are attached to hair follicles.

These produce oil, or sebum, to prevent the skin from drying out. However, hormone changes can cause these glands to produce excessive amounts of sebum, resulting in too much oil on the skin.

This excess sebum can make the hair follicles become blocked and clogged.

Women are also more likely to experience acne than men, and pregnancy acne is most common during the first three months of childbearing.

Starting or Stopping Birth Control Pills

When you take birth control pills, you might notice that acne subsides; birth control pills usually contain the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which reduce androgen levels in the body. 

Androgen is a hormone that can cause the sebaceous glands to produce oil. In other words, many people who take birth control pills notice less acne.

So, if you suddenly stop taking birth control pills to become pregnant, you might start seeing more acne on your body. Androgen levels will naturally rise, and so can the production of oil. 

Additionally, some people who start to use non-hormonal birth control might also notice worsening acne.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal disorder in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of the male sex hormone androgen, causing small fluid-filled sacs (cysts) to form in the ovaries. 

Symptoms of PCOS include missed periods, enlarged ovaries, weight gain, or excess body hair. But it can also cause excessive acne or oily skin due to increased androgen.

How To Treat Pregnancy Acne

While acne during pregnancy can look unsightly and feel frustrating, the good news is that there are some effective ways to go about treating it.

Traditional acne treatments are not usually recommended during pregnancy as they can cause birth defects or negatively impact the pregnancy. 

Avoid these common acne treatments unless otherwise recommended by your doctor:

  • Isotretinoin
  • Tetracyclines
  • Tretinoin
  • Spironolactone
  • Doxycycline
  • Tazarotene

There are plenty of alternative acne treatments and prevention options. Let’s discuss a few. 

Use Gentle Facial Cleansers

The most effective method for reducing acne is using a gentle facial cleanser to help remove built-up dirt and oil on the skin.

You should use a gentle cleanser with lukewarm water twice daily. Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are common skincare ingredients in over-the-counter skincare products that can help regulate oil on the skin.

Be sure to choose a cleanser that matches your skin type. If you have dry skin, you’ll need to use a different kind of cleanser than people with oily skin.

Check product labels before you buy to ensure you’re using the right products.

Avoid products like facial scrubs and astringents, as these can irritate the skin and worsen acne.

You can also irritate the skin by washing excessively, so you only need to wash twice daily or when there is visible dirt on the skin.

Additionally, be sure to use oil-free moisturizers, topicals, or creams to help prevent excess oil production on the skin. You can even try using oil-free sunscreen to reduce oil production.

Avoid Picking or Squeezing Blemishes

Pimples are ugly, but they’re pretty much always harmless. However, if you pick, poke, and prod at your acne, you risk infection.

In severe acne cases, an infection can become life-threatening for you and your baby, so your best action is to let pimples run their course and go away on their own.

Some people find that a cold compress offers relief if their acne is itchy or inflamed.

Additionally, you can contact a dermatologist for professional removal of pimples if they become too much to bear.

Phototherapy

If acne is too stubborn to be alleviated with cleansing, you can talk to a dermatologist for the next steps.

Many healthcare providers might avoid prescribing acne medications (like topical retinoids or Retin-A) as a precaution during pregnancy. However, there is an alternative treatment that might be effective.

Phototherapy involves using blue light to improve skin conditions like acne. It works by killing the specific bacteria that may clog pores.

The light forms toxic substances that kill the bacteria while also shrinking the oil glands to make them less prone to clogging.

Talk to your doctor about blue light therapy as a treatment option for acne to see if it might be the right choice for you.

Preventing Pregnancy Acne

One of the best ways to treat acne is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

While there’s not much you can do about the hormone changes during pregnancy, there are ways to reduce your risk of blemishes.

For one, your diet greatly affects your skin health, so take extra care to ensure you’re eating right. Fruits, vegetables, and lean meats are skin-healthy foods, whereas fried foods and foods with added sugars can contribute to more acne.

Additionally, exercising is essential while you’re pregnant, but excess sweat can cause the build-up of bacteria and dirt on the skin.

Be sure to shower or change your clothes after excessive sweating to reduce the risk of acne flare-ups.

Ensure you use clean and fresh pillowcases. Using the same bedding every night can expose your skin to trapped bacteria causing skin problems. 

Finally, keep makeup to a minimum, and if you have to put some on, be sure to remove it before bed. Makeup can easily clog the pores and lead to acne breakouts.

In Conclusion

Pregnancy acne is just regular acne that happens to occur during pregnancy.

However, your hormone levels during pregnancy and changes in birth control medication can make acne more prevalent and severe during your reproductive years.

Acne can be treated through gentle facial cleansers and medication, though doctors might opt for alternative treatments like phototherapy during pregnancy.

You can also work to prevent excess oil build-up by washing your face, wearing less make-up, and showering after exercise.

References, Studies and Sources:

Acne | Johns Hopkins Medicine

Acne - Causes | NHS

Can Birth Control Pills Help with Acne Treatment? | Scripps Health

Is your workout causing your acne? | American Academy of Dermatolog

Put drug prices & coupons in your pocket!

We'll text you a link to download our free Android or iPhone app