What’s Happening to Your Skin in the Weeks Leading Up to Your Period

Photo: Getty Images/LPETTET
In recent years, hormones—and the myriad ways in which they affect our bodies—have (finally!) taken center stage in terms of research and innovation. A shortlist of experiences impacted by your body's chemical messengers include: mood and mental health, including anxiety and stress levels; gut health; digestion; sex drive; and sleep. And as anyone who has had a menstrual cycle and owns a mirror knows, they can also affect your skin.

In fact, hormonal fluctuations throughout the month cause daily changes to the dermis, according to board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. "The average menstrual cycle is 28 days, and each of these days is different hormonally," she says. "Estrogen is the dominant hormone during the first half of the cycle, and progesterone is the dominant hormone during the second half. Then, levels of both estrogen and progesterone fall to their lowest levels of the cycle premenstrually, as bleeding approaches."

Experts In This Article

Meanwhile, she explains, the male hormone testosterone stays at a fairly constant level throughout the cycle. "This means that relatively speaking, testosterone is higher compared to the female hormones before and during menstruation."

So what do all of these fluctuations mean, specifically, for your skin on a week-to-week basis? Both Dr. Hadley and New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, weigh in below.

How your hormonal fluctuations affect your skin throughout your menstrual cycle

Your skin during the follicular phase: dry AF

The first phase of your cycle is known as the follicular phase, and according to Dr. Hadley and Dr. Zeichner, low hormone levels during this period lead to skin that is drier than at other points in your cycle. To properly care for your skin during this time, Dr. Zeichner recommends leaning into hydrating cleansers and rich moisturizers. He specifically likes the Alpha H Balancing Cleanser ($35) with aloe and vitamin E to hydrate and protect the skin. In terms of moisturizer, he's fond of the Ponds Dry Skin Cream Moisturizer ($7). "It contains all the necessary components of a good moisturizer with emollients, occlusive, and humectant ingredients," he says. 

At this point in her cycle, women's hormone expert Alisa Vitti likes to go the extra mile, too, by getting a facialist to perform extractions on blemishes lingering from the oily menstrual phase preceding it (more on that in a minute). She also likes to exfoliate with a chemical exfoliator during the follicular phase of her cycle.

Your skin during the ovulation phase: plump and glowing

As you exit the follicular stage and begin ovulation, the rise in progesterone stimulates increased production of sebum (aka oil). At this time, that slowly increasing sebum production can give you a healthy glow—but the benefit isn't without its consequences: "The oil that your skin makes mid-cycle is what ultimately leads to breakouts around the time of your period," says Dr. Zeichner. 

For now, however, your skin looks *bomb,* an effect enhanced by the fact that its thickness is also affected by rising estrogen levels at this point in your cycle. “During the follicular phase and especially during ovulation, high levels of estrogen thicken and protect the epidermis by boosting collagen production to give you that famed ‘ovulation glow'," says Vitti.

Within your ovulation week, Dr. Zeichner recommends adjusting your cleanser to a foaming product and your moisturizer to a lighter, gel-based product. He specifically recommends Simple Skincare Foaming Cleanser($10), which uses ultra-gentle cleansing ingredients along with the chemical compound allantoin to prevent skin barrier disruption. For your moisturizer, he suggests Bliss Drench and Quench Cream to Water Hydrator($22). "It's an ultra light moisturizer that won't weigh the skin down," he says. "It contains hyaluronic acid to bind to water to plump and hydrate the skin." The hormonal skin-care brand Amareta also sells cleansers and moisturizers specifically designed to treat your skin through weeks one and two of your cycle.

Your skin during the luteal phase: a hot mess

The luteal phase begins after ovulation and remains until your menstrual bleeding commences. Here, the mid-cycle rise in progesterone stimulates increased production of sebum, and a higher relative testosterone level stimulates more sebum production, too. "The result is oily skin, clogged pores, and inflammatory acne," says Dr. Hadley. 

In fact, she notes that about 60 percent of acne-prone women experience peri-menstrual flares. "The most common pattern is for the flare to strike seven to 10 days before the onset of bleeding, and subside once bleeding starts," she says.

During this time, Dr. Zeichner recommends utilizing the same cleaner and moisturizing regimen utilized during the ovulation phase of your cycle—gentle foaming cleansers and light moisturizers. For shorthand, you can also look to the Sweet Rescue line from hormonal skin-care brand Knours for products designed specifically to treat skin during this problematic point in your cycle, or shop Amareta's products similarly meant to care for skin during the third and fourth weeks of your cycle.

The additional use of topical spot treatments like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and Aczone can help to minimize acne, says Dr. Hadley; however, she believes the most effective treatments address hormonal factors directly. "Birth control pills are often helpful for hormonal acne because the estrogen they contain can suppress the ovaries' production of androgens and increase a protein called sex-hormone binding globulin in the blood," she explains. "This protein binds free testosterone in the bloodstream, so then less testosterone is available to cause sebum production and acne."

Different types of hormonal birth control can affect the skin differently, however. "The specific progestin in the formulation will also affect the skin," says Dr. Hadley. "Some progestins are more androgenic and can increase sebum production, while other progestins are anti-androgenic—they block the androgen receptors—and may decrease sebum production. Drospirenone is a progestin that has particularly high anti-androgen activity, which is why oral contraceptive pills with this progestin, including Yasmin and Yaz, tend to be particularly helpful for treating hormonal acne."

Another hormonal-based treatment option your dermatologist may recommend is a medication named spironolactone. "Spironolactone is an androgen (male hormone) blocker and can be very effective in decreasing sebum and acne," she says. 

Your skin during the menstrual phase: thin, dry, and in need of TLC

Since your hormones are bottomed out at this point in your cycle—assuming you didn't get pregnant, that is—your skin begins to get dry. And when moisture levels decrease, you produce less collagen which makes the skin thinner, according Jeana Chung, vice president of marketing for hormonal-centric skin-care line Knours.

During this time, Dr. Zeichner recommends using a cleanser that contains hydroxy acids to better remove oil from the skin. "You can use your same gel moisturizer [from the two weeks prior], but if you start to break out, consider a benzoyl peroxide-containing acne treatment to address breakouts," he says. He likes the Inn Beauty Project Foam Around Cleanser ($18) for this purpose. "It contains a blend of hydroxy acids to fully remove oil from the skin in a gentle formula that can be used on a daily basis," he says. Vitti additionally recommends calming products with anti-inflammatory ingredients such as turmeric, blue tansy, and echinacea.

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