Have you ever wondered why there are completely different sections of shops for female and male skincare products? All the pretty, pale pink and pastel boxes and bottles adorn the heaving shelves in the “ladies” section(s), waiting to be opened to reveal all of their floral glory. Then you travel down the next isle, and the aesthetic changes. It becomes darker, broodier, more “macho”, and almost always, there is nowhere near as much of it.
Maybe because it has always been this way, you have never questioned it. But is it just clever marketing (or should I say rather blatant stereotyping?) that means our skincare product offerings are decided by our gender? Is it really necessary to have completely different products for the largest organ in the human body?
Let us explore some facts. There are some fundamental differences in the general make-up of male and female skin.
· In general, males have around 10 X higher levels of the androgen testosterone which leads to their skin being around 20 - 25% thicker than female skin.
· Testosterone also stimulates the sebaceous glands in our skin to produce sebum – a natural, oily and waxy substance. Sebum forms a protective barrier on top of the skin and prevents water from evaporating through the epidermis (trans-epidermal water loss, or TEWL). It also helps to lubricate the skin and has antibacterial properties to defend against infection. Males therefore tend to have oilier skin that retains moisture well. However testosterone naturally starts to drop in males after around thirty years of age.
· Collagen is a protein produced naturally in the body, and it is the primary component of connective tissue, helping to give your skin, bones, tendons and ligaments structure. Men tend to start their adult life with higher collagen density than women, however they lose collagen at a pretty constant low level from the mid to late twenties. Whereas women, even though they have lower collagen density to begin with, they tend to retain it better until the menopause, when it declines at a more rapid rate for a few years.
· Men tend to experience more irritation on their face from shaving, and this can disrupt the skin’s barrier function, leaving them susceptible to redness, dryness, and tears in the skin.
But should we make sweeping generalisations for the whole population? Definitely not. There are both intrinsic (naturally occurring) and extrinsic (influenced, or not naturally occurring) factors at play that can significantly change our own skin experiences from the “norm”. And also, let’s remember that not all men and women were born into the gender they identify with. People who identify as male may have been born with female genitalia, and vice versa.
· Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) causes hyperandrogenism – a higher level of androgens in the “female” body, including testosterone. As previously discussed, this influences sebum production and can make skin oilier and more prone to acne. PCOS can also cause hirsutism (excess hair) on the face or body, and more regular hair removal may be required, increasing irritating.
· Early menopause leads to an earlier loss of oestrogen and collagen which can result in drier, less firm skin. But hormone replacement therapy may be used by some people to maintain higher oestrogen levels, delaying some of these changes.
· Low testosterone levels in people born male may occur naturally, as a side effect of another illness, or due to extrinsic factors such as injury or infection to the testes, treatment for chemotherapy, medication side effects, anabolic steroid abuse, and alcohol abuse, amongst other reasons. This can lead to these individuals having thinner, drier skin.
· External factors such as exposure to UV rays from the sun, environmental pollution, cold weather, air conditioning, chemicals from smoking cigarettes, dehydration, and a nutrient-poor or high-sugar diets, can have both short and long term effects on the condition of our skin, whether or not we are male or female. A young man who works outside all day may have very dry skin, and a middle aged woman with a high-fat, high-sugar diet may have very oily skin.
Most skincare products available without prescription (whether they are marketed to men or women) work on aiding the skin symptom, not the root intrinsic cause. For example applying a serum with hyaluronic acid helps to keep dry skin hydrated by drawing moisture into the skin, but it will only work until the hyaluronic acid is metabolised. Using an oil cleanser can help improve the skin’s barrier and prevent trans-epidermal water loss (as it does not strip the skin of natural oils), but stop using it and the dryness issue is likely to come back. Returning to the initial blog title though, and the important thing to note is that these products would have the same actions on the skin issue for both male and female skin.
So you can see, if you just adhere to the “norms” and generalisations, you may not be using the best products for you. Ultimately everyone is different. You need to find skincare products that work for your skin type, or that specifically targets the problem(s) you are experiencing with your skin at the time. But just remember, that might not necessarily be found in the aisle of products that aligns with what underwear you are wearing!