Even though many dermatologists would deny it, hormonal acne is a real and serious problem for women.
Yet hormones can be the biggest problem for women.
In today’s post I discuss all the variations of hormonal acne, where it comes from, and what to do about it.
Hormonal Acne: When and how it shows up
Hormonal acne for many women presents at certain times of the month. Popular times include 1) at ovulation, which occurs almost precisely smack in the middle of the cycle, two weeks after the first day of bleeding (read about how to pinpoint ovulation in this post), 2) the few days before a period, and 3) at the start of a woman’s period.
Hormonal acne can also be present all of the time. For women with hormonal problems such as PCOS (read here to start figuring out if you have PCOS) and Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (read here to figure out if you have HA), this is unfortunately the case.
When I had both PCOS and HA at the same time, I had terrible acne every day for three years.
Hormonal acne usually occurs in the form of cysts. Cysts are those lovely, pus-filled, painful and inflamed red bumps. They often culminate in a peak of white pus.
Hormonal acne also appears as more mild forms called comedones. These are those whitehead “bumps” that never break the surface.
Hormonal acne can even show up just as smaller lesions. These are not quite as angry and painful as full out cysts, and may appear more rash-like or just smaller than typical acne. Below is a photo of my own cysts (on a “good” day) back in 2011.
Hormonal acne occurs first and foremost around the mouth. It shows up on the chin, below the nose, around the sides of the mouth, and sometimes up the jawline.
As hormonal acne worsens, however, it spreads to the cheeks and the forehead.
Other body parts can be affected, too. This usually includes the shoulders, back, and buttocks–where the body’s testosterone receptors are most prominent.
The physiological mechanism of hormonal acne
Hormonal acne is caused by increased oil production beneath the skin. Think of it like a river. Ordinarily there is a healthy flow of oil to the surface. This is important because it lubricates the skin.
But when there is too much oil – and when it combines with the normal skin cells and other debris on the surface of the skin – it can clog the pores.
When oil clogs pores, bacteria go on a feeding frenzy. This causes inflammation.
The worse inflammation is, the more irritated the oil gland can become, and thus the more red, and the more painful.
Yet it is important to remember that hormonal acne does not occur unless there is an oil problem.
But it will never go away completely without curing the hormonal acne from underneath. The only way to fix it is from the inside out.
Hormonal Acne: Causes of increased oil secretion
The primary causes of oil secretion are male sex hormones, also called androgens. Testosterone is the primary culprit. Another androgen, called DHEA-S, is also very important. They both increase oil secretion.
This effect is worsened when female sex hormone levels – particularly of estrogen – fall. Estrogen balances male sex hormones in the skin. Without a healthy balance, problems occur.
1. The most prominent androgen is testosterone.
Testosterone causes oil production in the skin.
Why might you have high testosterone?
You might have it if you have PCOS.
(Acne is one of the clearest indicators of PCOS.)
You may also have high testosterone if you have diabetes or insulin resistance, because when the body produces insulin, the ovaries produce testosterone. It’s a very simple yet very damaging process.
When might you show hormonal acne from high testosterone?
If you still have a menstrual cycle, you may find that you break out around ovulation. This is the middle of your cycle. It is also when your testosterone levels are the highest.
But if you have a hormone condition like PCOS – you will probably have hormonal acne most of the time.
(If you struggle with PCOS or think that you may have it, you may want to check out my handy guide on overcoming PCOS.)
2. Another androgen, called DHEA-S, causes oil production as well.
Yet unlike testosterone, which is a sex hormone, DHEA-S is a stress hormone.
It is produced primarily in the adrenal (stress) glands. Whenever a woman is under any degree of stress, her body faces a choice: it has to decide if it wants to produce normal sex hormones like progesterone and estrogen, or if it wants to produce stress hormones like DHEA-S.
For this reason, Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis dysregulation is usually the first place to look to as the origin of DHEA-S problems. Women with a lot of stress – whether from emotions, poor sleep, or under-feeding – have higher levels of DHEA-S levels.
3. Estrogen fights acne.
Estrogen helps promote clear skin. It does this in a number of ways.
First, it has the power to off-set high testosterone levels in the blood. Estrogen increases levels of sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG), which in turn binds testosterone and makes it impotent.
Second, the skin has many estrogen receptors in it, so estrogen directly performs a balancing and soothing function at the site of acne.
For women with chronically low estrogen, hormonal acne is often a consistent problem. They have acne 100% of the time.
In women with relatively healthy hormone systems, low estrogen can still be a problem. This is because estrogen levels fall at the end of each menstrual cycle, and are low at the beginning. Having such low estrogen levels during this time can lead to monthly breakouts.
Because hypothalamic amenorrhea is characterized by low hormone, and particularly low estrogen levels, boosting estrogen is one of the main and most helpful ways women with hypothalamic amenorrhea cure their acne.
Because menopause significantly decreases estrogen levels–almost to zero–this is also the primary reason women in menopause can see a re-emergence of hormonal acne after decades of clear skin.
4. Finally, progesterone can also play a role in acne. Progesterone, in high doses, acts as an inflammatory agent, and can cause acne to flare up. Progesterone levels are highest during the days leading up to menstruation, which explains why many women experience outbreaks at this time.
Synthetic progesterone, such as that found in birth control pills, can also cause acne.
Whether a certain variety of the pill causes acne for you or not, however, is entirely dependent upon your own body chemistry and how your body reacts to external hormones. Know only that if you noticed a change in your skin while experimenting with birth control methods, this is most likely why. You may want to consider a birth control method that has a different kind of progesterone in it, or one that has a different progesterone-estrogen balance, to see if it helps relieve your acne.
Aggravators of hormonal acne
There are many factors other than hormones that can worsen hormonal acne. Here is a list of the most common:
Stress: Stress plays an important role. It acts as an inflammatory agent, especially if cortisol levels remain high for a long time. Stress also decreases production of healthy, skin-supporting hormones like estrogen, and increases production of acne-causing stress hormones like DHEA-S. Stress is not necessarily the cause of hormonal acne, but does exacerbate it, and prevent proper healing.
Heat. Heat is inflammatory, and also causes sweat, which can clog pores.
UV Rays. The sun’s rays are some of the most potent acne inflamers out there. Protect the skin on your face with at least an SPF of 20, or consider wearing a hat in the summer months.
Inflammatory foods: grains, dairy, nuts, and omega 6 vegetable oils can all contribute to poor gut health and inflammation.
Dairy: While already mentioned for being inflammatory, dairy deserves special mention because it is a highly hormonal food. Pregnant cows produce several hormones designed for growth. Growth hormones can both cause androgen levels to rise as well as promote production activities that lead to acne.
I have seen enormous success with women with hormonal acne eliminating dairy for their skin. Many people at least anecdotally least respond to dairy with acne more strongly than any other food.
Phytoestrogens: soy and flax are the primary phytoestrogens to be concerned about, with legumes and nuts coming in a distant second place. Phytoestrogens (“phyto estrogen” is greek for “plant estrogen”) have the power to act as estrogens in the body. This may sound like a good thing for acne, but this role is ambivalent and should be treated with caution, especially with the skin. Different estrogen receptors read different kinds of phytoestrogens differently, such that phytoestrogens usually perform estrogen-lowering effects in skin tissue despite what they do in other locations.
Low carbohydrate diets: Having sufficient glucose stores is important for skin healing, and can speed the recovery of acne lesions. Glucose is also helpful for preventing hypothyroidism. Find out 8 of the most important signs you need to eat more carbohydrate here.
Poor sleep: Sleep both enables healing and promotes healthy hormonal production.
Hypothyroidism: Without sufficient levels of T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, in the blood, a woman’s skin cells lack the ability to heal properly. Many women who suffer hypothyroidism suffer chronic acne.
Dealing with hormonal acne
The best thing you can do for hormonal acne is get blood work done and figure out precisely what your underlying problem is. That way you can target the problem and treat it effectively.
Unfortunately not all of us can afford this, so it’s okay to guess. Nevertheless, the better an idea you have of what is going on in your body, the more specific you can be about what to do to fix it.
In general, hormone dysregulation that leads to acne can be broken down into a few broad categories:
1) high testosterone from PCOS (specifically the overweight and insulin resistant type of PCOS),
2) low estrogen from low body fat levels, chronic restriction, or living in an energy deficit,
3) low estrogen from menopause,
4) high progesterone from general hormone imbalance, possibly related to PMS,
5) any of these conditions worsened by stress or hypothyroidism, and
6) any combination therein.
The ultimate hormonal acne solution
The solution to all of these problems is to correct the hormone imbalance. I have discussed methods of doing so above and elsewhere.
For women with menopause, it may just “take time” or perhaps medical interventions are appropriate, depending on the severity of the problem.
Medication for hormonal acne?
There are drugs designed to help with hormonal acne. Spironolactone and flutamide are the two primary ones that come to mind (though I don’t recommend taking either of them), as well as birth control.
The reason birth control pills are helpful for acne is because they enforce hormone regularity on a woman’s system. The precise pill that is helpful for each woman varies by her particular condition– but in general, BCPs are comprised of estrogen and of progesterone. BCPs can for that reason 1) raise estrogen levels–which either corrects an estrogen deficiency or helps balance the activity of runaway testosterone–and they can also 2) restore proper balance between estrogen and progesterone, which is important for keeping progesterone levels within their proper parameters.
Some BCPs also contain anti-androgenic substances, such as drospirenone, which is an added benefit for women who are living with androgen excess (but poses some health risks). In all cases, I do not generally recommend that women get on BCP, as it can cause worse hormonal dysregulation in the long run (sort of like handicapping a delicate hormonal system), and does not solve the underlying problem.
Flutamide acts in a similar way to spironolactone, but less effectively, and with more side effects. So spironolactone is typically the drug of choice.
Spiro has been hailed by many acne sufferers as God’s gift to womankind: it decreases testosterone activity. For many women this begets truly miraculous effects. Yet one should step cautiously with spironolactone. If a woman’s primary problem is not testosterone excess, spironolactone will very likely do more harm for her skin than good. (Check out the panicked discussion forums at acne.org to see what I’m talking about.) Moreover, even for those who have testosterone excess as their primary problem, spironolactone merits caution for a variety of reasons. First, spiro usually induces an infamous “initial breakout” which can last anywhere from weeks to months. This isn’t always the case– sometimes women improve immediately. Sometimes they never really do (I never did: in fact, my acne got worse on spiro.) But the typical case is for women to see an initial worsening of their acne, followed by relief in the upcoming months, especially if they increase their dosages.
Secondly, spiro cannot be taken by pregnant women because it induces birth defects, so women cannot stay on spironolactone indefinitely. This is problematic because spironolactone acts as a band-aid on the hormone problem, and does nothing to fix it whatsoever. What spiro does simply is block testosterone receptors. In most cases, if the underlying problem is not addressed while a woman is taking spironolactone, her acne will return once she comes off of the drug. This is why I recommend that women only consider taking spironolactone if they want a “quick fix” while they work on their diet and exercise in order to improve their PCOS.
Finally, spironolactone has a couple of other health concerns. First, it lowers blood pressure, since spiro is actually a blood pressure lowering drug proscribed “off label” for acne. Secondly, it acts as a diuretic, so women on it need to drink water constantly, may not be able to consume alcohol anymore, may have dysregulated salt cravings, and may never actually be properly hydrated. And finally, spiro acts as a potassium-sparing diuretic, such that women cannot eat potassium rich foods, lest they risk the chance of becoming hyperkalemic, which can lead to sudden death. It hospitalized me. An imbalance of electrolytes in the blood is no laughing matter, so women on spiro should limit their potassium rich foods as well as get their potassium levels checked periodically. Potassium rich foods include melons, bananas, potatoes, avocadoes, tomatoes, and leafy greens, among others.
For these reasons, spiro can help, but it cannot be relied on long term. It does not get at the root of the issue–drugs rarely do–and the true path to hormonal help is diet and lifestyle modifcation.
As a final note, bio-identical hormone supplementation can be helpful for women going through menopause. Estrogen patches can release small amounts of hormone into the bloodstream, and can lessen acne considerably. I do not think this is necessarily detrimental to a woman’s health, if it is in fact the case that her estrogen levels have simply dropped off during menopause. However, it does, in my opinion, make it difficult for estrogen levels to rise and hormone balance to re-establish itself on its own. This is a decision best left to the individual and to her doctor.
Hormonal acne is terrible, and for many women can seem incessant, and never ending. Girls are assured growing up that they will eventually out-grow their acne, yet many women see it persist throughout their twenties and thirties, and some actually do not even see the acne manifest until their twenties and thirties. Some women do not even see acne appear until after the birth of their first children, as their progesterone and estrogen levels are flying all over the map.
There are downsides to medication, and large ones. Medication is only ever a band-aid, and it can be a band-aid that in the long run leads to more harm than good. Playing with hormones is like playing with fire. Sometimes things can go horribly wrong. For this reason, meds may be best left alone, depending on the circumstance and the level of risk a woman is willing to bear.
It is entirely possible as well as supremely healthy to cure acne from the inside out with good diet and lifestyle practices alone, many of which you can read about in my guide on weight loss, or my guide to overcoming PCOS. It may take experimentation and patience, but don’t all good things, in the end?
For an even more thorough blog post on the causes of acne and overcoming it, see another post on acne, here.
For my favorite resource out there on overcoming acne, see Seppo Puusa’s Clear for Life.
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