Estrogen loss and skin care can be confusing. Treating “hormonal skin” with a specialized skin care product isn’t just about “menopause.” In fact, because most women begin losing estrogen in their mid-40s, the sooner you begin applying an estrogen-based skin care product, the better it is for your skin. Think of it like sunscreen, if you started to use sunscreen and being sun smart when you were younger, you would have saved your skin from prematurely aging and would have had younger looking skin well into your 60s and even 70s.
In the past, treating hormonal skin was only about “menopause” which is usually defined as a woman going at least 12 months without having her period. It is now clearly established that menopause is a process that begins in your 40s when your body starts making less and less estrogen (female hormones), eventually culminating in no longer having periods. This process varies considerably for women. Some women begin “menopause” in their early 40s others in their late 40s. Some women completely stop having periods in their 40s while others don’t stop until their 60s.
In terms of estrogen loss and skin care, the goal is to prevent the breakdown of systems caused by any amount of estrogen depletion. If you get in front of that breakdown by applying phytoestrogens the better it is for maintaining younger skin. This way, the skin thinks it has enough estrogen to keep making healthy skin cells, bone cells, and collagen cells to maintain hydration networks. All it takes is adding one topical skin care product with ingredients designed to bring some amount of estrogen back to estrogen-depleted skin.
How Estrogen Affects Skin
When endocrine glands (the organs in the body responsible for making hormones) reduce or stop making estrogens primarily because of age but for other reasons as well, it changes many things for the body and that includes changes to skin. Decades of studies have long established that low levels of estrogen worsen what the sun and other environmental damage does to skin. Lack of estrogen increases the loss of elastin, collagen, facial bone structure, hydration, and significantly thins skin.
But don’t lose hope, there is good news when it comes to estrogen loss and skin care. The amazing fact is that when you topically apply a product containing some form of estrogen, the skin (and only the skin) gets the message that it now has enough estrogen to behave as it did before the body slowed production of adequate youthful estrogen. This messaging helps diminishes the deterioration! It is literally that simple (the chemistry and physics are complicated but the results are impressive and noticeable).
If you’re a woman in her 40s or older, the question is which type of product should you add to your skin care routine to tell your skin it still has the estrogen it needs to be young? There are really only two options to consider. One is to topically apply a product that contains a synthetic form of estrogen (typically estradiol) or one that contains phytoestrogens (plant extracts or plant derivatives that contain estrogen). There is a great deal of research showing how topically applied estradiol and phytoestrogens can improve what the loss of natural estrogen does to skin, although generally topical estradiol has an edge over plant-based estrogens.
Always, Always, Start With the Basics
Before I get into how to add a product containing either synthetic estrogen or phytoestrogen into your skin care routine, it’s important to know that all the basics of taking brilliant care of your skin are exactly the same whether you have estrogen-deprived skin or not. You still need to be fanatically dedicated to preventing and restoring the damage environmental inflammation causes by doing the following:
- Sun protection with one or more products rated SPF 30 or greater, applied year-round to all exposed areas of skin.
- Not irritating skin or causing any kind of inflammation (on the surface or below the surface of skin).
- Loading your skin with antioxidants and other ingredients that can interrupt environmental and inflammatory factors attacking skin.
- Feeding skin the substances it can’t make for itself any more (such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, etc.).
- Applying ingredients that can help repair skin (such as niacinamide, azelaic acid, peptides, and retinol).
- Daily gentle exfoliation with a leave-on AHA or BHA product to help skin exfoliate naturally as it did when we were young, before sun damage and age hindered that process.
The Truth About Estrogen Loss and Skin Care
Addressing the specific, unique needs of estrogen-depleted skin means applying a single product that contains either lab-engineered estrogen (estradiol) or phytoestrogens. The most well-researched effective phytoestrogens are genistein, equol, or daidzein. Just like synthetic estrogen these specific phytoestrogens can interact with estrogen receptors in skin telling them to restore as much as possible what the loss of estrogen stopped. In other words, it makes skin believe it has enough estrogen to turn on collagen production, barrier repair, renew skin elasticity, revive hydration, and increase young elastin.
Even though studies have clearly shown that both lab-engineered estrogens and phytoestrogens have benefits when applied topically, the research also makes it clear that phytoestrogens are not as effective as lab-engineered (sometimes referred to as “bio-identical”) estrogens. However, so far all of the studies on these phytoestrogens have only looked at them individually on skin. There are growing discussions about the potential for increased efficacy if a variety of phytoestrogens were used together in the same formula.
Some skin care products containing plant extracts such as soy, red clover, and kudzu claim to have plant estrogen benefits, but it isn’t quite true, at least not in comparison to the impact genistein, equol, and daidzein have on skin. This is similar to how the antioxidant component of a plant is more potent for skin than the entire plant extract is. For example, grape extract is a very good skin care ingredient but resveratrol, the antioxidant part of the grape is by far more stable, more bio-available, and far more effective for interrupting environmental damage. Combining the plant extract with the estrogen derived part of the plant seems to have synergy that boosts efficacy.
Are Topical Phytoestrogens Safe?
There is controversy about whether or not topically applied phytoestrogens negatively affect breast, ovary, of uterine tissue. The research isn’t entirely conclusive but many scientists looking at the data feel it is highly unlikely that topically applied phytoestrogens can be a problem. If anything it seems the opposite is true, and they could be beneficial.
The reason for this is because phytoestrogens are targeted to beta estrogen receptors (ER-B) in skin and not alpha estrogen receptors (ER-A). Alpha estrogen receptors are associated with female cancers while beta estrogen receptors are associated with having anti-cancer benefit.
For those scientists who aren’t so sure if the difference between alpha and beta estrogen is meaningful when it comes to risk, most do acknowledge that topically applied estrogens of any kind (lab-engineered or phytoestrogens) would have little ability to absorb into the body. In other words, topically applying any form of estrogen would only benefit the area where it was directly placed.
References* used for this article:
International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, June 2019, pages 85–90.
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, November 2018, pages 1186–1189.
Nutrients, June 2017, page 622.
International Journal of Cosmetic Science, October 2017, pages 535-542.
International Journal of Molecular Science, November 2017, page 2325.
Maturitas, September 2017, pages 60-64.
Gynecological Endocrinology, November 2017, pages 845-848.
Acta Endocrinologica, April-June 2016, pages 234-241.
Methods in Molecular Biology Estrogen Receptors, 2016, pages 1-10.
Nutraceuticals, Efficacy, Safety, and Toxicity, 2016, Chapter 34, pages 465-487.
Menopause, March 2013. pages 336-341.
Dermato Endocrinology, April 2013, pages 264–270.
Immunology and Cell Biology, October 2010, pages 727-733.
Experimental Dermatology, November 2011, pages 879-82.
The Journal of Nutrition, July 2010, pages 1390-1394 Supplemental.
European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology, October 2009, pages 188-192.
Clinical Interventions in Aging, September 2007, pages 283–297.
Climacteric, The Journal of the International Menopause Society, August 2007, pages 289-297.
Journal of Investigative Dermatology, June 2003, pages 100-103.
The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, June 2000, pages 326-331.
*Free access is available for some of the above published research but not for all. Many scientific journals and/or publications I use require subscriptions or I have to purchase the individual study. Due to copyright laws and terms of service agreements I cannot share access to the journals or studies that require purchase.