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The science of skin cycling with menstrual phases

There are 15 million women who are of menstrual age in the UK, each of whom menstruate around 500 times in their lifetime for what equates to about 6.5 years of their life, according to stars from The Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association.

The menstrual cycle typically lasts for about 28 days but can vary from person to person and can be split into four main stages, commonly known as the menstrual phase (menstruation), the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase.

While there is an abundance of information about how to manage menstrual symptoms such as cramps and pain, mood swings and bloating, it is not always clear how hormonal surges and fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle affect the skin and how skincare routines can be adapted to reflect this. Hormones can profoundly affect skin health, and the structural integrity and balance of the skin during menstruation, leading to premature ageing, hormonal acne, dry skin, pigmentation and skin discolouration.

Understanding how the skin’s needs evolve throughout the menstrual cycle can not only empower women to make more informed choices about their skincare routines and how to skin cycle ingredients but is also invaluable for professionals. The different phases of the menstrual cycle each require a slightly different approach. Possessing a robust understanding of client’s menstrual cycles presents professionals with a unique opportunity to adopt a more personalised approach to both educate clients and formulate bespoke skin regimens and treatment plans that are tailored to women’s needs, create trust between client and practitioner, and importantly, offer optimal outcomes.

Menstrual phase: days 1–6

The menstrual phase marks the beginning of the cycle and is characterised by uterine wall shedding, or bleeding. Oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest during this stage and clients are likely to experience heightened skin sensitivity.

Low levels of progesterone cause low or reduced oil production in the sebaceous glands, leading to drier skin that has a dull appearance and can make wrinkles and fine lines appear more prominent. Simultaneously, low oestrogen levels decrease the skin barrier function and diminish the protective effects of the skin, while high levels of prostaglandins contribute to skin inflammation. Adopting a tentative approach, using gentle, moisturising, and hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides and urea is beneficial to clients at this stage of their cycle, to increase skin water content and maintain the integrity of the skin barrier. Clients should be encouraged to cleanse with a mild, hydrating cleanser to avoid unnecessary irritation and to protect the skin from possible infections. A rich, hydrating moisturiser, serum or oil will help counteract dryness and soothe skin irritation while using a broad-spectrum sun-protection product (even on cloudy days) will protect against UV-induced damage. Avoiding harsh actives and physical exfoliants during this phase will also be beneficial as it will help to avoid unnecessary irritation, redness, and dehydration.

Client lifestyle choices will also affect their skin health during this phase so encouraging clients to maintain hydration via ample water intake will support overall skin health and optimise the effects of their prescribed skincare regimen.

Follicular phase: days 1–14

Skin rebalances during the follicular phase, and hyaluronic acid and collagen synthesis increases thanks to a gradual increase in oestrogen production, resulting in plumper, more hydrated and calmer skin. Oil production also becomes more balanced so that dryness decreases. Clients should continue to cleanse with a gentle cleanser during this phase, but a mild exfoliant can be introduced to promote radiance and enhance skin texture. Introducing antioxidants such as vitamin C will also protect against oxidative stress while preserving and maintaining skin radiance in this phase. Hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid will lock in moisture to promote a plump, youthful complexion.

The majority of clients should experience improved skin quality and less irritation during this phase, making it a good time for any new products to be introduced as they are less likely to cause a negative reaction.

Ovulation phase: days 14–16

Although oil production is still low at both the follicular phase and ovulation phases because of low levels of progesterone, the skin is best around ovulation because oestrogen is at its peak. This is a good time to start preparing skin for the inflammatory luteal phase by using product formats and ingredients that will cleanse and exfoliate thoroughly. Gentle AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) such as lactic acid in low concentrations are ideal as they exfoliate and act as humectants to hydrate the skin simultaneously to reduce the likelihood of clogged pores and breakouts. Lactic acid is an ideal choice for sensitive skin and stimulates collagen production, helping to improve the skin’s texture and minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are also an ideal option due to their gentle exfoliating properties. They help to reduce dullness without causing excessive irritation or sensitivity, which can be particularly advantageous during hormonal fluctuations.

They are generally well tolerated by individuals with sensitive or reactive skin and are less likely to cause redness, stinging, or burning. This makes them a good option for those who have sensitive skin or who experience heightened sensitivity during the ovulation phase.

Luteal phase: days 15–30

The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle typically sees the skin at its most inflamed and is the most likely time for a client to experience clogged pores, breakouts, sensitivity, and redness. Progesterone is the dominant hormone during the luteal phase and is produced by the corpus luteum – a temporary endocrine structure that forms from the ruptured follicle after ovulation. As its levels increase, sebum production also increases, meaning that the skin is more prone to breakouts. Assist clients during this stage by focusing on oil control and preventing acne flare-ups by using calming ingredients such as chamomile and aloe vera, or niacinamide and salicylic acid to alleviate redness and irritation. A gentle cleanser is helpful to maintain skin health and calm skin, as are treatments that address breakouts and hormonal acne. Moisturisers should be lightweight and non-comedogenic to maintain hydration without clogging pores.

Adopting a holistic approach that encourages clients to incorporate stress-reduction techniques, exercise, and a balanced diet into their routines to manage hormonal fluctuations effectively will also be beneficial to optimise skin recovery during this phase.

Personal approach

It is important to note that while professionals should familiarise themselves with the different phases of the menstrual cycle and how each can impact the skin, they should use the above as a reference guide to tailor skin regimens appropriate to individuals as opposed to creating four individual routines. Rather, by taking the different stages of the menstrual cycle into consideration, professionals can consult and educate their clients with integrity, ensuring they achieve their skin health goals.