For Residents

The ABCs of COCs: A Guide for Dermatology Residents on Combined Oral Contraceptives

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Despite the number of on-label and off-label uses for combined oral contraceptives (COCs) in dermatology, research suggests that dermatologists underprescribe COCs. With the intention of familiarizing dermatology residents with COCs, this article discusses ways to assess patient eligibility, select a COC, counsel on use, and manage risks and side effects.

Resident Pearls

  • Screen for contraindications to combined oral contraceptives (COCs) by taking a medical history, measuring a baseline blood pressure, and excluding pregnancy. A baseline pelvic examination is unnecessary.
  • Characteristics to consider when selecting a COC include the formulation, hormone-free interval, estrogen dose, and progestin type.
  • Combined oral contraceptives can be initiated on any day of the menstrual cycle, with the need for backup contraception based on the number of days since the first day of the patient’s most recent period.
  • Management of risks and side effects includes simple lifestyle changes, skipping the hormone-free interval, switching the COC, and referring to an obstetrician/gynecologist.



The American Academy of Dermatology confers combined oral contraceptives (COCs) a strength A recommendation for the treatment of acne based on level I evidence, and 4 COCs are approved for the treatment of acne by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).1 Furthermore, when dermatologists prescribe isotretinoin and thalidomide to women of reproductive potential, the iPLEDGE and THALOMID Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) programs require 2 concurrent methods of contraception, one of which may be a COC. In addition, COCs have several potential off-label indications in dermatology including idiopathic hirsutism, female pattern hair loss, hidradenitis suppurativa, and autoimmune progesterone dermatitis.

Despite this evidence and opportunity, research suggests that dermatologists underprescribe COCs. The National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey found that between 1993 and 2008, dermatologists in the United States prescribed COCs to only 2.03% of women presenting for acne treatment, which was less often than obstetricians/gynecologists (36.03%) and internists (10.76%).2 More recently, in a survey of 130 US dermatologists conducted from 2014 to 2015, only 55.4% reported prescribing COCs. This survey also found that only 45.8% of dermatologists who prescribed COCs felt very comfortable counseling on how to begin taking them, only 48.6% felt very comfortable counseling patients on side effects, and only 22.2% felt very comfortable managing side effects.3

In light of these data, this article reviews the basics of COCs for dermatology residents, from assessing patient eligibility and selecting a COC to counseling on use and managing risks and side effects. Because there are different approaches to prescribing COCs, readers are encouraged to integrate the information in this article with what they have learned from other sources.

Assess Patient Eligibility

In general, patients should be at least 14 years of age and have waited 2 years after menarche to start COCs. They can be taken until menopause.1,4 Contraindications can be screened for by taking a medical history and measuring a baseline blood pressure (Tables 1 and 2).5 In addition, pregnancy should be excluded with a urine or serum pregnancy test or criteria provided in Box 2 of the 2016 US Selected Practice Recommendations for Contraceptive Use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 Although important for women’s overall health, a pelvic examination is not required to start COCs according to the CDC and the American Academy of Dermatology.1,4

Select the COC

Combined oral contraceptives combine estrogen, usually in the form of ethinyl estradiol, with a progestin. Data suggest that all COCs effectively treat acne, but 4 are specifically FDA approved for acne: ethinyl estradiol–norethindrone acetate–ferrous fumarate, ethinyl estradiol–norgestimate, ethinyl estradiol–drospirenone, and ethinyl estradiol–drospirenone–levomefolate.1 Ethinyl estradiol–desogestrel and ethinyl estradiol–drospirenone are 2 go-to COCs for some of the attending physicians at my residency program. All COCs are FDA approved for contraception. When selecting a COC, one approach is to start with the patient’s drug formulary, then consider the following characteristics.


Recommended Reading

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The Role of Adolescent Acne Treatment in Formation of Scars Among Patients With Persistent Adult Acne: Evidence From an Observational Study
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iPledge: Fetal exposure to isotretinoin continues
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