Period problems are one of those inevitables that often comes along with being a woman: Our boobs hurt. Our tummies bloat. Our brains trick us into thinking that cupcakes are a cure-all. (They aren't?) But have you ever noticed what happens to your skin on your period? Sometimes, our skin throws a serious temper tantrum, TBH. But all of these side effects are largely the result of hormones, according to Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Think about how your mood flip flops from hormonal fluctuation—it turns out that what happens to your skin on your period can fluctuate just as easily, causing issues like increased oil production, breakouts, and skin sensitivity.
Here, what to expect (and how to prep) your skin for that time of the month.
1. Out-of-whack hormones can make your skin super oily.
Hormones called androgens (like testosterone), as well as the hormones progesterone and estrogen, are all involved in menstruation and fluctuate all throughout the month, says Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. And that constantly shifting ratio between each of the hormones determines, in part, what your skin looks like. When specific hormones surge in the week or two before your period, oil glands can go into overdrive, increasing oil production, says Zeichner.
2. Which could easily lead to some acne. (I know. Amazing, right?)
When oil production spikes, the cells that line your pores turn over super quickly, says Piliang. And when these cells aren’t easily sloughed off (and the oil builds and builds), blackheads and whiteheads can park it on your face. Excess oil also feeds whatever existing acne-causing bacteria there is, says Zeichner—which explains why our periods tend to also be the breaking-out time of the month.
"Adjust your cleanser to one containing salicylic acid in the week leading up to your period, consider ” says Zeichner. “It’s a beta hydroxy acid that removes excess oil from the skin and can help prevent breakouts.” He likes Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser.
3. Bonus (in the worst way): Your hair could get seriously oily too.
The spike in testosterone that comes with PMS doesn't just impact your skin, says Piliang. (Our moods, hi.) “Hair follicles are sensitive to hormonal changes, too,” she says. Beyond excess grease, you might notice more dandruff or flakiness and itchiness from your scalp. Moroccanoil Dry Shampoo is infused with skin- and scalp-soothing argan oil along with oil-absorbing rice starch, says Zeichner, combatting both issues with just a few sprays and a bit of a scalp massage, too.
4. This whole hormone thing is why ob-gyns put many acne-prone women on birth control in the first place.
“Birth control pills are probably your best friend if you have troubles with your skin,” says Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics gynecology, and reproductive services at Yale School of Medicine, in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s because the Pill significantly cuts testosterone production from your ovaries. You get a steady dose of hormones, including progesterone and estrogen every single day (and because of that, clearer skin throughout the month), essentially helping you kiss hormal breakouts good bye.
What's particularly interesting, though, is that certain birth-control pills are friendlier to your complexion than others, says Minkin—but all should help temper any potential bad breakouts. She adds: “The skin-friendliest pills tend to contain drospirenone, such as Yaz and Yasmin; Ortho-Cyclen, which contains norgestimate; and a very old pill, Demulen, with an unpronounceable progestin-ethynodiol diacetate.” Norgestrel and levonorgestrel are less helpful, along with its other derivatives" if hormonal acne is a concern, notes Minkin. “But to be honest, by blocking the testosterone, even a norgestrel pill tends to be skin friendlier] than not taking anything [at all].” Some types of the pill can increase your risk for blood clots, so talk with your doctor about your health history when deciding to go on the pill and which type to use.
5. Alternatively, your period could also just make your skin extraordinarily sensitive, too.
Does your fave lotion all of a sudden feel funky? Do your legs feel like tree bark? Are you oily and dry? (Why is being a woman so hard?) You shouldn't be surprised: “Around your period, your skin becomes more sensitive and more easily irritated overall,” says Piliang. Which you can blame on—you guessed it—those same fluctuating hormones. So no, acne isn't the only thing that can happen to your skin during your period.
To alleviate any sensitivity, make sure to employ a fragrance-free moisturizer, as fragrances can easily irritate the facial skin, according to Piliang. (We like.) Don't forget a daily coating of sunscreen aftewards, ideally one with an SPF of 30 or higher, since—thanks to higher levels of estrogen—your skin can be more sensitive to the sun leading up to your period, she says. If your skin is particularly pesky, cut back on potentially bothersome products, like ones that contain physical and chemical exfoliants, as well as wrinkle-busting retinoids, which might be more likely to make your skin flare up this time of the month.
6. And if you're doing everything in your power to avoid sensitive- or oily-skin woes, it's possible that your weight may be causing hormonal breakouts.
Both dermatologists and ob-gyns agree that when when it comes to your skin, weight matters. “If you’re overweight or underweight, your periods can become less regular,” says Piliang, which means all of those fluctuations in hormones become less regular, too, throwing your skin off. Minkin agrees: “Getting as close to your ideal body weight as possible is helpful. That will keep your ovaries' hormone production in better check."
7. One way you can try to stop skin issues before your PMS even starts? Cut back on carbs.
Ugh, we know. And we're sorry, because yes, period cravings call (and yell, and scream) for fries and bagels and candy. But limiting carbohydrates around your period might help control hormonal fluctuations. This is particularly true if you’re diabetic or if you have the polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), in which case your levels of testosterone would be elevated, according to Piliang.
Insulin and testosterone are in a positive feedback loop, she explains. “So as insulin resistance increases, insulin levels go up, and testosterone often increases as well.” So even if you’re totally healthy, maintaining a steady, healthy blood sugar level (sans the roller coasters) might have some impact on testosterone, and thus, your skin.
But sometimes—and maybe it's just us, but doubtful—a cookie can really be a period cure-all, acne or otherwise.