PCOS and How It Can Affect Your SkinPosted on 13/09/2018
September is PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) awareness month. Have you heard of PCOS before? It’s a condition that affects 1 in 5 women in Australia. Up to 70% of women have PCOS yet remain undiagnosed. I’m by no means an expert on PCOS but I hope to share a bit about my personal journey to help spread awareness of it.
I was diagnosed with PCOS about 10 years ago and back then, there was almost no awareness of PCOS. I was also very young (21 years old) and because it was something that I had never heard of before, I just took my Gynaecologist’s advice and didn’t look much further into it. So for the past 10 years, I’ve been on the pill – which may be why I don’t have PCOS symptoms that directly affect my skin, but this could potentially change when I go off it. Although I personally don’t have any major skin concerns caused by PCOS, there are so many women who do. So I’d like to share a bit about what PCOS is, how it can affect your skin and what you can do to help treat it.
If you think you may possibly have PCOS, speak with your GP and be referred to a specialist.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, in simple terms, is a hormonal imbalance that affects women in various ways but affects mainly the ovaries. We all have a mix of male and female hormones. PCOS symptoms are caused by having a high level of androgens (“male” hormones) or high insulin levels. In some cases, women can have high levels of both.
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown but it is known that women with a family history of PCOS have a 50% chance of being diagnosed with it. Lifestyle can also be a factor, especially if it causes high levels of insulin e.g. poor diet and/or lack of exercise.
Symptoms Of PCOS
PCOS can cause a wide range of symptoms that can vary in severity from mild to severe. The symptoms that one woman with PCOS experiences can differ a lot from another woman. In fact, it’s rare for two women to have the exact same symptoms. PCOS can affect a woman’s physical appearance as well as her mental health. The most common symptoms are:
- Irregular, infrequent or heavy menstrual cycles (it’s possible to have only a few cycles or too many cycles per year. I once didn’t get mine for 6 months!)
- Multiple cysts on your ovaries
- Acne (face and/or body)
- Excessive hair growth (face and/or body)
- Hair loss
- Dark skin patches (commonly on the neck)
- Anxiety and/or Depression
- Sleep disorders (sleep apnoea, difficulties falling / staying asleep causing fatigue)
- Weight gain
Please note that having one or more of any of these symptoms above doesn’t necessarily mean you have PCOS. Similarly, if you have been diagnosed with PCOS, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will have most or all of the symptoms above.
*Having PCOS does not mean you’re infertile. “60% of women living with PCOS get pregnant naturally, while the rest won’t necessarily need IVF, though may require some lower level fertility treatment” (Dr Roisin Worsley, Endocinologist – Huffington Post).
See resource links below for more about symptoms & diagnosis of PCOS.
How PCOS Can Affect Your Skin
High levels of androgens and insulin can increase sebum production as well as change your skin type to oily if it’s not oily already. Excess oil clogs pores which then leads to acne. Studies by the NCBI have found that 26.9% of women suffering from acne actually have acne caused by PCOS. PCOS related acne is usually chronic cystic acne and often appears on the lower part of your face (cheeks, jawline, chin) and neck. It can also flare up more just before / during your menstrual cycle.
Chronic inflammation – also a symptom of PCOS which can be caused by poor gut health, can also cause PCOS related acne.
PCOS can cause other conditions directly related to the skin. These include hirsutism (excessive facial / body hair growth), skin tags and acanthosis nigricans (dark velvety skin patches). Also see links below for more detail.
To find out more specifically about acne, see our Korean Skincare Guide To Treating Acne.
Another common symptom of PCOS is sleep apnoea or having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. This is one of the symptoms I personally experience – most nights I have broken sleep, usually waking up at least once throughout the night. As we all may have experienced before, a poor night’s sleep can directly be reflected in your skin the next day. Dark eye circles, dehydrated skin and a dull complexion can all be side effects of not getting enough good quality sleep.
Sleep apnoea is when your sleep is disturbed by lack of oxygen. It can lead to mood changes, high blood pressure and chronic fatigue.
Stress & Anxiety
Stress will increase your body’s androgen levels even more which could potentially make your PCOS symptoms more severe. Research has also linked increased emotional stress to causing acne and increasing acne severity. Not to mention stress can lead to other issues such as loss of appetite or poor diet, lack of sleep and anxiety; all of which show on your skin too.
57% of women with PCOS suffer from anxiety and approximately 29% suffer from depression (jeanhailes.org.au). Stress & anxiety is something I personally experience, and it intertwines with PCOS. Before my diagnosis, I remember any stress (big or small) would throw my menstrual cycle out of whack which would then make me feel anxious because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. There were also external factors causing my anxiety to worsen and everything just turned into one great big anxious mess! At that time, I also didn’t fully understand what anxiety was, I just thought I was constantly “really stressed out”.
Living with and trying to manage symptoms caused by PCOS (skin & non-skin related) in addition to the possibility of being undiagnosed, can severely affect one’s mental & emotional state. Women with chronic cystic acne or other PCOS skin related conditions often have low self esteem, negative body image, anxiety & depression. It’s not about being vain, rather just wanting to love the skin you’re in but not knowing how to.
Treating Skin Concerns Caused By PCOS
You can treat PCOS related skin concerns with various prescribed medications and over the counter treatments. However more often than not, these treatments are associated with unpleasant side effects. Please always seek an opinion from your dermatologist first.
We recommend to start treating PCOS related acne and other skin concerns (caused by lack of sleep and stress) with a gentle, consistent skincare routine first. Look for products that will:
- Help control sebum production
- Keep your pores clear
- Soothe acne breakouts
- Repair damaged skin
- Keep your skin hydrated
- Treat & protect your skin
There are a lot of Korean skincare products that will do all of the above and can help treat these skin concerns. Our top recommendations would be:
COSRX Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser effectively removes excess oil and cleans inside your pores.
Some By Mi AHA BHA PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner will gently exfoliate whilst also replenishing hydration in your skin. This miracle toner is great for cystic acne breakouts.
COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence works to promote healing and skin cell regeneration thus reducing acne and repairing skin damaged by acne.
KLAIRS Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Drop will reduce scarring, brighten any dullness and protect your skin with antioxidants.
KLAIRS Midnight Blue Calming Cream is a soothing and hydrating moisturiser that helps reduce acne.
Pyunkang Yul have also created a specialised, gentle, Acne Care Line which has been designed for oily, acne prone skin. This line also includes an acne spot cream which works well to specifically target and draw out bacteria, oil and pus from acne.
Sheet masks are also a great way to give your skin a quick hydration boost or to instantly soothe inflammation and reduce redness caused from acne.
It’s also important to note that the best way to treat skin concerns caused by PCOS is to treat the root of the cause i.e. high levels of androgens and/or insulin. This means implementing lifestyle changes such as having a healthy, low GI & sugar free diet, consistent exercise routine, improving your gut health and learning how to better manage stress and anxiety.
More Information About PCOS
PCOS can be difficult to diagnose (it took 5 years for my diagnosis!!). If after reading this, you think you could possibly have PCOS, don’t just self diagnose. Proper diagnosis requires seeking help from a medical professional – see your GP and obtain a referral to see a specialist. Also don’t freak out about some of the symptoms listed. As mentioned, symptoms vary per person and symptoms are also manageable. I’ve included a list of resources below if you’d like to learn more about PCOS.
Disclaimer: Always seek a professional opinion first. I am not a medical professional nor am I an expert in PCOS. This article shares my personal opinions, story & advice on treating skin concerns. It is by no means an expert opinion on PCOS itself or its symptoms including infertility, mental health or sleep disorders.
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