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Skincare for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects 1 in 15 women. It can cause complicated and sometimes serious health problems, along with frustrating skin and hair concerns. Acne, unwanted hair growth, and a specific type of skin darkening are the most visible symptoms.

PCOS can quickly become a worrisome, frustrating issue, and trying to figure out how to treat all of these skin and hair concerns can be maddening! Don’t give up—there are steps you can take to get things under control. We’ll walk you through it, tell you how to find out if you have PCOS, and offer a research-supported plan you can go over with your physician to turn things around!

How Do I Know if I Have PCOS

There are many physical symptoms of PCOS, but research has shown that the two most noticeable for diagnosis are skin darkening of the neck, underarms, or skin folds, such as under the breasts, accompanied by unwanted hair growth on the face and body.

These bothersome signs arise from a dramatic, ongoing, and abnormal shift in a woman’s hormonal balance. This shift causes the body’s male hormones, which every woman naturally has, to increase beyond normal amounts, triggering the visible signs listed above. No one is quite sure why this happens, but, for certain, PCOS can be painful, both emotionally and physically.

I Think I Have PCOS... Now What?

If you suspect you have PCOS, see your physician and discuss your concerns openly and honestly. There are medications available to treat abnormal hormone fluctuations as well as to lessen the other symptoms of PCOS. Following this path can make a world of difference in your health and comfort; for example, it can be as simple as just taking a birth control pill or changing the one you currently use or taking an androgen (male hormone)–reducing medication.

Although you must seek medical treatment to address the serious health problems PCOS can cause, when it comes to the skincare and haircare problems associated with PCOS, there are over-the-counter products that can make a big difference. Acne, skin darkening, unwanted hair growth, or hair loss can be managed with topical over-the-counter treatments that anyone struggling with these concerns can use. This is very important to realize, and it’s relatively easy to incorporate such products into your skincare routine.

How to Help Improve Skin and Hair Problems from PCOS

  • Acne and Oily Skin: Acne and oily skin, for both males and females, are primarily the result of hormonal disorders caused by androgens. Because women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance that causes overproduction of male hormones, it isn’t surprising that acne and oily skin are typical symptoms. Products that contain 2.5% to 5% benzoyl peroxide and 2% salicylic acid (BHA) are the gold standard for treating acne and are an excellent first line of defense to noticeably reduce breakouts and post-acne marks and are suitable even for those with PCOS.
  • Unwanted Hair Growth: Unwanted hair growth is caused by an excess of male hormones. Shaving, waxing, depilatories, and tweezing are all options, but each has its limitations and each demands ongoing effort. The most successful way to stop unwanted hair growth is laser hair removal. Although expensive, laser hair removal is considered the most effective method for stopping unwanted hair growth, especially when combined with medications that your physician can prescribe.
  • Hair Loss: The type of hair loss women with PCOS experience is directly related to the excess production of male hormones caused by the disorder. Referred to as male-pattern baldness, it can be helped with topical over-the-counter medications that contain minoxidil. Rogaine is the best-known brand, but generic versions cost a lot less and work equally well. If you have PCOS, it’s very important to be sure that minoxidil does not get on the areas of your face that are experiencing unwanted hair growth—that could worsen the issue.
  • Skin Darkening: The brown skin discolorations that occur with PCOS are unique and not related to sun damage. They appear as darkened, velvety swaths of dark brown skin that, as mentioned above, most often appear on the back of the neck, armpits, inner thighs, or under the breasts. Although these discolorations are not related to unprotected sun exposure, our routine suggestions are the same: exfoliate daily with an AHA or BHA leave-on exfoliant (not a scrub), sunscreen, and use of a topical over-the-counter skincare product with 2% hydroquinone. For stubborn cases, you may need a prescription-strength skin lightener that contains 4% hydroquinone.

It’s important to know that just like any other aspect of skincare, being gentle and not causing irritation or inflammation is fundamental to achieving the results you want. Anything that irritates skin, such as harsh scrubs, fragrance (synthetic or natural), menthol, mint, camphor, eucalyptus, citruses, sensitizing plant extracts, or denatured alcohol, all damage skin, making matters worse.

Diet and Exercise

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the growing research that shows how a poor diet, lack of exercise, and other negative lifestyle choices such as smoking can worsen all the symptoms of PCOS. Studies have shown that reaching and maintaining a normal weight and eating a nutritious, antioxidant-rich, low-glycemic index diet (that is, reducing sugars and simple carbohydrates) can significantly improve acne and even hair growth, as well as potentially reduce excess androgen levels overall. You should discuss any such lifestyle changes with your physician as part of your overall treatment plan for PCOS.

References for this information:

Nursing Standard, May 2017, pages 44–51
International Journal of Clinical Practice, May 2017, ePublication
International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, February 2017, pages S6–S10
Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, February 2017, pages 487–496
Journal of Family Reproductive Health, December 2016, 184–190
Clinical Cosmetic, and Investigative Dermatology, September 2016, pages 241–248 and August 2015, pages 371–388
Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, December 2013, pages 1–13