Hormonal pimples and greasy hair in the cycle
Is your skin and hair hormone-controlled? What the menstrual cycle has to do with acne and bad hair days.
Do you recognize every month simply by your pimples that your period is coming soon? Have you ever gone to the hair salon right before your period and found the hairstyle fell apart in no time? You're actually in good company. A number of studies have shown that your sex hormones influence skin and hair - and predictable patterns can be identified over the course of a menstrual cycle.
Our hormones, especially estrogen and testosterone, influence the sebaceous glands in the skin. These are actually your friends. The sebum they produce and secrete keeps your skin supple and, via the scalp, your hair as well. The sebum protects the skin and hair from cold, heat and chemicals. It also increases the skin's resistance to bacteria, viruses and fungi1. The main components of sebum are triglycerides, free fatty acids, waxes, squalene (hydrocarbons) and proteins2.
Your face and scalp benefit from active sebaceous glands as long as they neither produce too much sebum nor become inflamed. But that's exactly what can easily happen during stressful periods of life, due to an unhealthy diet, and in transitional phases like puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Some people also have a natural tendency to produce too much sebum. The sebaceous glands have receptors that are influenced by hormones, and if the hormones get out of sync, the sebaceous glands often produce too much or too little sebum - the result: oily or dry skin, greasy or brittle hair. It’s also possible to experience cycle and hormone-related hair loss,
Testosterone and estrogen during the cycle
Testosterone is more often written about in connection with men. But the healthy female body also produces testosterone, and you need it for both your fertility and your well-being. During the cycle, testosterone production changes in the majority of girls and women as follows:
- In the first half of the cycle, testosterone production increases slowly
- around ovulation it reaches its peak
- a few days later it decreases
- with the arrival of your period, on day 1 of the new cycle, testosterone production increases again3.
Since testosterone promotes the desire for sex, the peak around ovulation naturally makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. In addition, testosterone promotes sebum production, so that skin and hair often look particularly healthy and beautiful around ovulation. However, testosterone does not achieve this on its own. It also needs the hormone estrogen. This is also produced in particularly large quantities shortly before ovulation, and the production curve in the first half of the cycle is similar to that of testosterone. Estrogen presumably has a helpful effect on the sebaceous glands and ideally a balance is created by the interaction of testosterone and progesterone. In addition, estrogen ensures good collagen production in the skin, which keeps it youthful and firm.
After ovulation - without conception - estrogen and testosterone production decreases for the time being. Instead, a lot of progesterone comes into play, which tends to stimulate the sebaceous glands. Ideally the balance is maintained and the skin and hair continue to look their best. But surveys show: Many girls and women tend to have problems sometimes or always in the second half of the cycle, and especially about a week before the start of their period, until their period ends.
Those with naturally rather oily skin often suffer from an oily complexion, blackheads and pimples during this phase4. Stringy, greasy hair is also common 5. For girls and women with dry skin, this cycle phase can mean the skin reacts even more sensitively, and the risk of eczema, psoriasis, itching etc. increases6. Brittle hair can and hair loss is also possible
If you are particularly affected and/or suffer from the changes, seek medical help. Whether in gynecology, dermatology, or initially in family practice, there are ways to treat your skin and/or hair. Sometimes skin or hair problems are also indicative of a hormonal disorder, such as thyroid disease or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). In this case, it is especially valuable that you receive your diagnosis and are advised or treated accordingly.
But even without further diagnosis, you may be able to benefit from medications and/or cosmetic treatments that reduce inflammation, relieve itching and pain, prevent new skin problems, and slow hair loss.
What is good for your skin and hair? Find out for yourself
If you want to get by without hormone treatment and track your cycle, there are a few things you can do to alleviate cycle-related skin and hair problems.
It is now well researched that lifestyle has a major influence on skin and hair health. Some people’s skin problems are triggered by excess sugar, and some find this happens with dairy products. Alcohol and cigarettes can weaken the skin barrier and promote inflammation, while fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts seem to have more of a positive influence. Stress (with its consequences such as lack of sleep, self care and healthy food) also leaves its mark.
Step one for relief would be: Observe yourself and note how exactly your skin changes during your cycle. When is it at its best, when is your complexion blotchy, when do you get pimples? When do you tend to have bad hair days, when is your scalp particularly itchy? Within a few months you should have a good overview of your typical pattern.
Step two is to analyze what influences these developments and how. Does lack of sleep make your symptoms worse, does outdoor exercise help? Are there foods that make things worse or better? Which skincare ritual, which products have which effects and when? You should also note the changes over the course of the year, because dry heat andwarm, humid summer air naturally have the opposite effect, and for many people the skin is reactive for a few weeks during the transitional periods - winter to spring and fall to winter.
This is how you get to step three: Find your cycle-skin-and-hair strategy. If you know, for example, that pimples are imminent about seven days after ovulation, you can perhaps counteract this with skincare. If your hair is dry around the time of your period, you may want to wash it less often or use a more mild shampoo and conditioner. It may also be useful to use different skincare products during different phases of your cycle.
3 Bui HN, Sluss PM, Blincko S, Knol DL, Blankenstein MA, Heijboer AC. Dynamics of serum testosterone during the menstrual cycle evaluated by daily measurements with an ID-LC-MS/MS method and a 2nd generation automated immunoassay. Steroids. 2013 Jan;78(1):96-101. doi: 10.1016/j.steroids.2012.10.010.
4 Pierard-Franchimont C, Pierard GE, Kligman AM. Rhythm of sebum excretion during the menstrual cycle. Dermatologica. 1991;182(4):211-3, www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/247796
5 Birch MP, Messenger A. 'Bad hair days', scalp sebum excretion and the menstrual cycle. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2003 Jul;2(3-4):190-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2130.2004.00103.x
6 Falcone D, Richters RJ, Uzunbajakava NE, Van Erp PE, Van De Kerkhof PC. Sensitive skin and the influence of female hormone fluctuations: results from a cross-sectional digital survey in the Dutch population. Eur J Dermatol. 2017 Feb 1;27(1):42-48