When beauty therapist Claire Hattrick began to get perimenopausal symptoms at the age of 43, her joint pain was so severe, she had to lie down on the floor between waxing clients. She felt exhausted and her skin – something she’d always taken pride in – had lost elasticity and become very dry.
This was 10 years ago, before the likes of Davina McCall and Elle Macpherson spoke openly about perimenopause – the period leading up to menopause, when a woman’s oestrogen starts to decline and symptoms start to kick in. ‘The Change’ was still being talked about in euphemisms, and menopause-specific beauty products were non-existent.
Fast forward to April 2021 and Hattrick, now 53, was first in line when Marks and Spencer teamed up with Prai Beauty (already known for its beauty products for women over 50) to launch MenoGlow, a range specifically marketed at peri- and post-menopausal women. She purchased several products and singles out the collagen-boosting moisturiser, which costs £25 for 50ml, as “amazing”.
“I think there has been a gap in the market for menopause skincare for many years now,” says Hattrick, who blogs about the menopause. “I for one am very excited that, at long last, women of menopause ages are finally being taken seriously.”
In May, Brighton-launched vegan skincare line Faace – known for its savvy millennial marketing – followed in M&S’s footsteps, with a new product, ‘Menopause Faace’, aimed at the modern menopausal woman. Stocked by the likes of Cult Beauty and Anthropologie, it retails at £29 for 100ml.
These UK brands arguably took their cue from US market leader Pause Well-Aging, which found overnight success when it launched three products targeted at perimenopausal women in 2019. The company has since expanded its line for a global audience, with a 28g bottle of serum retailing in the UK for £76.
There’s no shortage of positive reviews for these products online, but some doctors and dermatologists aren’t convinced by the burgeoning market.
“Menopause has become like the new black, because everybody is jumping on the bandwagon,” says Dr Nighat Arif, a GP who specialises in women’s health. “I feel really strongly about all these privatised treatments that companies are telling women to have. Skincare is just part of it.”
Women’s skin does change during the perimenopause. Hormone fluctuations can cause some women to experience teenage-like acne, while a drop in oestrogen – which helps keep the skin hydrated – can cause dry or itchy skin in others. But Dr Arif is not convinced moisturisers and serums are the answer.
She’s seen women in her clinic who have spent thousands of pounds on treatments or products when what would really help, she says, is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), available on prescription from the NHS. “What you need to do is deal with the underlying hormonal imbalances,” she says.
Dr Arif, who makes regular appearances on BBC Breakfast and ITV’s This Morning, was invited to partner with a menopause skincare brand, but declined.
“I won’t say which, but I was like, do you not know me? That’s the last thing I would do!” she says. “As an NHS GP, I don’t do brand endorsements anyway. But this is something I definitely do not feel we should be buying into, because women are so insecure in and around menopause and perimenopause time anyway.”
Dr Arif believes the menopause beauty market – which includes everything from moisturisers to hair oils and hot flush cooling sprays – is able to thrive because of misconceptions about HRT. Just one in 10 peri- and post-menopausal women take HRT, some due to a lack of support from their GP, others because of fears around its safety.
Various studies into HRT over the past 15 years have highlighted certain risks, including a small increase in the risk of breast cancer from combined HRT (though little or none from oestrogen-only HRT). But as the NHS website makes clear, more recent research suggests this risk is small and usually outweighed by the direct and related benefits, with other studies indicating HRT actually decreases the risk of osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia and bowel cancer.
What’s hard to ignore is the distinct lack of up-to-date menopause training for GPs, says Dr Arif, which results in a reluctance to prescribe HRT leading women to turning to other options, including expensive beauty products.
“Women are being told that they need this stuff, and because they’re not having the access on the NHS to a GP like myself or others who are trained in the menopause, they’re just getting so much of this misinformation,” she says, adding they resort to these products “because they know no better.”
Consultant dermatologist Dr Sajjad Rajpar agrees with Dr Arif that HRT is the best course of action for most women experiencing menopause-related skin complaints. Beauty products risk masking the problem, he says, rather than dealing with the cause or tackling other more hidden symptoms.
When oestrogen levels drop due to menopause, collagen production also declines. Collagen plays a significant role in the body’s ability to heal wounds, so this isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s also about skin health. “Your skin is poor quality, so you end up bruising easier,” explains Dr Rajpar. “A trivial knock might lead to shearing of the skin, or you might find your wounds don’t heal as well.”
A number of menopause skincare brands claim their ingredients “mimic oestrogen”, but it’s vital women understand these chemicals do not get absorbed or work in the same way as the actual oestrogen in HRT.
“Oestrogen is required because [it] benefits your bones, your heart, your brain, all sorts of other things,” he says. ”With beauty products, “you’re only treating a localised area of skin – your face – but if you get a leg ulcer in 10 years time, that intervention on your face is not going to help you feel better on your leg.”
Dr Rajpar’s argument is not that these products don’t work for ailments such as dry skin, his point is that HRT would work better for your wider health and wellbeing, and that there are plenty of cheaper moisturisers that would serve women equally well on the skincare front.
“If your skin is dry, then you need to use targeted skincare for dry skin. There is no difference – if you’ve adjusted for oestrogen – to dry skin in the menopause compared to dry skin in pre-menopausal women or dry skin in a man or dry skin and a child. They still need the same type of skincare,” he says. “My issue is that you shouldn’t be marketing a moisturiser for perimenopausal or post-menopausal women, because there’s nothing unique about that moisturiser. I think there’s advantage being taken of possibly very vulnerable women.”
When we put these concerns to Faace founder Jasmine Wicks-Stephens, she acknowledges that there are cheaper products available that consumers may want to try. However, she believes menopause-branded skincare has a place, because its allows women in this phase of life to be “seen”. The company’s earlier product, ‘Period Faace’, is its best-seller and so ‘Menopause Faace’ felt like the natural progression, she tells HuffPost UK.
“Like all markets there are higher price point options and more affordable options that consumers can choose to buy from, but it’s also something more than that,” she says. “Women’s health issues sometimes seem to be de-prioritised to me. It feels like we’re just left to get on with it. So, there’s a feministic element to it too.
“By bringing something out that’s targeted to those concerns, and for us calling something ‘Menopause Faace’ or ‘Period Faace’ feels empowering, like a ‘so what, I am this, this is me’ and it hopefully helps to normalise it somewhat too.” For every tube of Menopause Faace sold, the brand donates to The Menopause Charity, founded by menopause expert Dr Louise Newson, and Wicks-Stephens hopes this also contributes to opening up the conversation.
“I understand the viewpoint that things can be wasteful, but also beauty can make people feel good, –buying products to use that look nice, feel nice, that you can afford,” she says. “If they make you feel a little better or give you a nice experience when using them, then I think that’s a positive and surely the choice is down to the individual.”
Rochelle Weitzner, founder and CEO of the Pause Group, also rejects the idea that these products play on women’s insecurities. She experienced her first hot flash at 48, a moment that prompted her idea for Pause. She’d worked for beauty giants including Erno Laszlo, Laura Mercier and Revive skincare in the past, and believes none were talking to women in her stage of life.
“HRT is not an option available to all women nor are many women comfortable having to rely on medications to help ease pain points related to menopause,” she says. “As a perimenopausal woman myself, I created Pause to help me navigate the skin changes I was facing by providing both topical and sub-dermal solutions.
“The last thing we would ever want to do is exploit women’s insecurities – this is the absolute antithesis of who we are. We’re about empowering women to realise they are true superheroes.”
Rachel Lankester, who runs the podcast and members club Magnificent Midlife, aimed at women embracing post-menopause life, remains unconvinced. “Call me Scrooge, I don’t think women need special menopause skin products,” says the 54-year-old from Birmingham, who reached the menopause at 41.
“I think special menopause skincare is just another example of women’s insecurities being exploited, because there is lots of money to be made from doing that. None of these products do very much, except play to sexist, ageist narratives that the signs of ageing need to be held back or hidden for women.
“There are more natural and much cheaper products like rose water or witch-hazel that can cool down flushing skin – or even just a cold flannel!”
M&S maintains that demand for these products came from consumers. In research conducted by the retailer, interviews with 273 female customers aged over 45 found almost 70% believed perimenopause and menopause are still taboo subjects in the UK, and nearly 90% said they were keen for brands to start breaking down that stigma.
And in response to Dr Rajpar’s argument that cheaper moisturisers work just as well, M&S’s head of beauty, Tara Singleton, insists the MenoGlow range has ingredients that do specifically target menopausal skin (mainly by boosting collagen production and protecting against its loss) including the peptide Tripeptide Syn-Coll, Centella Asiaatica extract and Cloudberry Seed Oil.
Although Dr Nighat is a strong advocate for HRT over expensive skincare, she does see the potential for the marketing to be empowering – if only companies stopped focusing on wrinkles. “In a way, it’s good that they are putting menopause at the forefront and saying ‘we see you,’” she says. “But I think their message of just saying, ‘look younger, look younger’, is what’s distorted.”
She also believes brands could do better by speaking to all women. “A lot of these products are aimed at the white middle class, affluent woman. What about your African-Caribbean woman? And African-Nigerian woman? What about somebody like me, who’s Pakistani and who covers up and doesn’t get a lot of vitamin D. Where am I reflected in your products?” she asks. “It seems to be targeted at one particular audience.”
If these products truly help women, says Dr Arif, they should be available to all. The market is certainly divisive. Advocates like Hattrick feel recognised for the first time by an industry that historically favours the youthful. But for sceptics, like Lankester, it’s the same old message in a new bottle.
“Women are sold anti-ageing (or ‘ageless’) products all our lives,” she says. “We don’t need special menopause ones as well.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.