Like it or not, we are all made of hormones. But far from being the inconvenient party-pooper crazymakers their bad rap might have you believe, hormones are in fact highly intuitive chemical messengers that regulate our organs and tell our body how to function. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are the three main sex hormones that control the menstrual cycle and, in the most part, they play an effective balancing act, rising and falling in beautiful symbiosis. But, as skin is an outward visible manifestation of all that our body is going through, it’s little wonder that what our hormones are getting up to is often written across our faces.
“Women most definitely have a skin cycle relative to our hormones,” says skincare expert and Pai Skincare founder, Sarah Brown. For some, it’s a random blemish or dried out dullness, while for others it’s a full-on flare up. “A drier skin type would most likely get the odd pimple or two during their cycle, whereas an oilier skin is more susceptible to acne due to increased sebum production but that isn’t to say that dry skin types won’t also experience hormonal acne too,” Brown explains.
Affectionately known as the diva hormone, oestrogen gives you that sass and makes you all woman. Skin loves oestrogen; it suppresses sebum production, reduces bacteria, boosts hydration and also kick-starts collagen production. So, in the menstruating phase when oestrogen is at its monthly low, skin is understandably at its worst. Fast-forward 10 days though to when you’re ovulating, oestrogen takes the main stage and skin is clear and glowing. You’ll likely be firing on all cylinders too, enjoying peak creativity, railing through the to-do lists and generally enjoying life.
Yet, as with all divas, things can get out of hand, so along comes progesterone to calm things down and keep your party-girl side in check, as this hormone also helps you to rest. “Progesterone can increase sebum production and sebum-filled pores are the ideal place for bacteria to live – particularly P. acnes, which loves to colonise these pores and cause inflammatory acne,” explains Laura Rudoe of Evolve Skincare.
How to treat hormonal acne
So how can we stop hormonal acne? Using light moisturising products that are noncomedogenic (clogging) can help to stop skin from being overloaded during this phase. Also, using topical exfoliators such as AHA (glycolic acid) or BHA (salicylic acid) toners 2-3 times a week can help remove any dead skin cells clogging pores. “Menopause can also be a typical time for skin to go on a rampage because of the significant alterations in hormone levels. It’s estimated that 50 percent of women ages 20 to 29 have hormonal acne but around 25 percent of women ages 40 to 49 are still affected by hormonal skin,” continues Rudoe. “During perimenopause, the ovaries begin to produce less and less oestrogen, so by the time menopause hits, both oestrogen and testosterone levels are low and skin suffers from dryness, loss of elasticity and starts ageing more rapidly. Switching your skincare up to include a creamier cleanser, richer moisturiser, anti-ageing serum and sun protection can help to guard against this.”
If you have a hormonal condition like endometriosis, where the uterus lining grows in places it shouldn’t, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hormonal skin flare-ups can be extreme and painful. “Bizarrely, it’s still unclear as to why endometriosis occurs but we do know that abnormal hormone levels can cause tissue to build up,” says nutritional therapist Marjolein Dutry van Haeften, (hormoniously.com), whose London clinic is dedicated to supporting female health. “Women with PCOS often have acne and an inbuilt resistance to oestrogen means they don’t benefit from the super glowy skin stage either.”
She believes both conditions are linked to gut health and keeping a food diary is the first step to finding a solution. Hormones are powerful and complex, so the key is not to fight the tide. Know what to expect, understand why it’s happening and treat it accordingly. Everyone’s hormones are doing this to differing extents so rather than resenting their influence, trust your body and its ancient chemistry. We can sometimes feel our body is betraying us but accepting our body’s wisdom can help us to appreciate it, work together with our hormones and feel far better as a result.
Know your skin’s hormone cycle
So how do you know what to expect? It’s actually fairly simple; map where you are in your menstrual cycle and you’ll have a good idea of your hormone levels.
- Day 1-5: Menstruation Oestrogen and progesterone are low and you might feel it too. Skin may look lacklustre and drab.
- Day 6-13: Follicular Phase Preparing for ovulation and things are looking up, oestrogen and testosterone levels are rising slowly and your skin should be clearing up nicely.
- Day 14-16: Ovulation Oestrogen is at a high so you’re feeling good and your skin is clear. This is when we feel most positive about our appearance.
- Day 17-28: Luteal Phase Progesterone builds, soars and then comes back down again. During this phase skin swelling and pore tightening due to water retention can lead to excess sebum and clogged pores. In a word, acne.
Take down skin disruptors
In the UK, we’re wising up to the fact that most plastic products, including water bottles and food wraps, can release chemicals that act like oestrogen. BPA is one of the most widespread chemicals found in things like plastic straws, the concern being that this chemical can spread into food and disrupt our hormonal balance. Parabens used in beauty products to give them a longer shelf life also expose the body to BPA and are particularly prevalent in synthetic perfumes. Switching to parabenfree skincare and natural fragrances is a good way to sidestep the risk.
What to eat for better skin
Studies have shown that hormonal skin is intrinsically linked to gut health, so in this case you can absolutely eat yourself radiant. Foods rich in vitamins B and C boost your progesterone levels, so stock up on greens – especially cauliflower, broccoli and kale – and also egg yolks in the middle of your cycle. However, if you find yourself a tad constipated towards the end of your cycle, it may well be you’re maxing out on progesterone and this harbouring of toxins can lead to congested skin and breakouts.
Fibre and water are the best way to flush out toxins and both olive and hemp oil work wonders to flush out the gut. If you eat meat, choose organic because farm animals are often given synthetic hormones to speed up growth and when you eat their meat, you ingest these too. Swapping dairy for almond milk can also benefit skin.
Foods rich in vitamin B6 regulate hormones no matter where you are in your cycle so stock up on salmon, beans and kale for dinner.
Finally, avoid maxing out on sugar in all its forms, it’s super-inflammatory and as soon as your insulin drops, acne-triggering cortisol will kick in. More of these please!
5 skincare ingredients for acne-prone skin
- Zinc not only stops bacteria from growing and has anti-inflammatory properties but also helps your body use vitamin A, which helps repair the skin and reduce acne.
- Epilobium is an Alpine herb that reduces the activity of the enzyme 5-alpha reductase making the skin less oily, therefore reducing the likelihood of breakouts.
- Salicylic acid is an excellent exfoliator for breakouts and helps to unclog pores.
- Copaiba is a rainforest herb with antibacterial activity that’s seriously gaining popularity in beauty products.
- Pomegranate oil boosts local hormone levels and the seeds are rich in lignans – fibre-associated compounds which provide antioxidant and oestrogenic effects.
How to get rid of hormonal acne
The good news is that there are lots of products out there to help you get rid of hormonal acne. Here are some products you can try to give your skin a helping hand…
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% and Zinc 1%
This pocket-friendly serum is popular with people who have acne – The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% and Zinc 1% is just £5 from Boots! The serum reduces the appearance of large pores, helps uneven skin tone and balances sebum production.
Tea Tree Anti-Imperfection night mask
This soothing Tea Tree Anti-Imperfection night mask is £12 from the Body Shop. It’s perfect if you tend to get inflammation along with your flare-ups, as it helps to reduce blemishes and redness.
Pai Skincare Camellia and Rose hydrating cleanser
Cleanse with an oil first to remove impurities on the skin’s surface, then follow with a calming cream cleanser like Pai Skincare Middlemist Seven Camellia & Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser, £34 – it will leave pores truly clear.
Baie Botanique Rose Renew Anti-Aging Serum
For the downright drab days, when oestrogen levels are low, reach for a smoothing, brightening serum. Baie Botanique Rose Renew Anti-Aging Serum, £34, gives us that glow factor.
Evolve Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner
When high levels of sebum are produced, pores can become blocked. Evolve Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner, £20, contains AHA and BHA to encourage cell renewal and unclog pores.
Skyn Iceland Blemish Dots
When time is of the essence, Skyn Iceland Blemish Dots, £20 (marksandspencer.com) are the quick-as-a-flash solution. Gel patches saturated with salicylic acid offer a targeted treatment for lone blemishes.
Tandem Back on Track Booster
Inflammation and general skin anger demands daily drops of Tandem Back on Track Booster, £20. Naturally anti-bacterial willow bark extract reduces redness and controls oil production.
NIOD Copper Amino Isloate Lipid 1%
When you’re staring in the face of skin that’s lost its life-force, NIOD Copper Amino Isloate Lipid 1%, £70, is a turbo boost. Beauty editor beloved, this blue gel is a pro-collagen, barrier building, elasticising wonder!
Looking for more skincare and beauty tips? Learn how to take care of your skin this winter using natural skincare ingredients, discover how taking care of your gut can heal your skin and have a go at making your own DIY coconut shampoo.
About our skincare experts
Marjolein Dutry van Haeften
Marjolein is a registered nutritional therapist at hormoniously.com, who uses comprehensive lab testing to design personalised nutrition and lifestyle programs to transform women’s lives.
After her skin became unusually irritated, Sarah discovered even ‘organic’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ products contained synthetics and irritants. So, she set up Pai Skincare to fill the gap.
Laura set up Good Ventures in 2008 with the mission to create new organic personal care brands that make a difference. A former Management Consultant and Venture Capitalist, Laura holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and was the founding employee of NUDE skincare.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 36. Featured image by Unsplash/Park Street.