Do you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS for short)? If so, you’ve probably noticed that many of its most common symptoms are visible to the naked eye—and pretty annoying. PCOS can cause issues like an oily complexion and pimples, darkening of the skin, and unwanted hair growth on your face and elsewhere. You aren’t shallow or vain for wishing you could eliminate your acne, skin discoloration, and those pesky chin hairs—they can be painful, embarrassing, and demoralizing. Continue reading to learn more about the most common skin PCOS symptoms and strategies for managing them.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder affecting millions of women. Its exact root cause is unknown, but women with PCOS experience an imbalance in hormones which can affect menstrual cycle, fertility, and metabolism. Experts believe it has a strong genetic component so you could have inherited it from your mom or grandmother.
Many PCOS symptoms are obvious. They include:
- Irregular menses (periods more than 35 days apart)
- Hirsutism (excess body hair) in places like your face, stomach, breasts, and back
- Difficulty losing weight or keeping it off
- Acne or oily skin
- Darkening of the skin, known as acanthosis nigricans
- Skin tags on your neck or armpits
- Androgenic alopecia (thinning hair or “male-pattern baldness”)
An ultrasound may reveal enlarged ovaries or cysts on your ovaries, but you can have a PCOS diagnosis even without them. You may struggle to become or remain pregnant, though you do not experience other reproductive impairments. A PCOS diagnosis also correlates strongly with insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
If you think you may have PCOS, it’s worth checking in with your doctor about your symptoms. Together, you can devise a treatment plan to keep you healthy and—if applicable—improve your chances of becoming pregnant.
The Most Common Skin PCOS Symptoms
PCOS can affect the appearance and feel of your skin in several ways, namely oil, and acne, darkening of the skin, and skin tags (small growths or lumps of skin). While these symptoms don’t feel as serious as some others, it’s understandable if they bother you. The appearance of your skin, especially on your face, can significantly affect your self-esteem and confidence in social situations.
When you have PCOS, your body usually produces too much androgen, a male sex hormone. This can cause an increase in sebum (oil), which leads to acne breakouts, usually along your jawline and the lower portion of your face. PCOS can also cause pimples on other body parts, like your chest and back.
Darkening of the skin, sometimes called acanthosis nigricans, usually occurs in areas where your skin creases, like your neck, armpits, and groin. It’s usually triggered by too much insulin in the blood and is common in people with diabetes. It can also be a side effect of certain medications, especially those that affect your hormone levels.
PCOS skin tags are small, flexible bumps of skin that usually show up in places you really don’t want them: your underarms, breasts, and groin area. They’re usually not harmful, but it’s a good idea to see a dermatologist for annual skin checks to minimize your risk of developing skin cancer. (And, please, don’t forget to wear your SPF!)
You should know that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have PCOS. That’s why it’s so important to see your general practitioner, who can refer you to dermatology and endocrinology specialists if needed.
Treatment Options for Acne and More
You should know that while there is no cure for PCOS, a great doctor (and possibly a fantastic esthetician, too) can help you to manage your skin symptoms and, in time, get glowing skin. It won’t happen overnight, but with the right skincare products, you should notice a subtle improvement each day.
When talking to your doctor(s) about your PCOS symptoms, be sure to mention how much the skin symptoms bother you. You may be a candidate for hormonal birth control to help regulate your menstrual cycle, which can help tame your acne breakouts. Your doctor may also recommend a prescription for isotretinoin (Accutane), topical face wash, serum, and moisturizer. Your daily skin care routine may include products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, two over-the-counter ingredients effective in preventing and eliminating pimples. Note that many topical acne treatments can cause dry skin, so you’ll want to pick up a non-comedogenic moisturizer with SPF as well. There’s no need to splurge if you’re trying to stick to a budget—your local drugstore sells several great options!
Treating your darkened skin and skin tags can be a little more involved. Your acanthosis nigricans may clear up when you’re able to manage your insulin levels, whether that’s by changing your diet, taking medication like metformin or insulin, or both. You’ll likely want to confer with an endocrinologist and a dermatologist to determine your best treatment plan. Likewise, ask your trusted derm about procedures for skin tag removal. This treatment is considered cosmetic, so your health insurance may not pay for it.
The visible symptoms of PCOS can impact your sense of self-worth. Remember that it isn’t selfish or vain to want to improve the appearance of your skin and feel more beautiful and confident. Chances are good that the people in your life don’t notice the things that bother you about your skin nearly as much as you do, but your feelings are the most important. Please don’t be afraid to contact one or more medical professionals to achieve the clear and healthy skin you want. Together, you can devise a treatment plan that minimizes those irritating skin PCOS symptoms so that you can put your best face (and body) forward.