How Our Menstrual Cycle Affects Our Skin
When we think of the term ‘pre-menstrual syndrome’, problems like anxiety, mood swings and feeling down probably spring to mind. Other issues such as poor concentration, changes in libido, headaches and bloating are also common problems that many women experience in the run up to menstruation.
Perhaps less well known though is the havoc that monthly changes in hormones can play on our skin. To understand how and why, we need to know that our menstrual cycle is controlled by a closely orchestrated set of changes in the levels of two main hormones. Oestrogen, which is produced in our ovaries and which peaks twice in our cycle at approximately days 13 and 22 and progesterone, which is at its highest around day 22.
These hormones trigger various responses throughout our bodies as they are transported around in our blood, including having an effect of on our largest organ of all, our skin. Both the upper ‘epidermis’ layers of our skin and the lower ‘dermal’ layers are affected by these hormones. They impact on the amount of oil and sebum it produces, its elasticity, thickness and the amount of fat stored just under the lower layers. They also affect hydration levels and strength of our skin’s barrier against pollutants and ultraviolet rays.
Not only this but changing levels of hormones over our menstrual cycle also, lead to variations in our skin’s immunity and susceptibility to disease. As researchers from Norwich University Hospital have reported, many skin problems like acne, psoriasis, atopic eczema, and general skin irritations get worse, when progesterone is at its peak.
All in all, dermatologists acknowledge that while this is an area of growing research, understanding that fluctuating levels of oestrogen and progesterone can have a profound impact on our skin, plays an important part in helping us deal with the physical and in turn, emotional and psychological impact of our menstrual cycle.
Here, we outline six keyways in which you can help your skin during your menstrual cycle.
Scientists writing in the Journal of Cosmetic Science report that our skin is most susceptible to damaging ultra-violet rays of the sun between days 20 to 28 of our menstrual cycle when oestrogen, which helps to trigger production of our skins protective pigment melanin, is at its lowest. While use of a 30 plus protection sun cream is important throughout both every month, it is helpful to know that applying sun protection cream is particularly important in the eight days prior to your period starting. Using skin creams and serums enriched with antioxidants like vitamins C, A and E as well as the orange pigment beta carotene, is also a good idea. Citrus fruits, berries, green leafy vegetables, and tomatoes all make great choices
On analysing changes in women’s skin throughout our monthly cycles, doctors have been able to find a link between secretion of oils and sebum being at their highest and days 16 to 20. Microbial counts were also discovered to be at their highest at this time. Using skin cream with plant extracts that helps both antibacterial action such as manuka and tea tree and constituents like propolis, which can lower sebum production, could prove particularly effective during this period our cycle.
Between days 22 and 26 of our cycle is the time when our skin appears to be at its weakest in terms of its ‘barrier’ function. In other words, applying daily morning and night skin treatments to our face as well as body and hands is especially important at this time in our cycle, to help protect reduce pollutants in the atmosphere being absorbed into our skin and from moisture being lost from it.
Days one to six is the time during our cycle that researchers have identified when skin dryness is most likely to occur. It makes sense then to be vigilant to avoid drying soaps and sanitisers and exposing our hands and other skin parts to cleaning chemicals at these times. Look for body creams with extra nourishing and soothing ingredients such as neem, chamomile, and sunflower oil. Rich, creamy face cleansers are good options at this time of the month as are body cleansers that clean without irritating, sensitising, or drying our skin. Look for ingredients including olive oil, coconut extracts and apricot.
Acne, Psoriasis and Atopic Eczema
Dermatologists believe progesterone generally reduces the strength of our skins barrier and its ability to fight off pollutants and irritants in the atmosphere, which means that from day eight when it starts to rise until its peak at day 21 in our cycle, is the time common ‘dermatoses’ (skin conditions), tend to flare up. Forearmed is forewarned and having this information under your belt allows you to be prepared and help to pre-empt such episodes.
Acne: A high-fibre style of eating and boosting antioxidants and omega 3 essential fats helps some people with acne. Trying hard to be consistent in these nutritional steps by including wholegrains in meals and snacks, eating plenty of vegetables and fruits and a serving of oily fish each week may be especially helpful, at this time. It is also worth considering an antioxidant supplement and one providing omega 3’s, especially if you follow a plant-based style of eating.
Psoriasis: Omega 3 supplements may also prove helpful if your menstrual skin reaction includes regular outbreaks of psoriasis. A natural anti-inflammatory, taking it throughout the month helps to build and sustain levels. Look too for skin creams containing neem, another natural anti-inflammatory as well as extracts from wild pansy.
Eczema: Should dairy be a trigger for your eczema, the day eight until day 21 window, may well be a good time to cut right back, while allowing yourself more leeway at other times in the month. Taking evening primrose oil supplements, linseed oil and probiotics may also help to dampen down episodes of eczema. Meanwhile, look for creams containing neem, chickweed, chamomile, and wild pansy to soothe skin from the outside.
Oestrogen and Progesterone Imbalances
Also known as ‘chasteberry’, extracts of agnus cactus have been used to treat ‘female’ complaints, for centuries, dating back to Hippocrates in the fourth century BC. Today, medical herbalists believe extracts from this plant help, by acting on our pituitary gland, which controls production of oestrogen and progesterone in our bodies, helping to even out production of both. This may help to dampen down excess progesterone, which is related to skin flare-ups. It should not be taken if already using hormonal medications such as the contraceptive pill and if pregnant. Otherwise, let your doctor know you are giving it a try and take on days throughout the month, apart from when menstruating.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)