Being diagnosed with PCOS can be overwhelming. The hormonal disorder believed to affect around one in ten women is characterized by symptoms that are frustratingly stubborn and varied, not to mention often overlooked by doctors. (Studies show that it takes many women up to two years to receive a proper diagnosis.)
While there is no cure for PCOS, we’ve teamed up with the experts at Allara, a virtual healthcare company dedicated to supporting women with PCOS, to help with one of the syndrome’s more maddening symptoms: skin issues.
What Kind of Skin Symptoms Are We Talking About?
At the root of PCOS is an imbalance in two hormones: testosterone and DHEA. In women who have disproportionately high levels of these androgens, problems ranging from weight gain to infertility can begin to cascade like dominos. Skin issues are one of the most common — and visible — signs that there is something off on the inside.
Skin symptoms associated with PCOS include acne that most commonly appears on the lower part of the face and neck, hair growth in areas not normally prone to sprouting locks (think the upper lip, chin, and abdomen), and thinning hair in areas where you would prefer luscious growth.
“When associated with PCOS, acne lesions are often deeper and larger and may take longer to resolve,” Kenneth Blank, MD, medical director at Allara, says. He adds that breakouts may also be worse during your period.
How Do You Know If Your Acne Is Caused by PCOS?
There are many different causes of acne (stress, your beauty products, and medications, to name just a few), and it can sometimes be difficult to figure out which one is behind a flare-up. The only way to know for sure if a breakout is caused by PCOS-related hormonal imbalances is to have your levels tested. If your testosterone and DHEA levels are high, then there’s a big chance they might be behind your acne.
Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your health. Once you know if misbehaving hormones are the problem, you can begin to treat the imbalance on the inside to clear up the issues on the outside.
The Long-Term Solution to Beating PCOS Acne: Diet & Exercise
One of the best ways to help support hormonal balance when you’re dealing with PCOS is by making changes to your diet and exercise routine. These lifestyle adjustments will also help keep acne and other skin symptoms in check.
Dr. Alyssa Dweck, ob-gyn and medical advisor to Veracity, recommends a Mediterranean-style diet and 150 minutes of cardio a week. You should also focus on “eating plenty of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, and consuming healthy fats like those in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish,” according to Felice Ramallo, lead dietitian at Allara.
“Additionally, supplements to reduce testosterone and improve cycle regularity are recommended (as everything is interconnected) and should be discussed with your healthcare provider(s),” Ramallo says. While there are several supplements that could be beneficial for PCOS, her top recommendation is often inositol.
It Can Be Frustrating, But Patience Is Key
“Nutrition and lifestyle changes can be incredibly powerful in treating acne and other symptoms of PCOS, however, they do take time,” Ramallo says.
This is something beauty vlogger Abbie Curls knows intimately. After being diagnosed with PCOS, Curls began a journey filled with trial and error to figure out a diet and exercise regimen that worked for her.
“The shift was gradual, which was hard because you want to know straight away whether the changes you're making are working. But you have to stick with them for a long time before you can tell,” Curls told Veracity. “It was a journey, and I still experience ups and downs…It's not perfect, but I'm now regular enough that I feel healthy and that things are working as they should.”
But In the Short Term…
While you’re figuring out the specific lifestyle changes that work best for you, your hormones, and your skin, there are a few things you can do to help banish your current breakout.
“I recommend washing one’s skin twice daily and after sweating and avoiding scrubbing the skin,” Blank says. “Rinse completely with lukewarm water after washing. Avoid sun and tanning bed exposure. Do not squeeze or pop pimples.”
In addition to being diligent about your skincare routine, Ramallo also recommends using retinoids, the topical form of vitamin A that has been shown to be effective for women with PCOS-driven acne. (Though keep in mind, these are not safe for use during pregnancy.)
While there is currently no long-term remedy for PCOS, there is hope, especially when it comes to your skin. Through changes to your diet, exercise, and skincare regimen, women like Curls who struggle with PCOS can reclaim their bright, clear skin.