(Photographs by Brianne Wills)
You can tolerate or despise them, but menstrual cycles are a fact of life many of us have to deal with, either way. And while it’s easy to think of PMS and periods as things that happen to our bodies every few weeks, the truth is that we are constantly in hormonal flux — thus, affected inside and outside, head-to-toe throughout the month.
We recently wrote about the menstrual cycle and skin, and now we’re taking it a step further and discussing how your period can affect your hair. “Although we mostly think of skin as being most reactive to the hormonal, and other, changes of the menstrual cycle, the fluctuations of the menstrual cycle can, in some cases, directly and indirectly affect the scalp and hair,” explains dermatologist Sophia Kogan, MD, of Nutrafol.
To ensure your hair looks and feels its best no matter the time of the month, we’re breaking things down based on your period cycle. Ahead, see when it’s best to color your hair, when you should wash it more often, and when you can go more days depending on dry shampoo.
Note: If you’re taking any hormonal birth control, your hormones are regulated and ovulation doesn’t occur. For that reason, you may not notice the same hormonal fluctuations and hair or scalp changes as you would sans pill or other birth control.
You probably look and feel your best in the final days of your period, and in the week or so following. During this portion of your cycle, your estrogen levels begin to increase and testosterone, responsible for triggering oil production, decreases, says Dr. Kogan.
This may be great news for your skin, because you’ll experience less sebum buildup and a clearer complexion. But a reduction in oil on your scalp can lead to an overall drier head of hair. While imperceptible to some, this reduction is especially noticeable if you already struggle with dryness.
“If [your hair is normally dry], you may need to condition more in the post-menses phase, and possibly the latter part of the menses, before the oil production kicks up,” advises Sejal Shah, MD, a dermatologic surgeon who works with RealSelf.com.
Whether you have a normal, oily, or dry scalp, though, this is the ideal time of the month to do your deep-conditioning. You may also find that you need to wash your hair less due to decreased oil production. If you want to extend your time between shampooing, but want to maintain shine and vibrancy, use hair serum on your ends and dry conditioner anywhere it’s needed.
About 14 days before your period begins, and a week before all those dreaded PMS effects kick in, an egg starts making its way out of your ovary and through your fallopian tube to check into the ol’ uterus hotel. As this happens, your body begins producing even more estrogen, which triggers the production of LH, also known as luteinizing hormone. This hormone is responsible for a slight increase in oil production.
This slight increase is actually a good thing for your hair and scalp, which were experiencing dryness the week before. The high estrogen levels and low testosterone levels keep oil production in check to prevent excess sebum. You’re still getting a little extra oil, though, thanks to LH, explains Dr. Shah. Which means your scalp and hair should look and feel pretty damn good.
You can continue washing and conditioning as normal, but do use a gentle hand since your senses — including touch — are heightened during this time period. Intensive scrubbing can leave your scalp feeling overworked.
Throughout your post-period days and during ovulation, your uterus lining thickens to provide a plush space for the incumbent egg. In order to make a baby, the egg must be fertilized by a sperm. When this doesn’t happen, your body undergoes a series of abrupt hormonal shifts and your uterus prepares to shed. You can feel this in the form of tender breasts, acne, fluctuating emotions, cramps, and bloating.
“The levels of estrogen decrease and the levels of progesterone and testosterone increase about a week before your period,” explains Dr. Kogan. “This leads to increased oil production in the skin glands.”
This is apparent on our faces, and is why premenstrual breakouts are so common. Glands on the scalp also increase oil production, which, for some women, makes hair look and feel oily and stringy in the days leading up to the menses. These are the days when dry shampoo is your BFF, and when you should take more frequent showers. Believe it or not, it’s also an ideal time to dye your hair.
“There are myths that say oily hair can affect processing results, but this is untrue,” says hairstylist Anna Costa of The Rittenhouse Spa & Club – Hair by Paul Labrecque. “Having slightly oilier hair actually can help protect the delicate skin of the scalp from the chemicals as they sit on your hair.”
As your uterus begins shedding, you may feel lethargic, cranky, and downright uncomfortable. Welcome to period week, when levels of estrogen are at rock bottom and levels of pro-inflammatory molecules like prostaglandins are super-high.
“During this period of time we tend to feel tired, run down, and our bodies are more sensitive,” says Dr. Kogan. “Some women report that their hair looks duller, and some even say their scalp feels more sensitive when they have any hair-processing done. This can be explained by the extra prostaglandins that are circulating in the system, and is also the reason why cramps sometimes feel like they are everywhere and not just in the lower abdomen.”
During your early period days, it’s good to be extra kind to yourself. A little pampering may be in order — try a bubble bath, a hot shower, cramp-relieving tea, a little reading, or even a Netflix binge session. Get plenty of rest. Since your scalp remains oilier than usual, keep the dry shampoo within reach and spritz when needed. If you notice your scalp is particularly sensitive, as Dr. Kogan mentions, reschedule any appointments that may cause you discomfort, such as hair extensions, big dye jobs, or chemical straightening.
Of course, everyone’s cycle varies. You may turn into a cramping oil monster, while your friend barely bats an eye. Whatever the case, it’s important to live a balanced lifestyle and listen to your body — and your hair.
By: Wendy Rose Gould