Opinion: Healing my inflamed, acne-ridden skin after coming off the contraceptive pill

OPINION: There was no dire medical reason that made me decide to disable my daily alarm and stop taking that little yellow pill for good last year. 

I certainly would never want to speak ill of the contraceptive pill, which first arrived on the scene in New Zealand in the 1960s and was a transformative, key part of the sexual revolution for women: finally, people with uteruses had a chance to control their own fertility.  

Over the decades 'the pill' has evolved with lower doses and different combinations of hormones, and it's the only method of hormonal contraception which results in a regular, predictable bleed pattern. 

Personally I was placed on the pill at age 16 as a way to deal with my debilitating periods. As with many teens, I wasn't given a whole host of information - just a prescription, a wordy leaflet I threw in the bin, and excitement over being able to have worry-free sex when that day finally came for me - a devastating span of several years, as it happened. 

Of course, as all users of the pill know, it comes with a host of side effects many of us suffer from in silence. For the last decade I dealt with fatigue, constant bloating, numbed emotions and a low libido. You know, the usual. The cross we bear in order to be able to have agency over our own sex lives. 

woman taking hormonal birth control
Many of us are placed on hormonal contraception as teens, with little idea of the impact on our bodies. Photo credit: Getty.

But to be honest, my reasoning for coming off it was more down to the fact I had been suppressing my own hormonal regulation for over a decade, and I decided it was time to get a gauge of my health and fertility in case, in some far off future, it was time to open my uterus for habitation. 

As it turns out, side effects aside, one thing I took for granted was the pill giving me clear, glowing skin. Now I reckon the 'con' part of the word contraceptive could be there because it CONS us all into thinking we have a perfect complexion.

That is especially true of Ginet 84, the contraceptive pill I was placed on at age 16, because it is an 'anti-androgen' -  a class of testosterone blockers which reduce sebum production and comedone formation. 

I had dabbled with pill 'breaks' before but went off it for good in March 2020. My reasoning was we were headed into six weeks of lockdown, and I thought there was no better time, in case I suffered the infamous post-pill acne surge my research had told me was common. 

I'd deal with the breakouts while hiding from the world, I reasoned, and would emerge into COVID-19 alert level 2 an acne-free, ovulating, hormonally regulated angel. 

HA! Oh how looking back on that naivety makes me laugh now. 

Ironically, those six weeks sheltering our homes saw my skin at some of its best, even while I suffered the effects of 'post-birth control syndrome', as it's known. 

The withdrawal of exogenous synthetic hormones I'd been packing into my body for a year saw my mood go absolutely mental. Mixed with the intensity of lockdown, a few A-grade breakdowns occurred.

One notable occasion saw me throw a kilogram of brioche dough onto the floor and weep that I was too stupid to bake. 

But through it all, my skin remained pretty regular. I thought I was going to be lucky and maybe avoid any post-pill acne completely. 

Sometime around July, about four months after stopping the pill, things began to change, starting off with a series of breakouts around my chin and jawline. They were deep, painful and red.

Every morning there appeared to be more and they didn't stop at the typically 'hormonal' area of my jawline. 

Over the next few months, the breakouts began to draw up towards my hairline, my temples, my forehead - even down my neck. They weren't just deep, cystic wounds; there were clusters of tiny whiteheads, small, bump-like cysts known as milia scattered across my forehead and many, many red bumps forming constellations across my cheeks.

hormonal acne from the pill
Some beautiful, flattering selfies showing just how angry my skin was during this time. Photo credit: Newshub.

As Newshub's lifestyle editor, I have access to a myriad of free lotions and potions that come across my desk. I attacked my acne with every weapon in my arsenal: exfoliants, drying creams, retinol, oils, oil-free moisturisers - it all went on there.

My face became a speed dating singles mixer for high-strength cosmetics. In theory, I knew I was doing more harm than good, but I was a woman obsessed. It's all I could think about from the moment I woke up in the morning until when I went to bed at night.

large array of cosmetics
Just a tiny portion of the lotions and potions I attacked my skin with each evening. Photo credit: Newshub.

I made my poor boyfriend examine my face seven times a day and tell me if he thought my acne looked better. I cancelled plans with friends in order to hide my face inside.

I cried a lot.

I realise it might be very much a 'first world problem', but personally, I found it debilitating. As a lifestyle editor, I'm meant to be walking the walk on my beauty and health advice. But turning up to events with other media I felt like a fraud. I thought all they would be focusing on was my acne, which gave me the appearance of a hormonal teen at the grand old age of 26. Maybe they thought I lived on a diet of McDonald's and meth. 

Around the end of last year I decided enough was enough. I was going to perform a last-ditch effort and turn to others for help, or I was going to go back on the pill. 

The next steps I took were incredibly beneficial for me, but I want to make very clear they may not be for everyone. 

Disclaimer: This is my experience. The approach in this article worked for me, but will not work for everyone. Always seek medical advice before making any changes to hormonal contraception. 

The first to answer my call were the angels at Skintopia, a treatment clinic with locations in Auckland and Wellington. I will forever be grateful to Chelsea, Thai and Renae - you ladies have my heart.

They took my raw, over-exfoliated, often bleeding little face into their calming hands and completely transformed my skin. They taught me my face - instead of oily as I presumed - was now incredibly dry and stripped, and the more I piled onto it the more oil it secreted, resulting in angry acne. 

Sarah's Angels, as I think of them now, gently chemically peeled away the angry, acne-prone skin and chucked so much nourishment into it I finally began to get my glow back. Acne lesions were extracted, icey-globe thingies were run over it, LED light treatment helped kill the bacteria at a cellular level.

The image you have of a facial, with soothing music playing as someone massages essential oils into your face? This is not that. These women are like a skin SWAT team with a methodical, science-backed approach to skin.

The Skintopia team put my face in this 'Observ' machine, which was confronting, terrifying, and conveyed some sort of important information to them.
The Skintopia team put my face in this 'Observ' machine, which was confronting, terrifying, and conveyed some sort of important information to them. Photo credit: Supplied/Skintopia.

I will forever be grateful to them and cannot recommend them highly enough. If you live elsewhere in the country, Caci Clinic is a great alternative and of course, certified dermatologists can act like miracle workers. 

In conjunction with these treatments, I was put onto a proper nutritional supplement regime from the team BePure. You see, the contraceptive pill for all its amazing and helpful uses can strip our body of nutrients. As soon as we're off it, our body cries out for those vitamins and minerals and they need to get replaced. For me, that meant taking a myriad of supplements including zinc, omega three, a powerhouse multivitamin, magnesium and collagen - again this is definitely not a one size-fits-all approach.

Have a chat with BePure about your own needs or any of the many other reputable brands like Healtheries and Clinicians, and of course, talking to a medical professional is always recommended. 

Now finally, after a year of tears, tantrums and treatments, my skin is finally beginning to return to its new normal. It has honestly taken over 12 months to see improvement, and to anyone struggling with the same thing, I would say be warned  - it will get worse before it gets better. One thing I have learned on my skin-healing journey is that many, many adult women are going through the same thing. 

But overall, I'm trying to accept and normalise skin that doesn't look as if it's had TikTok's beauty filter placed on it. 

On the left - my skin in September last year. On the right - my skin in March. It's not perfect, but it's getting better.
On the left - my skin in September last year. On the right - my skin in March. It's not perfect, but it's getting better. Photo credit: Newshub.

My skin is not and will never be perfect again - it is scarred, with massive amounts of post-inflammatory pigmentation, and I still battle breakouts. Now I focus on packing it with hydration and just rock a bold lip if I need to distract from a chin full of pre-period pustules. 

Products I've found helpful on my skin healing journey: 

Dermalogica Ultra-Calming Cleanser: I first began attacking my acne with stripping, over-drying cleansers which caused my skin to pump out extra oil to make up for it. This calming cleanser helps to clean my face without stripping it, and helps reduce redness. 

Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant: Using this consistently gave me amazing results, especially on the little bumps that began to crop up. It's hydrating while still delivering salicylic acid - a great gentle exfoliator which gets right down into the pores to kill bacteria. 

La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo: Benzoyl peroxide is a miracle ingredient for many people battling acne - it's proven to kill the acne-causing bacteria in the skin. Personally, I can find it a little savage on my sensitive skin, so this moisturising formula is a gentle way to apply it. 

Dermalogica Powerbright Dark Spot Serum OR Emma Lewshiam Skin Reset: Both are super nourishing serums which punch above their weight when dealing to post-acne hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone. 

Sunblock: Any that works for you is the one you need to use. There is no point trying to heal your skin and fix pigmentation if you're letting it constantly get exposed to the biggest source of inflammation. A zinc-based product is great for healing the skin, while protecting it from UVA and UVB rays. 

Dermalogica Melting Moisture Mask:  Once or twice a week I slather this on my face and it just sucks it up and leaves it glowing and plump. It's a great hit of moisture that personally doesn't aggravate my pimples in any way. 


Sarah was gifted free treatments at Skintopia and free supplements from BePure.