As anyone with a functioning uterus and endocrine system knowns, hormonal acne is kind of the worst. The once-a-month, PMS-powered pimples that collect on your chin, jawline, and cheeks are particularly frustrating for one major reason: We know exactly why hormonal skin problems arise (more on that later), but no one has come up with a lasting solution…until now. A handful of beauty brands specializing in menstrual skin care have recently launched; offering products specifically designed to be used during different points of your cycle. They promise to keep skin healthy, calm, and yes, free from pre-period breakouts all month long—but do they actually work?
Why You Break Out Before Your Period
“Menstrual acne, a flare-up of blemishes every month that coincides with menstruation, is fairly common,” Jeana Chung, the VP of Marketing at clean beauty company Knours, tells Blood and Milk. “According to a study published in the Archives of Dermatology, 63 percent of acne-prone women experience these premenstrual flares.” Hormonal acne typically strikes during the luteal phase of your cycle, which is about seven to 10 days before the onset of your period.
Dr. Jennifer Vickers, a dermatologist at Sanova Dermatology, adds that these breakouts usually consist of “particularly inflammatory acne, characterized by deep and painful knots or cysts”—in other words, those dreaded under-the-skin pimples that never seem to come to a head. “When a woman’s hormones fluctuate, it can increase sebum (oil) production, which in turn, leads to congested skin, bacteria overgrowth, and inflammation,” the dermatologist says. Roughly a week before bleeding, there’s a sharp drop in estrogen levels and subsequent rise in testosterone; this triggers your oil-producing glands to go into overdrive. Congratulations! You’re now the proud owner of a few PMS pimples.
But that isn’t the only way cycle-related hormones can affect your skin. In the follicular phase—the week after your period— testosterone levels drop and oil production slows, potentially leaving your face dull, dry, and flaky.
Your Skincare Products Could Be Making It Worse
This frequent fluctuation is hard enough on your skin, but you could inadvertently be making things worse by using the wrong skin care products. “It was important to us that we create clean formulas with no added hormone disruptors,” Chung says. Because—surprise!—many modern skin care formulas are packed full of ingredients known to alter your hormones in ways large and small; including “increasing production of certain hormones, decreasing production of others, imitating hormones, turning one hormone into another, interfering with hormone signaling, telling cells to die prematurely, competing with essential nutrients, binding to essential hormones, and accumulating in organs that produce hormones,” according to the Environmental Working Group. Seriously. Commonly used hormone disruptors include the preservative BHA, glycol ethers, phthalates, and formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers.
It (almost) goes without saying that the last thing your skin needs while you’re PMSing is a serum, moisturizer, or mask made with ingredients that exacerbate your baseline hormonal swings. “You should also avoid over-the-counter products that may be comedogenic,” Dr. Vickers adds. (“Comedogenic” is a fancy word for pore-clogging, and these types of products can worsen symptoms.) The dermatologist advises sticking with products labeled “non-comedogenic” on the bottle or tube. “However, these treatments may not be enough, and the skin may need some extra help,” she says.
The Skincare Products You Should Be Using Instead
“Trying to treat acne that is already present feels like an uphill battle, whereas prevention and consistency are key,” Dr. Vickers tells Blood and Milk. “Keeping a consistent regimen will ideally clear the skin and keep it clear.” That’s where companies like Knours come in.
“Every product is tailored for a specific type of TLC, so you can tweak your skincare routine to adjust to your body’s natural changes,” Chung explains of Knours’ product range. For instance, the brand’s Skin Meditation Gel Cream is “meant to be used when skin begs to be soothed”—aka, during the luteal and menstrual phases—thanks to peppermint oil, which cools temperamental skin and balances excess oil. (Sidebar: I use this myself and OMG, it’s so calming.) When your face is on the drier side and in need of hydration (typically, during follicular and ovulation weeks), the One Perfect Cream can be used instead to provide intense moisture, courtesy of sweet almond and baobab seed oils.
“One clever product from Knours is their dual-phased mist,” Dr. Vickers shares. Users can tailor the mist’s function depending on their time of the month. “Shaking the bottle before use provides hydration with slightly heavier oils and is best used outside of breakouts,” she explains, “while using the product without shaking the bottle provides lighter hydration, and is best used during times of breakouts.”
The dermatologist also approves of “natural ingredients that won’t disrupt women’s already disruptive hormones” since, for the most part, natural-based products will be free from the aforementioned hormone-affecting ingredients. Knours in particular takes this to heart; it favors substances that have been revered for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for healing menstrual-related skin problems. “Mugwort, licorice, Korean angelica, calendula, and chamomile are oriental herbal remedies known to be effective for the female reproductive system,” Chung notes—and they all receive high marks on the EWG’s safety guide, which is a definite plus.
Other Things You Can Do To Combat Hormonal Acne
You don’t necessarily need to replace the contents of your bathroom cabinet—it’s enough to simply be aware of what’s going on with your hormones at any given point in your cycle, how that will affect your face, and which ingredients to turn to in order to combat those effects. (In short: Focus on hydrating skin care during the follicular and ovulation phases, anti-inflammatory and oil-regulating ingredients when you’re luteal, and soothing products while on your period.) That being said, period-friendly brands like Knours and Amareta (a line that even boasts pregnancy skincare products) certainly make it easier to determine what your skin needs when, so you don’t have to spend hours scanning ingredient labels and figuring it out on your own.
“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding dairy and high glycemic loads, especially when you’re prone to breakouts, has also been correlated with improvement in acne—which is good to keep in mind during times when carb cravings may be high,” Dr. Vickers says. (Sadly, the pizza and potato chips you reach for before your period aren’t doing your skin any favors.) The dermatologist maintains that high levels of stress can trigger acne as well, so “a little self-care and relaxation can definitely be helpful.” May I suggest a candlelit bubble bath followed by Knours’ Sweet Enough Rescue Mask?