Skincare through the menstrual cycle
I woke up with two lurkers on my face today. You know the ones - spots that aren’t yet visible but you can feel, threatening to break the surface at any point but probably biding their time until the one event I have this week I want to look nice for, when it’ll suddenly spring up, a bright, red, angry looking thing right on the end of my chin. The worst part? I knew it was coming, because it happens every bloody month. It’s recently become my first symptom of PMS, my warning that my energy and mood are about to plummet faster than a dropped sack of bricks.
Since I started working for ohne I’ve learnt the importance of tracking my cycle for literally everything, from learning to identify cycle trends to planning my schedule around times I know I’m going to be feeling great, like right before ovulation, to not so great, like when progesterone is at its lowest.
One thing I’m never prepared for, however, is hormonal spots. I never used to get them and I’ve never been someone who pays much attention to beauty tips. The extent of my beauty regime has always just been opting for cruelty-free moisturisers (Superdrug’s own brand range is genuinely great, for what it’s worth, and so affordable), trying out various organic soaps and scrubs, and religiously wearing sunscreen. I never thought about acne treatment because I never had it - I’ve always just been one of those annoying people with naturally clear skin.
But about two years ago, I started getting hormonal acne. I’ll caveat that by saying it’s nothing major compared to what a lot of people I know experience, just a few spots on my chin and eyebrow area. Unfortunately, though, they seem to be getting worse.
I suspect that the trigger was environmental, as the shift coincided with my moving to a new country, where I live in the centre of a polluted city (quite the change from the sea-air in my hometown in England) and which necessitated huge changes to my diet and routine. Since they don’t seem to be going away on their own, I decided to get to the bottom of what’s causing it, and how to battle it.
How does my period affect my skin?
Or, more accurately, what does my cycle have to do with it? All too often we overlook our periods when we’re getting a handle on our health, but our hormones and our menstrual cycles govern so much of our lives (afterall, we’re never not at some point in our cycle) that it’s never enough to brush off skin problems with ‘oh, I’m stressed’ or ‘I ate too much chocolate’. It’s important to ask how stress, or eating chocolate, influences your hormones.
While there are some 50-odd hormones coursing through our bodies, the three main reproductive hormones we’re going to be focusing on are oestrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. You can read a much more detailed account of these hormones and how they fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle right here.
Another key hormone that’s an important influence on whether or not you’re a balanced babe is cortisol, AKA the stress hormone, which is not only an important indicator of your daily wellness but interacts with the reproductive hormones in interesting ways. Stress causes raised levels of cortisol, which interferes with the testosterone pathway, contributing to oily skin and hormonal acne. Since the hormones are carried to the skin by the hair follicles, certain areas will be more prone to acne than others. Chins, for example, have a lot of hair follicles and my most spot-prone area is around, between, and sometimes even on my eyebrows, while I never get spots on my (totally hairless) cheeks.
Do I have hormonal acne?
Short answer? Probably, if you’re reading this! Over 54% of women over the age of 25% experience adult acne. According to Marie Veronique Nadeau, a chemist and skincare expert, “virtually all acne is linked to hormones”.
We can identify period pimples by a few clear signs: hormonal acne often presents primarily as pimples along the jawline and chin areas. It’s cyclical, meaning it appears and disappears in a pretty consistent pattern tied to your menstrual cycle - for example, you’re seeing pimples pop up right before your period every cycle, but in the middle of your cycle, your skin is a comparatively pimple-free zone. And - let’s get gross for a second - hormonal acne reminds you of the skin of a particularly unfortunate teenager: it’s pus-producing and the spots appear in clusters. It’s not, importantly, caused by an underlying skin condition such as eczema or rosacea, doesn’t look like a scaly rash, and isn’t persistent - e.g. it goes away after a few days… before coming back again the next month.
Dealing with hormonal acne
Hormonal acne tends to rear its ugly head(s) in the second half of our menstrual cycle, as we move from our ovulatory phase and the dizzying heights of an oestrogen high to the luteal phase, where progesterone, oestrogen's emo sister, takes over. Our friends at Urban Veda say “progesterone stimulates sebum production which can cause our currently small and closed pores to become overloaded with sebum and blocked, leading to congestion”. Their top tip is to soak up excess sebum by using a mask to draw out impurities and regularly exfoliating to allow the sebum to escape through unblocked pores.
Hormonal acne is hugely related to lifestyle, because what we’re eating, how much water we’re drinking, how much sleep we’re getting, and whether or not we’re moving our bodies has a massive impact on our hormone production - if you’re trying to tackle hormonal acne without addressing your hormonal imbalances more broadly, you’re fighting a losing battle. You can try various methods for hormone support, from taking a daily CBD oil to manipulating your diet to support your hormone cycle.
When shopping for your skincare, look out for products that contain Vitamin B5 and retinol, which can both help to regulate sebum production, or Salicylic acid, which can help clear up clogged pores. Look out for noncomedogenic products; this can be as simple as swapping your coconut oil for another omega-6-rich product such as almond oil, sunflower oil, or hempseed oil. Sidenote for the vegans and cruelty-free warriors among us: while it’s a good idea to thoroughly research all skincare and beauty products before buying them if you’d hate to support animal testing, note that many noncomedogenic products have previously relied on animal testing to receive their noncomedogenic scale rating, so be mindful of that.
Skincare is holistic
All of this is for nothing if you don’t take good care of your skin every bloody day. And I'm afraid this just means all the usual healthy-living tips we're used to hearing. Drink your 2 litres of water a day, get your beauty sleep, and watch out for patterns in your diet that cause skin flare ups - for example, whenever I eat chocolate, the evidence is speckled all over my face two days later.
But the biggest tip? ALWAYS WEAR SUNSCREEN. Seriously: you have to wear sunscreen everyday. And your spf 15 foundation is not gonna cut it, I’m afraid.
How much sunscreen is enough? According the the FDA, you’re supposed to wear 2 milligrams of sunscreen per every 1cm of skin. In human language, that’s about half a teaspoon of suncream for your entire face and neck. If you measure that out, you’ll see why that’s an almost impossible amount of foundation to be caking on every morning!
To get enough sunscreen on your body and face, a good rule of thumb is to apply it in two layers to allow it to sink in nicely. If, like me, the idea of walking around all day sweating gallons of cheap suncream into your eyes sounds like about as much fun as a bath of nails, it's worth doing your research to find a good, non-greasy suncream.
And I bet you’re wondering how often you need to reapply sunscreen - and if you’re not, you should be! Suncream needs to be reapplied throughout the day. This is a big one a lot of people (including yours truly) often forget. It’s not enough to apply sunscreen in the morning, especially if you’re going to be spending a lot of time outside. Best practise is to apply a new layer of sunscreen for every two hours you’re outside. So no, you don’t need to be lathering yourself up every few hours if you’re having a hungover duvet day, but if you’re having a picnic, beach day, a walk through the countryside, or your work takes you outdoors? Keep a bottle on you at all times.
Not all sunscreen is created equal
There’s always a bloody catch, isn’t there? According to our aforementioned skincare guru, Nadeau, we should avoid going higher than 30SPF - me and my pasty-pale skin are shaking. “Your UVA protection correlates negatively with very high SPF ratings, and it’s UVA protection you’re after,” she says. “For best protection wear a zinc oxide-only SPF 30 sunscreen every day.” Words I didn’t know I needed but now plan to live by like my (skin’s) life depends on it.
So… what skincare products should I use?
This is the big one, isn’t it? It feels like between our ever-shifting hormones and the constant balancing act between giving your skin time to get used to a new product vs giving up at the first sign of pissed-off skin, figuring out which products work for us - and in what combinations and methods - is a bloody minefield.
The 101s, ride-or-die, cycle-round skincare products you need are: a good cleanser, a moisturiser or serum, and a good sunscreen. These are basic - so basic, in fact, that the skincare fanatics reading are currently screaming at the screen in a panic - “moisturiser OR serum?! Is she MAD?! Where’s the toner, where’s the exfoliator, the facial mists?!” All I have to say to that is, well, if your skin has got completely out of control and nothing seems to be working, it’s time to strip your whole routine back to basics. If we’re playing amatuer chemist trying to strike the perfect balance between which ingredients we want, which ones we want to avoid, and our fluctuating hormone patterns, it’s a lot easier to find something that works if you’re significantly reducing the number of products you’re throwing into the mix.
Ignore the aforementioned skincare fanatics and everything Glossier girls on Twitter are posting about their new skincare fridge shelfies (or whatever it is this week) because they’re on a whole other level. They’ve stopped reading, and this is about you and your irritated or inflamed skin that’s probably begging to be freed from its watery grave of serums and oils and toners and scrubs (I don't like to make assumptions, but you've read this far, after all). We’re tearing the whole house down and building from scratch. This is where you start: something to clean with, something to hydrate with, and sun protection.
You can take it a step further by taking a leaf out of the Urban Veda handbook and investing in a good exfoliator to be used regularly to clear out sebum. If, unlike me, you’re not someone whose skin reacts angrily when it’s even in the same vicinity as an unfamiliar skincare product, you could also keep your cabinets stocked with a soothing face mask for sebum reduction and god-tier pamper-sesh vibes every time you’re PMSing, which is a total bonus in my opinion.
The golden rules of skincare: Track your cycle to identify your skin’s triggers
- Take a holistic approach to maintaining hormonal balance (eat, sleep, workout - all that age-old stuff we're tired of hearing about)
- Strip away any skincare products that are doing more harm than good (when it doubt: chuck it out)
- And always, always wear sunscreen.
You got this, babe. Don't forget to share your top skincare tips with us over on Instagram or in the comments below!
Words by Bella Millington
Image credit: Ron Lach from Pexels