The Hormone Factor: How Body Chemistry Affects The Skin
Hormones are the chemical signal processors sending information around the body that affects everything from mood to metabolism. And because everything that goes on inside the body tends to make its way to the surface, hormones are a huge factor when it comes to changes in the skin and overall skin health.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common hormones affecting skin, their triggers, and their effects:
While estrogen occurs in both men and women, it’s primarily a female hormone and one that you’re probably pretty familiar with no matter your gender.
Estrogen generally has good things to offer the skin: reduced sebum production, increased skin thickness, less collagen breakdown, improved water binding capacity, healthy blood vessel dilation, increased elasticity, reduced inflammation. It’s when there’s too much or too little that we see a problem.
Primarily a male hormone, though it affects women as well, testosterone is an androgen hormone responsible for the production of sebum. Too much can lead to acne, too little can lead to decreased insulin resistance and elevated glucose levels, the root cause of AGE's, which are glycated proteins that cause the degradation of collagen. In men, testosterone is responsible for coarser hair, a thicker texture and increased oil in the skin. The upside for men: it tends to make them look younger longer.
Produced in the ovaries, the placenta (during pregnancy) and the adrenal glands, progesterone is the other major player in the female reproductive pageant. It helps prep your body for pregnancy and regulates your periods. It also puts some fire in desire. When balanced with estrogen, progesterone helps support skin firmness, elasticity and skin barrier function.
A steroid hormone released by the adrenal glands, cortisol affects both men and women. It helps calm the body during times of stress and aids in a number of areas including the regulation of blood sugar and metabolism, and keeping inflammation and blood pressure under control. In normal amounts, cortisol has a positive influence on the body, but in excess, it’s a trigger for acne and aging.
When and how do hormones affect the skin?
During adolescence, as hormones go into overdrive to catch up with developing bodies. In boys, it’s mainly the androgen hormones that ramp up. In girls, it's androgens, plus estrogen and progesterone. In both, the result is a lot of hormonal fluctuation and a lot of skin issues. More testosterone, more sebum, and more acne.
Good skin care and establishing a consistent routine that includes anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory ingredients are of key importance. In treating adolescent skin, remember that while exfoliation is important for removing dead skin and oil accumulation to unclog pores, excessive exfoliation can irritate and inflame making acne worse.
Hormones shift continually throughout the menstrual cycle. Estrogen and progesterone rise and fall. Testosterone, the sebum-producing hormone, comes into play. Oil production is boosted, follicle walls swell, impactions begin and breakouts are not far behind.
Estrogen and progesterone surge during pregnancy. Excess production of these melanocyte-stimulating hormones can result in hyperactive melanin production, which appears in the skin as melasma. Higher levels of estrogen and progesterone brought on by birth control pills can have the same effect.
Melasma treatments like hydroquinone or chemical peels, should not be performed during pregnancy or lactation. Natural brighteners like kojic acid, mandelic acid, or lactic acid are good alternatives.
By the mid-to-late 40s, the transition between regular periods and menopause (when ovulation ends completely) begins for most women. The irregularity in cycles and fluctuating hormones can bring on adult acne, changes in facial hair, and thinning scalp hair.
This is when it gets real. The significant drop in estrogen accelerates aging quickly. Skin becomes drier and thinner. Collagen and elastin begin to break down. Wrinkles develop. Ingredients that encourage cell turnover and the production of elastin and collagen are key for maintaining a youthful appearance. Retinoids (vitamin A), vitamins C and E, peptides, niacinamide, antioxidants and oat proteins are all good for countering the effects of reduced estrogen levels. Keep in mind that the skin often becomes more sensitive as we age, so the aggressiveness of treatments may need to be stepped down a bit.
The hot flashes that are part of menopause often cause redness and flushing. Because estrogen, which has anti-inflammatory properties, is decreasing, conditions like rosacea can be aggravated or initiated.
Like menopause, but for the guys, and without the hot flashes. A steep drop in testosterone for men around middle age means a significant drop in sebum production. Skin tends to become drier, rougher and thinner. Collagen and elastin production slows. At this stage, men can benefit from moisturizers, peptides, lactic acid, niacinamide, and, as always, exfoliation.
In periods of high stress, cortisol gets elevated to the point that it’s no longer beneficial. High cortisol levels trigger oil production in the sebaceous glands that can lead to inflammation, bacteria and acne. Other chronic skin disorders like eczema, psoriasis or rosacea can be aggravated by excess cortisol as well. Additionally, cortisol can accelerate the aging process, deepening wrinkles, promoting age spots and causing dullness in skin. Along with targeted skin care, we recommend finding ways to reduce stress.
Skin is complex bundle of cells and lipids and signal receptors that is constantly reacting and adjusting to influences from inside (hormones, diet, illness) and outside the body (environment, pollution, UV exposure). Paying attention to the role hormones play in all, is vital to good skin care. Be sure to consult with a skincare professional to find out how hormonal activity is affecting your skin. There’s a lot lurking under the surface that you can’t see and that may be profoundly affecting the success of your skin.