As if being bloated, crampy, and cranky as all get out isn’t bad enough, some of us also get period acne. As a matter of fact,
Here’s what to know about managing and treating period-related acne and whether you’re dealing with run-of-the-mill breakouts or stubborn, painful chin cysts.
Before going into battle, it’s always best to know who your opponent is. In the case of period acne, this means knowing how to differentiate a hormonal break out from a regular one.
The easiest way to do this is to look at the timing. Acne that’s related to your period is more likely to flare up during the week leading up to your period or during your period. Plus, it tends to clear up or improve when your period is ending or over.
Already have acne? You might notice that it gets worse during this time. If you tend to have clear skin, you might notice a pimple or two pop up.
Think a pimple’s just a pimple? Nuh-uh. There are different types of blemishes. Knowing the difference between them can help you narrow down the best acne treatment.
These are the major players:
- Blackheads. When a clogged pore remains open, the pimple rises to the surface of your skin and looks black.
- Whiteheads. These stay under the surface of your skin. They form when a blocked pore closes, causing the top to appear white.
- Papules. This is a type of inflammatory acne. These are the small, pesky pimples that look like pink bumps. They tend to hurt.
- Pustules. Another type of inflammatory acne, pustules are red at the bottom. The tops are white or yellow and filled with pus.
- Nodules. These form deep under the skin. They tend to be large, solid, and painful.
- Cysts. This type of blemish is deep and filled with pus. They’re painful and can cause scarring.
Those dang hormones. That’s why.
Your hormones fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle. Just before your period starts, estrogen and progesterone levels drop. This can trigger your sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum, an oily substance that lubricates your skin. Too much can result in clogged pores and breakouts.
Hormones can also increase skin inflammation and the production of acne-causing bacteria.
These hormonal fluctuations just before your period may also be responsible for other fun period things, including moodiness, sore breasts, and weird poop (aka PMS).
PMS is also associated with increased stress, which might also worsen acne.
Unlike other PMS symptoms, period-related acne doesn’t always go away once your period starts. You can blame your hormones for this, too.
Testosterone, a male hormone that we all have in our bodies regardless of our birth sex, affects us differently depending on levels of our other hormones.
When your hormone levels fluctuate toward the end of your period, testosterone can also trigger sebaceous gland sensitivity. Again, the result is more sebum and clogged pores.
Notice a deep, throbbing pain in your chin or along your jawline? It’s not unusual for hormonal acne, especially cysts, to pop up in these areas. They might not look like much on the surface, but they can cause a world of pain.
Don’t try to pop chin cysts. Seriously. You won’t win, and it’ll just lead to more pain and increase your risk for scarring.
Seeing any kind of lump anywhere near your vaginal area can set off some major alarm bells. Before you panic, know that some people do report vulvar breakouts before their period.
Hormones can be to blame for breakouts in this area, but there are other possible period-related causes, too.
Menstrual pads, for instance, can rub against your skin, irritating your hair follicles and leading to ingrown hairs and folliculitis.
Other period products can also cause contact dermatitis, which is a reaction to something that touches the skin. Scented tampons, pads, and wipes can do it.
The deep pimples and cysts that sometimes come with periods can be pretty painful for some, but there are things you can do to ease the pain.
To get relief during a painful breakout, try:
- a warm compress for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, three or four times a day to soothe pain and help draw out pus
- a cold compress or ice 5 to 10 minutes at a time to relieve pain and swelling
- benzoyl peroxide to kill bacteria
Period-related acne can be particularly stubborn. You can help speed up the healing process with a mix of over-the-counter (OTC) products.
Choose your fighters
Here’s what to look for and how to build it into your routine:
- Wash your face twice a day using a gentle nonsoap cleanser, like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser.
- Use glycolic acid pads to remove dead skin cells, reduce inflammation, and promote the growth of new skin.
- Use an OTC benzoyl peroxide spot treatment beginning with a lower strength, like 2.5 percent.
- Use an OTC salicylic acid product, such as cleanser or cream, to keep pores clear.
- Use a tea tree oil spot treatment. Tea tree oil has been
shownto kill bacteria and improve mild to moderate acne.
Here are some other things you can do to deal with breakouts:
- Avoid irritating products, such as greasy sunscreens, cosmetics, oils, and concealers.
- Protect your skin from friction from things like tight collars, straps, or helmets.
- Limit your exposure to UV rays by staying out of the sun when possible and using nonoily moisturizers with sunscreen.
- Wash your face after activities that cause you to sweat.
- Use acne products as directed. Applying too much will irritate and dry out your skin.
One of the most frustrating aspects of period acne is that it usually just keeps coming back. Here are things you can do throughout your cycle to stay two steps ahead of those pesky hormones.
OTC acne products
The same products that can help an active breakout can also help you prevent another one.
The Mayo Clinic recommends starting with benzoyl peroxide products in a lower strength and gradually increasing over a few weeks.
Products containing alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, can help remove dead skin cells and prevent clogged pores. They also help stimulate the growth of new skin cells so your skin looks smoother and clearer.
Salicylic acid products are a good option, too. They’re available without a prescription in strengths that run from 0.5 to 5 percent. They keep your pores from clogging to prevent breakouts. To avoid irritation, start with a lower strength and work your way up until you know what your skin can handle.
High-GI foods have been
- sugary foods and drinks
- white bread
- other highly processed foods
Many of these same foods have been linked to increased inflammation, which also plays a role in acne.
If you can, try to limit your intake of these foods. You don’t need to completely avoid them, but reducing them might give your skin a boost.
If you continue to have period acne after trying OTC and home treatments for three cycles, consider talking to your healthcare provider or a dermatologist about prescription acne treatments.
They may recommend using one or a combination of the following:
- Retinoids can treat mild to moderate acne. They can be used for long-term prevention.
- Birth control pills have been shown to improve hormonal acne.
- Anti-androgens, such as spironolactone, can also help. Spironolactone is prescribed off-label, but it’s known to be effective for acne.
Noticing other issues with your cycle, like irregular periods? Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) could be why.
PCOS is a common hormonal disorder that can cause a range of symptoms.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you have acne along with any of the following:
- irregular or missed periods
- excess facial and body hair
- weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- dark patches of skin on the back of your neck and other areas (acanthosis nigricans)
- thinning hair and hair loss
If you don’t already have a dermatologist, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.
Zits happen, especially around menstruation. You can thank your hormones for that.
OTC acne treatments and some tweaks to your routine should be enough to help get rid of pimples. If those don’t seem to cut it, talk to your healthcare provider about prescription treatment.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddleboard.