You probably know that your hormones fluctuate both during your period and over your lifetime. But, you might not realize the many ways that these hormones can affect your skin. And, some of those skin changes could point to underlying health problems, including insulin resistance.
YouBeauty talked to Rebecca Booth, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist and author of "The Venus Week," and Steven Petak, M.D., an endocrinologist at the Texas Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Endocrinology, to find out what’s happening hormonally at each stage of life, how it impacts the skin and your overall health, and what you can do to help you skin look its best throughout your lifetime.
Teens: The Oily Years
Girls start puberty around ages 12 or 13, although the precise timing is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. During puberty, the female body starts producing sex hormones, namely estrogens and androgens, in higher quantities than before as it gears up towards adulthood. Both can dramatically affect the skin (the body also ramps up production of other hormones related to reproduction, including progesterone, but these don’t impact the skin so we’ll skip them for this discussion).
Estrogen is generally considered the female hormone, but it is present in both sexes—females just have higher levels. It is responsible for what we consider the “feminine aesthetic,” explains Dr. Booth.
In females, estrogen comes mainly from the ovaries, where it serves to ripen the eggs that are later shed during each menstrual cycle, usually just one egg per cycle. During puberty, estrogen also communicates to other parts of the body through specialized receptors, causing breasts to develop, for example, or giving a new curve to hips and thighs. In the skin, estrogen decreases pore size, creating a smooth surface. It also helps build collagen and elastin, proteins that give the skin its springiness and elasticity, respectively. And, it helps the skin heal and maintain moisture.
Androgens include testosterone, which is generally thought of as the male hormone, but, as with estrogen and males, testosterone and other androgens are also present in females. During puberty, a boost in androgens stimulates hair growth, particularly pubic and underarm hair. In the skin, the hormones enlarge pores and boost the production of sebum, an oily substance produced in the skin.
What you get is the telltale sign of teenage skin: acne.
Both estrogen and androgens surge right before ovulation, which is when the ovary releases an egg. But in young girls, the levels might not peak at just the right times, explains Dr. Booth: “The irregularity of signals from the immature ovary leads often to a hormonal imbalance,” and if testosterone dominates, the resulting increase in pore size and oily skin provides the perfect breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria.
20s to Mid-30s: The Best of Times
The hormonal cycles eventually even out. During the 20s, 30s and early 40s, most women will experience a regular menstrual cycle of about 28 days, although the timing varies for each woman. Diet, exercise, and various diseases and disorders also influence the cycle’s regularity, as well as hormone levels.
If the cycle remains on schedule, estrogen peaks right before ovulation, which can make the skin appear to glow (this is the same hormonal boost that gives pregnant women their shining skin). Testosterone also peaks, but it is tempered by the increase in estrogen when a woman’s hormones are in balance. Instead of producing oily skin and increasing the chances for an acne breakout, testosterone’s sebum boost gives the skin a luminous glow. The hormone also increases the libido.
After ovulation, both estrogen and testosterone drop. During this time, says Dr. Booth, the decrease in estrogen causes a slight decrease in collagen and elastin so that the skin is slightly less springy and youthful. Once the next cycle starts and estrogen rises again, the skin bounces back.
Late 30s and 40s: Getting Drier
The estrogen effect peaks around age 25, then drops slightly in the 30s and more significantly in the 40s. As the overall level of estrogen decreases, the skin does not bounce back the same way it does during each menstrual cycle. Instead, collagen and elastin production decreases, which causes the skin to get drier and loose its elasticity. The loss of estrogen impacts aging skin far more quickly than sun damage.
By the mid-to-late forties, most women are in perimenopause, the transition between regular ovulation and menopause, which is when ovulation stops completely. As the hormone cycles change to accommodate this new stage, women in this age group may experience adult acne, increased facial hair and thinning scalp hair.
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