Patients at our office often ask me about behavioral modification when trying to control various skin conditions ranging from acne to eczema, and invariably, sex comes up. Can sex improve your skin health? How often is optimal? What time of day? Does masturbation count?
Without a doubt hormones have a powerful effect on the skin, lasting from days to weeks, so it is feasible to suggest that the increased release of certain hormones during sex will affect your skin. The three main hormones released at the time of orgasm are Serotonin (5-HT), nitric oxide (NO), and oxytocin. We'll review each one's affects on the skin.
5-HT is released from the anterior lateral hypothalamus at the time of orgasm. There is ample evidence of 5-HT's positive effects on the dermis, but one thing we've established is that it is also responsible for the sensation of itch in the skin. Postcoital pruritus (itching) is thought to be a direct result of increased levels of this important neurotransmitter. Patients suffering from pre-existing eczema can trigger flares with repetitive intercourse within the same day. By contrast, serotonin also decreases the sensation of pain—that's why it's often referred to as a hormone of well-being. There aren't many chronic skin conditions associated with pain, but those that are (i.e. Hiddraadenitis suppurativa, pimple-like bump in the armpits or groin) would conceivably benefit from more frequent orgasm.
Nitric Oxide is another prominent hormone released during sex, and its a potent vasodilator (enlarges blood vessels). It mostly comes from cells that line capillaries of the genitalia, both male and female. While the act of sex temporarily increases blood pressure, the release of nitric oxide at orgasm then decreases it for hours afterward. Skin conditions that result from poor blood flow are ameliorated from lower blood pressures, as oxygen stretches further to perfuse skin and hair structures. So, for example, patients who get cold, painful hands in winter (Raynaud's Disease) should benefit from the nitric oxide released during intercourse.
Oxytocin is probably the most exciting neuropeptide of the orgasmic bunch. Rodent studies have shown this hormone to stimulate skin and mucosal health. Human studies have mirrored animal ones, suggesting that oxytocin is one of the short sequence peptides that directly modulates collagen synthesis and diminishes skin laxity. Given the short burst of oxytocin measured in the post-coital period, it is unclear what this means for anti-aging science overall. However, the concept that oxytocin leads to improved skin elasticity would be a huge boon for the sexually active.
And to answer your burning question: The release of orgasmic hormones and their effects on the skin will be the same whether you're having sex with another or on your own, but the quantity of this release is greater after non-masturbatory sessions.