Some of the most frustrating (and hardest-to-hide) side effects of your monthly cycle are the ones that show up on your skin. Think: breakouts, redness, and unwanted shine. Ugh. With so many external factors—pollution, makeup, sun exposure—affecting your skin daily, it can be tricky to completely understand what’s happening during your menstrual cycle.
To get a better grasp on what the heck is going on, we spoke with top dermatologists to break down the effect hormones have on your skin and how you can deal during those trying times. With just a few products and a deeper understanding of your own body, you can totally cope with period skin.
You’ll definitely know when week one begins because it’s the first day of your period. What you might not know is it’s also when your estrogen levels are at their lowest. At the same time, prostaglandin (lipid compounds that act like hormones) are high due to the damage your skin suffered from past period breakouts. High prostaglandin means inflammation and a blotchy, irregular, or dull complexion when you look in the mirror, explains Jessica Weiser, M.D., dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As your period comes to an end, breakouts will clear up as estrogen levels rise.
How to deal:
Your skin is actually in recovery mode during your period, so avoid harsh cleansers and stay on top of moisturizing both morning and night. “The skin’s surface should be properly hydrated to allow for best healing,” Weiser says. If you’re someone who experiences blotchy redness thanks to the high levels of prostaglandin, add a drop of tea tree oil to turn your moisturizer into an anti-inflammatory hydrator. We like The Body Shop’s tea tree oil.
The week right after your period and before ovulation is when your skin looks its best thanks to the rise in hormone levels. The result: glowing, radiant skin due to estrogen’s ability to boost hydration and collagen production, Weiser explains. As great as all this sounds, once you hit day 14 (the end of week two and beginning of week three), your oil glands are stimulated, which is what leads to unwanted shine, clogged pores, and future breakouts.
How to deal: During the beginning of this week, maintain your regular skin care regimen with a gentle cleanser and moisturizer. Toward the end of the week, you may want to introduce a chemical exfoliant in the form of a salicylic acid-based cleanser to your routine. “This will help remove excess oil from the skin and exfoliate dead skin cells to keep the pores clear,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It will also even out your skin tone and improve texture. He recommends the drugstore favorite, Neutrogena oil-free acne wash ($5.99, amazon.com).
This week is marked by the big event: ovulation. If the egg isn’t fertilized, estrogen levels drop dramatically. As estrogen plummets, there is a spike in progesterone (another female hormone) and testosterone (a type of male hormone), Weiser explains. This hormone combo creates a major increase in oil production, which is what leads to painful zits. Low estrogen levels also make skin dry and sensitive—because yes, the magic of your period is that it can cause your skin to be both parched and oily at the same time. How lovely!
How to deal: Keep your oil production balanced by using a salicylic acid cleanser every other day. Although moisturizer may seem like the last thing your skin needs when it’s at max grease, continue to use your moisturizer every night to maintain your skin’s barrier function and reduce sensitivity. After all, oil (sebum) and reparative moisture (hydration) are two completely different things.
The week leading up to your next period is when the breakouts come in full force. That means pimples, pimples, pimples. “Hormone levels start to drop, but your skin is experiencing the effects of high oil levels from the previous two weeks,” Zeichner explains.
How to manage it: Since this is when acne flare-ups are most common, you’ll want to treat them head on (pun intended). This is where spot treatments come in handy. Weiser suggests a prescription like Retin-A, which decreases oil gland productivity and clears clogged pores. For an affordable over-the-counter treatment, try Clean & Clear Advantage acne spot treatment ($5.08, amazon.com). However, since these spot treatments are strong, lay off the salicylic cleanser and rotate back to a gentle one. Then finish your routine (as always) with a moisturizer.
Do you need an oral treatment?
As helpful as these topical treatments are when it comes to combating breakouts, they don’t fix the underlying problem, which is the hormonal triggers, Weiser says. “Some of the most effective acne treatments target the hormones through the use of oral contraceptive pills or spironolactone, a medication that controls androgen levels in the female body,” she says.
Zeichner agrees, so if your skin really suffers due to changing hormone levels, an oral treatment may be your best bet. In order to get a prescription, talk to a dermatologist, who can answer any additional questions you may have and advise you on the side effects.