Hormones & Skin Health — by Kirstin Kadé
written by Kirstin Kadé, Taste & See Blog
There are many different factors that play a role in our skin health including things like genetics, our environment, and our hormones. From adult-onset acne and skin ageing, to flare-ups during puberty and our periods, hormones have one of the more interesting roles to play in the way that our skin looks and functions.
Now before I get started, I just want to add in a disclaimer here to say that I am not a hormone expert, nor am I a skin expert. I am a university-qualified nutritionist and nutrition scientist with an interest in women's health and hormones, and have aimed to share what I've been able to learn about the relationship between hormones and skin health (hopefully) without stepping too far outside of my scope of practice.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that are produced in various glands throughout the body, are transported through the bloodstream, and act on distant target tissues or organs to regulate physiology and behaviour. Hormones have a huge impact on many different body systems, from appetite and reproduction to regulating blood sugar levels, and are thus usually quite tightly regulated to make sure that these systems work properly for optimal health.
Hormones and skin health
Your skin is sensitive to hormonal changes, with imbalances often leading to flare-ups or bouts of oily skin. For example, acne outbreaks are fairly common during the premenstrual and menstrual periods due to the impact of hormonal changes on facial oil. This is because sebaceous glands (the glands responsible for secreting the oily substance known as sebum) have receptors that are influenced by sex hormones (1).
Oestrogens (oestrone, oestradiol and oestriol)
Oestrogens are produced primarily by the ovaries, and in smaller amounts by the adrenal glands, breasts, fat cells, as well as the placenta during pregnancy(5). Oestrogen levels are regulated by interactions between the brain and ovaries through the action of luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) via Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian (HPO) Axis. Oestrogen plays a role in (2,3 ).
Secondary sex characteristics - breast development, widening of hips, fat deposition on thighs and hips
Positively influencing cholesterol levels, thus benefiting heart health
Promoting the calcium absorption and slowing down bone breakdown
Oestrogens are known to have a positive influence on skin health, particularly through their role in protecting the structure and physiology of skin(2). This group of hormones is known to:
Increase collagen, elastin, blood flow, and skin thickness
Inhibit matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that are known to break down collagen
Increase moisture and skin turgor
Increase the rate and quality of wound healing
Stimulate hair follicles for hair growth
Protect against oxidative stress and inflammation
In women, oestrogen levels peak in the mid- to late 20’s following which they decline by 50% by 50 years of age, and even further after menopause(2). This loss of oestrogen contributes to diminished dermal health, increased skin sensitivity, and characteristic skin ageing that we experience as we get older (1,3). Sebum production may change throughout the menstrual cycle, however the role of oestrogen role in this is unclear. This is due to the fact that many different factors, including genetics, seasonal changes, sun exposure, and skin products used can also influence the oiliness of your skin(1).
Testosterone is the dominant male sex hormone, but is also present in women in much lower concentrations(5). In women it is primarily produced by the ovaries, with the majority being converted to oestradiol. Smaller amounts are also produced by the adrenal glands(5). Testosterone is responsible for male-specific physical characteristics such as the development of the internal and external male reproductive organs and sperm production, as well as:
Signalling the body to produce new blood cells
Promoting muscle and bone strength
Enhancing libido in both men and women
Testosterone is responsible for the thicker and oilier skin, as well as later onset for showing signs of ageing, that males characteristically possess(4). When there are more androgens in the bloodstream that can bind to sebaceous gland receptors, more sebum is produced in the skin, and women can experience oilier skin(1). Oily skin coupled with dead skin cells in pores can result in blockages that trap excess sebum and will manifest as acne, or even inflammatory acne in cases where bacteria colonise these sebum filled pores(1).
Acne is thus commonly experienced when oestrogen-androgen ratios become unbalanced during menopause and menstruation(1,4). In fact, acne is one of the most frequently reported skin-related issues linked to the menstrual cycle, and period-related hormonal breakouts are very common during the 10 days before the onset of a period(1). This is also why acne is a common symptom of PCOS, which is often characterised by high circulating levels of testosterone in women(4).
Unlike oestrogens and testosterone, cortisol isn't a reproductive hormone, however it also has a major impact on things like the menstrual cycle, reproductive health, and skin health(5). Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands and transported throughout the body where it (5):
Helps the body respond to stress
Regulates the immune response
Influences water and salt balance
Regulates blood pressure
Cortisol plays an important role in helping the body deal with stress, and in small amounts is a healthy short-term coping mechanism (6,7). However, when chronic stress is experienced over time the effects of high cortisol can negatively affect a number of different body systems, including our skin (6,7). During periods of high stress, it is common for people to experience acne breakouts thanks to the fact that high cortisol levels promote sebum production(6,7). Stress can also cause flare-ups of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea (6,7). Finally, chronically high cortisol levels have the potential to accelerate the aging process of skin (6).
To end off
I could probably write a whole book about the integral role that hormones play in ensuring overall good health and wellbeing, but I think I'll end things off here. It is clear that in addition to the more obvious hormonal functions such as the regulation of reproduction and metabolism, they also play an interesting role in our skin health. I haven't had time to cover each and every hormone in this post, but if you're interested in learning more about some of the other hormones that influence women's health, head over to my blog and read this post.
Kirstin Kadé is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (AfN) that has a passion for wholesome, nourishing food and have an interest in learning more about how what we eat can impact our long-term health and wellbeing. More recently, she has become more interested in not only how the nutrients in our foods can impact our health, but also how our relationship with food can impact our overall wellbeing. Her blog, Taste & See, is a space where she shares nutrition-related knowledge and wholesome recipes that aim to make good health through food accessible to others.
1. Telfer N. Skin and the cycle: how hormones affect your skin. Clue [Internet]. 2018 Feb 4 [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/skin-and-the-cycle-how-hormones-affect-your-skin
2. Lephart ED. A review of the role of estrogen in dermal aging and facial attractiveness in women. J Costmet Dermatol [Internet]. 2018 Jun [cited 2019 Mar];17(3):282-88. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jocd.12508
3. Shah MG, Maibach HI. Estrogen and skin: An overview. Am J Clin Dermatol [Internet]. 2001 [cited 2019 Mar];2(3):143-50. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165%2F00128071-200102030-00003
4. Aguirre C. Hormones and Your Skin. The International Dermal Institute [Internet]. [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: http://www.dermalinstitute.com/uk/library/76_article_Hormones_and_Your_Skin.html
5. Kade K. Women's Health Series // Hormone Basics. Taste & See Blog [Internet]. 2018 Dec 9 [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://www.tasteandseeblog.co.za/journal/womens-health-hormone-basics
6. Morris EL. How the stress hormone cortisol is damaging your skin. Westlake Dermatology [Internet]. 2016 Apr 22 [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://www.westlakedermatology.com/blog/how-stress-is-damaging-your-skin/
7. Chen Y, Lyga J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets [Internet]. 2014 Jun [cited 2019 Mar];13(3):177-90. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082169/