Saving face

Skin has a life of its ownthat most of us know nothing about. Getting in touch with its natural rhythms, rather than bullying it with creams and potions, is the most reliable
path to a better complexion

Flip through any woman's magazine or browse in any chemist and you will be confronted with a bewildering array of products that promise great skin all day every day. But perfect unchanging skin is the preserve of celebrities and models who inhabit a world of perpetually good lighting, professional make-up artists and PhotoShop picture manipulation.

In reality, skin is a mirror, reflecting and reacting to what you eat and drink and your exposure to environmental pollutants, allergens, cosmetic irritants and the elements. How well you sleep and the stresses you are under are also relevant to the way your skin looks from day to day.

In real people it is in the nature of healthy, normal skin to change on an almost hourly basis. For instance, studies show that: production of new skin cells is highest at midnight and lowest at noon; oil production in the skin is twice as high at noon than it is at 2am; your skin is more likely to absorb what you put onto it at 4pm than at 8am; and you're more likely to have an allergic skin reaction in the morning than later in the day.

For women, skin also changes according to where they are in their menstrual cycle. Most observations of this phenomenon have been made in women with a 'normal' 28-day cycle that includes fi ve days of menstrual bleeding. But even if your cycle is longer or shorter, chances are you will experience a similar pattern of skin changes throughout the month.

Days one to five: During your period, less blood circulates in the superficial layers of the skin, making you look paler. The temptation now is to slap on more products. Don't. Your skin retains less moisture and
the skin barrier is less complete at this time, meaning it is more likely to react to topical irritants like soaps and detergents.

Days six to 13: Skin thickness begins to increase in response to hormone changes that trigger water retention. Studies in healthy women show that the body is less efficient at clearing toxins during these days,
and this may be refl ected in your skin. Try drinking more water.

Ovulation: Around day 14 of a 28-day cycle, skin tone will be at its peak. During ovulation, skin micro-circulation begins to improve, which may account for the better colouring. Studies suggest women are
perceived by others as being most attractive at this time.

Days 15 to 20: One benefit of increasing water retention in the skin at this stage is that your skin looks more refined and your pores smaller. After ovulation your body temperature rises slightly and stays higher until just before your period.  Hormonal changes mean that nerves in the skin take on more of the burden of controlling body temperature. This means skin colour may change more dramatically in response to external cold (which may make you look paler) or heat (which may increase colour).

Days 21 to 28: Oil secretions increase then drop off dramatically just before your period. Skin disorders like dermatitis can flare up and pimples can be worst around day 22. By day 25, skin is puffier and less elastic due to water retention. Your sleep quality is also reduced. Night-time variations in core body temperature trigger small bursts of brain activity that may briefly but regularly interrupt deep sleep. This carries on through the first few days of menstruation and may be reflected in more pronounced dark circles under the eyes.

Normal skin changes are not problems that need to be fixed, and there's no getting round the fact that if you want great skin there are no short cuts and no miracle products. Acknowledging this means you can stop obsessing over the most minute and transient shifts in skin tone and colour and adopt a more sensible approach to skincare that works from the inside out.

Adjusting your lifestyle to include sleeping longer, eating better, drinking more water and exercising more at different times of the month can help mitigate some of the natural changes that take place at skin level. But ultimately, accepting and working with these changes may make the difference between being at war and making peace with the way you look.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2005


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