In June 2018, I decided to stop taking the pill because like many women, I suspected it was interfering with my mental health. There are two types of oral contraceptive: the progestogen-only pill, which contains the hormone progestogen but doesn't contain oestrogen, and the combined pill, which contains both. According to research, taking the combined pill especially is linked to an increased risk of depression, and studies continue to uncover the adverse effects oral contraception can have on women's mental wellbeing.
For me, eliminating the pill from my life was the logical thing to do, and while my mental health improved, my skin went in the complete opposite direction. Naively, I didn’t anticipate the impact that the change in hormones coursing through my body would have on my complexion. As is often the case for lots of women, being on the pill meant my skin was at its best: more even-toned than ever and no hormonal breakouts. I didn’t touch a drop of foundation until I left university – something I took for granted during seven years on contraception.
As soon as I came off the pill, I started to experience signs of 'problem' skin. I noticed bouts of acne all over my skin and I no longer looked bright and refreshed in the morning. Instead, my pores were heavily congested and my cheeks and forehead were sensitive and red. While my mental health showed improvement, my self-esteem nosedived, and leaving the house without wearing makeup filled me with fear.
According to London-based consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk, it is not uncommon for women who have been on the combined pill for several years to experience skin problems, especially breakouts, after discontinuation. "A proportion of women who take the pill will 'grow out' of their acne during the time they’re on it and therefore won’t experience a flare-up when they stop taking it," she explained. "Others, however, will find that their acne recurs or even reveals itself for the first time once treatment is discontinued, which suggests that the pill was masking the acne all along. The combined contraceptive pill can work very well for women who suffer with breakouts, especially around the time of their period, and pills with anti-androgen activity can also be especially helpful. Yasmin is an example."
But if the pill is no longer an option for whatever reason, what can you do to get your skin back to its equilibrium? Dr Kluk suggests a few changes to your skincare routine can help to control a post-pill breakout, such as gently cleansing morning and evening (making sure not to scrub too hard, which can exacerbate acne and sensitive flare-ups), followed by a moisturiser with at least SPF30. She adds: "Always check the label for the words 'non-comedogenic' which means the product is less likely to block the pores." In the evenings, a targeted bacteria-zapping gel containing benzoyl peroxide or a pore-unblocking agent containing salicylic acid can be applied to affected areas after cleansing. And here’s one that we all know: "Whatever you do, do not squeeze or pick your blackheads. Try a pore-cleansing face mask once or twice per week and if this doesn’t help, you could have your blackheads professionally extracted by an experienced beauty therapist under strict hygienic conditions."
After nine months of trial and error and lots of research, my hormones have settled and I have managed to nail my skincare routine. I no longer experience as many bouts of spots, but uneven tone and dryness are still sometimes a daily struggle. I didn’t seek help from a dermatologist in my quest for improved skin, but there are ingredients and products which worked wonders for me.
In the evening, Dr Justine suggests double cleansing as an effective way to ensure skin is as prepped as possible to absorb active spot-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid. She recommends micellar water, such as Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water, followed by a gentle gel or cream cleanser. Try La Roche-Posay Effaclar H Hydrating Cleansing Cream. For those with especially greasy skin, opt for a foaming cleanser. I double cleanse every night with Superdrug Tea Tree Foaming Facial Wash or Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser.
I found that my skin reacted well to a low percentage daily chemical exfoliator containing glycolic acid, namely Pixi Glow Tonic, to minimise skin staining left behind by spots and to cut through the thick mixture of dead skin cells and oil, which can cause further breakouts. It keeps the dryness on my cheeks at bay and makes my oil slick of a nose more manageable. Dr Justine stresses the importance of using sunscreen in the morning to reduce redness and irritation when using an acid exfoliator. I also upped the ante on hydrating products in an attempt to get that lit-from-within glow, employing a hyaluronic acid serum after cleansing, followed by Mario Badescu Seaweed Night Cream, and night-masking with the Glam Glow Thirstymud Hydrating Treatment three times a week.
Putting in the extra time and effort to find a skincare routine that worked for me during this time not only means I now feel much more comfortable in my own skin, but that my mental health no longer suffers. Of course, this particular routine might not work for everyone, and if you do find yourself struggling with your skin after ditching the pill, book an appointment to visit your GP or a trusted dermatologist for further advice.