Many things cause our skin to age. Some things we cannot do anything about; others we can influence. One thing that we cannot change is the natural aging process. It plays a key role. With time, we all get visible lines on our face. It is natural for our face to lose some of its youthful fullness. We notice our skin becoming thinner and drier. Our genes largely control when these changes occur. The medical term for this type of aging is “intrinsic aging.”
Many factors are involved in intrinsic skin aging: genetic mutations, increased inflammatory signals, decreased lipid production and decreased hormone levels. These hormone changes are now being more closely examined to reveal just how important hormones are to skin health in women.
The Role of Hormones on the Skin
When it comes to popular hormones, estrogen takes the prize for most widely known and discussed. In the skin, estrogens affect skin thickness, wrinkle formation and skin moisture. Estrogens can increase glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), such as Hyaluronic Acid, to maintain fluid balance and structural integrity. Estrogens can also increase collagen production in the skin, where they maintain skin thickness and allow it to remain plump, hydrated and wrinkle-free.
The skin is not the only external feature that benefits from estrogens. Besides resulting in plump, healthy skin, estrogens can also make hair grow long and healthy. During pregnancy, women often experience hair growth, where the anagen phase (growth phase of hair) is prolonged. The plummeting post-partum and even menopausal estrogenic levels cause thinning and falling hair, sometimes resulting in clinically significant hair loss.
In essence, estrogens prevent aging by helping our skin and hair to remain vibrant and youthful.
Thyroid hormones also play a vital role in the appearance of healthy skin. The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland situated just in front of the voice box. The thyroid gland makes two thyroid hormones which affect metabolism, brain development, breathing, body temperature, muscle strength, bone health, skin dryness, menstrual cycles, weight and cholesterol levels. Too much of these hormones and the skin can become warm, sweaty and flushed. Too little, and the skin may become dry, coarse, and thick. Thyroid dysfunction can also lead to thinning hair and eventual hair loss.
The Female Menopause
During the transition into menopause, often characterized by hot flashes, female skin may appear flushed, red and blotchy. Estrogens have anti-inflammatory properties, so the loss of these hormones can lead to inflammation, which can aggravate certain conditions such as rosacea. As discussed, estrogens play a major role in the collagen and elastin network of the skin. Losing estrogens during this time also means losing dermal collagen production. This loss of estrogen leads to thinning skin and loss of elasticity which sets the stage for wrinkle formation. Estrogens also regulate GAGs in the skin, and losing these hormones results in dehydrated and itchy skin. Estrogenic loss also reduces the number of blood vessels in the skin, resulting in paleness with a lack of nutrients traveling to the skin’s surface. In all, we get pale, dehydrated, thin, itchy, and dry skin. Since the drop in estrogen is sudden and more drastic than other hormones such as testosterone, it can also lead to an increase in androgenic characteristics such as increased facial hair.
Is Hormone Replacement Therapy the Answer?
Professional treatments for the aging skin should take into consideration the loss of these vital hormones and focus should be placed on increasing hydration, stimulating collagen production and re-energizing the skin.
At the forefront of the menopausal skin treatments are topical estrogen (estradiol and estriol) hormones. Even though this is a relatively new field in skin care, research has already consistently shown improvements in skin elasticity, moisture and skin thickness in women using topical estrogen replacement therapy for wrinkles.
Topical estrogen application has been shown to be safe and effective in preventing skin aging. In a study published in February 2007, a group of women who were already taking oral estrogen drugs were given a topical 0.01% estrogen cream. After only four months, both dermal and epidermal thickness was enhanced, as well as dermal collagen levels. This study showed that topical estrogen application provided rapid and definitive anti-aging effects even in women who had high systemic estrogen blood levels. The significance of this study is that it shows how quickly a small amount of estrogen delivered directly into the skin induces profound anti-aging effects.
A number of studies have investigated the beneficial role that estrogens, especially estriol, play in maintaining skin firmness, elasticity, moisture content, and wound healing in postmenopausal women.