As if the mood swings and cramps weren’t enough to contend with on a monthly basis, some of us also experience skin changes during our menstrual cycles. Whether it’s oily skin during ovulation, bad skin before your period, or even skin discolouration during your period, your hormones have a huge influence on your skin. So, why is this? What skin changes should you expect at the different stages of your menstrual cycle, and how can you adapt your skincare routine to counteract these hormonal fluctuations?
An Overview of the Menstrual Cycle
Menstruation, most commonly referred to as ‘a period’, is a cyclical process in which the lining of the uterus is shed in response to hormones. The majority of menstrual cycles vary in length between 25 and 30 days, with the average menstrual cycle having a 28-day duration .
The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases:
- The menstrual phase
- The follicular phase
- The ovulation phase
- The luteal phase
The menstrual phase begins on the first day of your period and lasts an average of 4-6 days. After your period ends you enter the follicular phase, which lasts until ovulation (days 7 – 14). Oestrogen steadily increases during this phase and peaks one-day prior to ovulation.
The ovulation phase is followed by the luteal phase which lasts from day 14 until day 28. In the first week of the luteal phase progesterone and oestrogen levels rise before declining towards the end of the luteal phase. The decline in oestrogen and progesterone levels results in menstruation and the cycle begins again .
How Oestrogen and Progesterone Affect the Skin
Oestrogen is important for the normal functioning of the skin and its various components, including the blood vessels, hair follicles, oil glands, and pigment (melanin) producing cells (melanocytes) . It is also associated with collagen production, increased skin thickness, increased hyaluronic acid production, improved skin barrier function, better skin hydration, reduced sebaceous (oil) gland activity, and improved wound healing .
The effect of progesterone on the skin is less clear, but it is thought that the increased circulation and sebaceous gland activity observed in the second half of the menstrual cycle is largely due to the influence of progesterone .
Skin Changes During Menstrual Cycle
The Menstrual Phase
During the menstrual phase of the menstrual cycle, levels of oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest. Lower levels of oestrogen mean that the skin’s barrier function is impaired and skin hydration is reduced. In addition, low levels of progesterone lead to less sebaceous gland activity and less oil production. All together, this can result in dry and dehydrated skin.
For this reason, certain skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis, may be worse just before or during your period .
The Follicular & Ovulation Phase
Oestrogen begins to increase again during the follicular phase and peaks in the ovulation phase. This leads to improvements in skin barrier function, skin hydration, and collagen and hyaluronic acid production. In these phases, progesterone is still low which means that sebaceous gland activity is still reduced. The skin is usually a lot calmer and more radiant during the follicular phase and at its best around ovulation.
The Luteal Phase
During the luteal phase, progesterone begins to rise leading to increased sebaceous gland activity and oilier skin. Approximately 70% of women experience mild acne during this phase which is usually accompanied by an oily scalp and, thus, greasy hair .
Towards the end of the luteal phase, oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline again causing the cycle to repeat. Skin barrier permeability is greater towards the end of the luteal phase, just before menstruation begins, which causes the skin to be more sensitive to allergens and irritants. For this reason, some women experience eczema flare-ups in the days leading up to the start of their period .
Adapting Skincare for Skin Changes During Menstrual Cycle
As skin barrier function and hydration are at an all-time-low during the menstrual phase of the menstrual cycle, skincare should focus on increasing the water content of the skin.
Regularly moisturizing with soothing and nourishing skincare ingredients, including ceramides, hyaluronic acid, natural moisturizing factors, Centella Asiatica, etc. should aid in the avoidance of dehydrated skin. Women with particularly sensitized skin should avoid using too many active ingredients or harsh cleansers during this phase.
Skincare during the follicular and ovulation phases of the menstrual cycle should mostly focus on maintenance but this is also a time when active ingredients are likely to be best tolerated.
During the luteal phase, sebaceous gland activity is at its highest which means that skincare should, ideally, focus on controlling oil production and preventing acne flare-ups. Towards the end of the luteal phase, the skin is likely to be more sensitive than usual and irritating skincare ingredients or products should be avoided.
A Summary of the Skin Changes During Menstrual Cycle
Oestrogen is important for the normal functioning of the skin and its various structures. Throughout the various phases of the menstrual cycle, the levels of oestrogen fluctuate which can wreak havoc on our skin. Understanding how these hormonal fluctuations impact our skin can allow us to adapt our skincare routines to mitigate these effects.
During the menstrual phase, oestrogen and progesterone are low which leaves the skin susceptible to dehydration. To prevent this, skincare during this phase should focus on hydrating skin by regularly moisturizing.
The skin’s appearance is usually best during the follicular and ovulation phases of the menstrual cycle and skincare should focus on maintaining this. Due to the higher levels of oestrogen, skin barrier function is likely to be at its highest during these phases and may be more tolerant of active skincare ingredients.
During the luteal phase, progesterone begins to increase and skin can become oily and prone to acne flare-ups. Oil control should be the focus of skincare during this phase in order to prevent this. Towards the end of the luteal phase, the skin is more susceptible to irritation and sensitizing skincare ingredients should be avoided.
It is worth pointing out that the research in this area is fairly limited and based on an average 28-day cycle. As many women have cycles that are longer or shorter than this and may have different baseline hormone levels, this information may not be accurate for everyone.
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- Thornton, M. (2002). ‘The biological actions of estrogens on skin’, Exp Dermatol., 11(6), 487-502. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12473056?dopt=Abstract
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Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.