What Happens To Your Skin During Your Menstrual Cycle?
If it feels like you have a better chance of winning the lottery than preventing a hormonal breakout, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about syncing your skincare routine to your cycle.
We’ve all had that moment where we look in the mirror, see a blemish, and think to ourselves it’s that time of month. If it feels like you have a better chance of winning the lottery than preventing a hormonal breakout, you’re not alone. Such spots are notoriously temperamental and often crop up for reasons that are far beyond your control. Even if those pesky pimples aren’t always avoidable, you may have more power over your skin situation than you think.
The idea of ‘period skincare’ has gained some popularity lately thanks to beauty and personal care brands entering the market with products that purportedly complement the hormonal changes that impact the skin over the course of a menstrual cycle. But that doesn’t mean you need to buy a whole new regimen. Simply understanding how the various phases of menstruation impact the complexion will go a long way toward happier and healthier skin — all month long. Here’s what you need to know about syncing your skincare routine to your menstrual cycle.
The Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
We all know about menstruation and ovulation, but did you know there are two other phases that make up the menstrual cycle? The entire menstrual cycle generally lasts 21 to 35 days and is made up of four hormone-driven phases — menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal — during which an egg develops and is released from the ovaries. The lining of the uterus builds up and, if pregnancy doesn’t occur, the uterine lining sheds during the menstrual period. The cycle starts with your first day of your period and ends when the next period starts.
- Menstrual Phase: The easiest to recognize, menses is “when the predominant hormones estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest,” Dr. Liles says. It typically lasts three to five days and occurs if the egg from the previous cycle was not fertilized. The lining of the uterus sheds through the vagina during this phase.
- Follicular Phase: The follicular phase actually begins on the first day of your period (so there is some overlap with menses) and ends when you ovulate. During this time, estrogen levels increase to stimulate the growth of the endometrial lining, and the pituitary gland releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to kick-start egg production in the ovaries.
- Ovulation Phase: About halfway through the cycle, rising estrogen levels trigger the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH) and start ovulation. The shortest of the phases, it lasts about one day, with the ovary releasing a mature egg that makes its way through the fallopian tube and into the uterus. Pregnancy occurs if the egg is fertilized.
- Luteal Phase: In the final stage of the cycle, progesterone and estrogen levels remain high to keep the uterine lining thick in anticipation of pregnancy. This phase lasts 11 to 17 days. If you don’t get pregnant, the hormones will recede and the cycle will repeat itself.
So, how can you tell which phase you’re in? You can track your menstrual cycle via a calendar or online application, but there are also some physical signs to keep an eye out for. “Breast changes, such as tenderness, mood changes, and premenstrual symptoms tend to occur more often in the luteal/secretory phase,” explains Iyanna Liles, MD, a Connecticut-based OB-GYN and women’s health specialist.
As anyone who has tried to get pregnant knows, temperature fluctuations denote ovulation. “You can also chart changes in basal body temperature or cervical mucus consistency to determine when ovulation, which separates the two menstrual cycle phases, has occurred,” Dr. Liles notes. But those aren’t the only markers that you’re ovulating. “Some people experience abdominal pain mid-cycle known as Mittelschmerz, which is also associated with ovulation,” she adds.
The Role of Hormones in Menstruation
We owe the menstrual cycle’s clockwork to hormones. These chemical messengers are responsible for signaling when to start and end each phase. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are a few of the most common, and, as we mentioned above, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) also play major roles in ovulation.
Let’s start with the two main female sex hormones: estrogen and progesterone. “Although the effects of estrogen and progesterone on the skin are still not fully understood, studies show that women undergoing the menopausal transition, where estrogen and progesterone levels are declining, have a variety of cutaneous changes,” Dr. Liles explains. In postmenopausal women, she says these skin changes include dryness, atrophy, thinning, declining dermal collagen content, diminished skin moisture, decreased laxity, and impaired wound healing.
Testosterone, meanwhile, belongs to a hormone class known as androgens. “Androgens affect terminal hair growth, stimulate oil glands, and can change skin cells lining hair follicles to cause acne,” Dr. Liles says. “Interestingly, certain estrogen and progestin combinations in birth control reduce dermatologic manifestations through androgen inhibition” (more on that below). Although testosterone is considered a male hormone, females also produce and need a small amount of testosterone.
How to Care for Your Skin During Your Menstrual Cycle
So, how does all of this information pertain to your skincare routine? Those hormonal fluctuations don’t just have an impact on your reproductive system. The rise and fall of estrogen and testosterone can often show up on the skin. With that in mind, there may be some benefit in adjusting your regimen throughout the month. Here’s how to think about skincare during your cycle:
Skincare During Menses
“At the start of menstruation (when the lining of the uterus sheds), your body starts off with very low levels of progesterone and estrogen,” shares Dendy Engelman, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “This can cause skin to look more dull and dry.” As such, this phase is all about recouping moisture that has been lost. “It is important to add hydrating products to your skincare routine, like hyaluronic acid or a hydrating serum,” she says. Her pick? The Elizabeth Arden Hyaluronic Acid Ceramide Capsules. Last but not least, “you may want to add a facial mist to keep your skin extra hydrated,” she notes.
Skincare During the Follicular Phase
During the follicular stage, you begin to see the effects of your hormone levels rising. “Your skin starts to appear softer and smoother,” Dr. Engelman explains. “Collagen production also begins to increase, making your skin feel more plump.” After rebounding from the dryness of menses, your complexion will likely be relatively calm and clear. “You may not yet see an increase of oil on your skin,” she notes, which means “your normal skincare routine should be fine.” From her perspective, that regimen consists of a “cleanser, perhaps a serum, eye cream, moisturizer, and SPF.”
Skincare During Ovulation
While the complexion generally normalizes during the follicular phase, the short ovulation window comes with some serious skin benefits. “You will notice that your skin has a healthy glow, and your skin will seem to be on its best behavior during this phase,” Dr. Engelman says. That means your pores will appear smaller and your skin will retain moisture.
You may also notice increased oiliness. “Sebum production may increase during this time, which can leave your skin oilier than usual,” she notes. As a result, Dr. Engelman recommends using non-comedogenic (read: non-pore clogging) skincare and, depending on your skin type, even avoiding oil-based products altogether. “Adding oil to skin that is already experiencing higher-than-usual levels of oil can cause clogged pores and acne breakouts,” she cautions.
Instead, double down on your cleansing routine and keep the rest simple. “Double cleanse using first a nourishing cleansing oil, then your regular face wash,” Dr. Engelman says. “Follow with a lightweight hydrating serum, a moisturizer that’s not too heavy, and, finally, oil-free SPF.” She’s a fan of the Glo Skin Beauty Oil Free SPF 40+.
Skincare During the Luteal Phase
The last phase of the menstrual cycle is also the trickiest. “The time between the egg’s release and the start of menstruation — when the body is preparing for a possible pregnancy — progesterone and estrogen levels start out very high, which can cause more oil to be produced,” Dr. Engelman explains. “Your skin is more prone to acne breakouts.” Basically, when you think about that time of the month (at least as far as your skin is concerned), you’re likely thinking of the luteal phase.
While you can’t control the hormonal fluctuation, Dr. Engelman suggests avoiding habits and products that can further clog pores or exacerbate a breakout. This includes products with oil or those that create a barrier on the skin. “Use products that are non-comedogenic, and be sure to clean your skin thoroughly in order to minimize oil buildup and clogged pores,” she shares.
The Role of Birth Control
We’d be remiss to write an article about the relationship between the skin and the menstrual cycle without talking about contraception. “With non-hormonal birth control methods, the skin should not be affected,” Dr. Liles explains. “With hormonal birth control methods — pills, patch, ring, injection, implant, intrauterine devices — the effects on skin are varied pending the hormonal composition.”
In the case of hormonal contraceptives and IUDs, Dr. Liles says patients may experience irritation, rash, skin color changes, dry skin, hair loss, and improved or worsening acne. In the case of acne, “some combined oral hormonal contraceptives (COCs) have anti-androgenic properties and can improve excess hair growth or acne for women with certain conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS),” she says. Her advice? “One should consult with their physician regarding the appropriate birth control to use.”
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