As much as we may try to ignore them and get on with our lives, periods do affect many aspects of our health—and skin is no exception. So, what happens to our skin during our menstrual cycle, and is there anything we can do about it?
According to Dr. Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, all parts of your menstrual cycle do, in fact, affect your skin. “During your period, hormone levels are low,” Piliang tells SheKnows. “Your skin will be dryer, more sensitive and more prone to inflammation.”
Giving your skin a little TLC (not the channel) is the key to getting your skin through your period, she explains. A good place to start is applying a gentle fragrance-free moisturizer twice daily, avoiding harsh soaps and very hot water, Piliang says, adding that a soothing yogurt mask may help decrease inflammation and soothe sensitive skin.
Then, after your period is over and you move toward mid-cycle (when you’re ovulating), your estrogen levels begin to rise. “Estrogen means your skin cells are plumper,” Piliang explains. “Your skin will appear fuller and is more resilient. This is a good time for a light exfoliation and to start back on gentle exfoliating products like alpha hydroxy acids.”
After you finish ovulating, your estrogen level drops and your progesterone level rises. Testosterone levels also peak around the time of ovulation. “This predominance of androgen hormones (progesterone and testosterone) leads to increased sebum production and oilier skin,” Piliang says.
On top of that, the skin cells lining the hair follicles become stickier and form plugs, which can make pores appear larger, she adds. If the plug is large, there’s a good chance blemishes like blackheads and whiteheads will develop. “These hormonal changes become more imbalanced towards androgens until your period,” Piliang says. “Then is all starts over again.”
Because each part of your menstrual cycle affects your skin in different ways, it’s helpful to take that into consideration when deciding how to treat and care for your skin. For example, during the first week after your period, when your skin is dryer and more sensitive, Piliang says it is important to treat your skin gently. And while, yes, this does apply to your face—she suggests using extra moisturizers—Piliang also recommends skipping painful procedures like facials with extractions and bikini or facial waxing.
Then, when your androgen (testosterone and progesterone) levels begin to rise in the second half of your cycle and your skin becomes oilier, topical products to loosen the plug and dry up the oil—such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide and adapalene—can be helpful, she adds. Not only that, but benzoyl peroxide helps to dry up oil and open pores and is antibacterial.
Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acid all help to exfoliate the skin, keep pores free of debris and dry up oil. And retinoids (like tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene) are vitamin A derivatives, which decrease oil production and keep the pores open. “All of these can be irritating, so you want to be cautious with using them during your period and in the first few days after,” Piliang says. “They also make you more sensitive to the sun—so wear your sunscreen!”
If you try these methods and hormonal acne does not improve, Piliang then suggests that you make an appointment with a dermatologist.