London - Staring into a mirror after the menopause can be depressing. The slow, gradual ageing of your 30s and early 40s suddenly accelerates with horrifying speed.
As your hormones decline, wrinkles seem to get deeper every day and skin takes on a crepey appearance, no matter how much moisturiser is slathered on. Plump, firm skin becomes a thing of the past and everything starts heading south.
But a new generation of skin creams could be about to change that. Instead of merely containing retinol, vitamins or peptides — all said to help mask the ageing process — many now incorporate hormone replacement therapy.
While HRT is more usually taken by women in the form of pills or patches dispensed by the doctor to treat menopause symptoms such as hot flushes, scientists have discovered it may help ageing skin.
They’ve found that skin deteriorates more rapidly during and after “the change” than before because of the lack of oestrogen being made by the body. Of all the hormones we produce, oestrogen has the greatest effect on the skin.
Most importantly, it helps promote the production of collagen, a protein that gives the skin its strength and elasticity. It’s estimated that as much as 30 percent of skin collagen is lost within the first five years after menopause and continues more slowly afterwards.
Studies have also found that post-menopausal women’s skin shows a marked thinning of the epidermis (its outer layer), deepening of wrinkles and widening of skin pores — another classic sign of ageing.
But it does appear that HRT can help. One study of women taking oestrogen replacements found they developed fewer wrinkles and had better skin texture and elasticity than those who didn’t. Another trial found that after just two weeks, women who used oestrogen cream alone reported plumper skin.
And the British Medical Journal reported that those taking topical oestrogen therapy — applied directly to the skin rather than taken as a pill — saw their collagen increase by 48 percent.
Furthermore, a study published in the International Journal of Dermatology found that six months of topical oestrogen therapy made skin firmer and decreased wrinkled depth and pore size by between 61and up to 100 percent.
Dr Tracy Mountford, a cosmetic and medical director at The Cosmetic Skin Clinic in Buckinghamshire, explains: “When your body stops producing youthful amounts of oestrogen, levels of collagen in your skin fall.
“Skin becomes thinner. It has fewer natural “sponges” called glycos-aminoglycans, made of substances such hyaluronic acid, which hold water in the deeper layers of the skin, making it feel less hydrated.
“Skin becomes more fragile and more vulnerable to sun damage.”
With millions of women going through the menopause every year, beating hormone-related ageing — as it’s been dubbed — is big business. Now HRT skincare is being touted as the next big thing.
Dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe, director of the Cranley Dermatology Clinic in London, says: “There is some convincing data that hormones in the form of creams can help, particularly with wrinkling and thickening fragile skin, and with protecting skin from sun damage.”
Putting hormones into skin cream isn’t new — Helena Rubinstein did it in 1931 when she produced her Hormone Twin Youthifiers cream. The ingredients were mysterious, but are thought to have included synthetic oestrogens.
In 1949, the US Food and Drug Administration became wary of these creams for fear they could enter the bloodstream like drugs — around 40 percent of oestrogen can be absorbed this way — and decided to restrict the level of synthetic hormones in skin creams.
Despite this, by the Fifties, oestrogen was a mainstream ingredient. In 1957, Max Factor launched Cup of Youth face cream — sold in a glamorous milk-white goblet — and Revlon hit back with White Sable Hormone Liquid Cleansing cream.
But they fell out of favour in recent decades as European and American authorities increasingly cracked down on the use of synthetic and natural hormones.
However, this new generation of creams, designed only to combat skin ageing and not replace other forms of HRT aren’t made from synthetic or human hormones.
Instead, manufacturers are using phytoestrogens, extracts derived from soya, wheatgerm, flaxseed and other plants, which can replicate the effect of normal oestrogen on skin cells.
One key phytoestrogen is genistein, which is derived from plants. The skin has receptors for oestrogen and molecules of genistein are so similar to oestrogen that ageing skin is tricked into thinking it’s getting the genuine stuff and blocks enzymes that cause collagen depletion.
Genistein has also been found to stimulate the production of collagen, protects skin against UV rays and, in clinical trials, increased skin density by around 12 percent, a similar effect to oral HRT.
Studies also show phytoestrogens can reduce wrinkles and make dry skin more hydrated.
Skin therapist Jane Atherton, 54, recently developed Pause Hydra, a skin cream specifically designed to regenerate menopausal skin. The cream includes genistein derived from wild yams.
In independent tests in Germany, it was found to reduce wrinkles by 15.6 percent after 28 days and was effective in 96 percent of testers.
One recent convert to phytoestrogens in skincare is Sheila Stuart, 53, an accountant from Cambridge. She says the menopause took a dramatic toll on her skin.
“I’d always had good skin, but over the past year it started to feel uncomfortably dry, rough and tight. I began seeing lines around my eyes and my skin looked dull,” she says.
Three months ago, on the recommendation of a similarly aged friend, Sheila tried Murad’s Intensive Age Diffusing Serum, which contains wild yam and soya extracts. “Within weeks, my skin was smoother, brighter and plumper,” she says.
“I find the effects of the serum last all day. This makes me think the ingredients are working to change my skin deep down. I’ve tried systemic HRT, but didn’t get on with it as I wasn’t happy about taking artificial hormones.”
Cosmetic doctor Dr Mervyn Patterson agrees plant hormones can play a role in anti-ageing. “Fermented soy extracts can increase collagen and act as antioxidants, which protect the skin.
“Soy extract seems to inhibit melanin production so could improve facial pigmentation. Some researchers have shown soy extracts may even reduce facial hair.”
But what about the downsides of HRT, such as an increased risk of breast, womb and ovarian cancer? Do hormone skin creams carry the same potential dangers?
The research is reassuring. Many women use topical oestrogen gels to treat vaginal dryness, and studies have found no link with breast cancer, even in women who previously suffered from the disease.
Dr Patterson believes these new skin creams don’t pose a risk. “It seems unlikely sufficient hormones could be absorbed through topical application to the face to affect breast cells,” he says.
The consensus is that plant hormones could help turn back time.
“But good skincare depends on more than one ingredient,” says Dr Patterson. “Look for antioxidants and moisturisers plus daily sun protection to give yourself the best chance of more youthful skin.”