Beyond Skin Deep: Zelah Glasson on adjusting to skin changes while transitioning

Side by side collage of a transgender person, image on the left is him shaving in the mirror and on the right he is smiling at the camera

Our Beyond Skin Deep series amplifies individual skin stories, encouraging exploration and sharing of all experiences and journeys. Here, Zelah Glasson, a 23-year-old transgender person from south London, shares his story of discovering that self care and masculinity can coexist… 

Being transgender often means navigating life beyond conventional norms, and this extends to self (and skin) care. The unique needs and self care steps that we, the transgender community, require are not typically addressed by mainstream products or by the guidance available to those who are cisgender. What’s more, research is limited and the notion of ‘transness’ is still taboo in lots of popular media. As such, the comfort and advice I’ve received from the united front that is the amazing LGBTQIA+ community has helped wonders, and I hope to offer that same support to others through sharing my story… 


My relationship with my skin has always been conflicted. Until very recently, my body never truly felt like home, so my skin presented whatever camouflage I was wearing during that period of my life. Take my school years, for example, which were spent at an all-girls school where importance was placed on appearance. I have a scar on my chin — a souvenir from face-planting a gutter in the playground when I was six – and as expected, I received nasty comments from other students. At the time, caking my face in heavy make up felt like the best solution, but being mixed-race in 2012 meant that locating the right shade of foundation was a relentless task, leading me to settle for a face five-times lighter than my body. 

As time went on, and I became more masculine-presenting, I did a full U-turn, abandoning make up — and any attention to my skin altogether. That was until, at 20 years old, my mum discovered my lacklustre approach to self care. From then on, I was loaded with cleansers, exfoliators, spot wands and, most importantly, moisturiser with SPF 50. I finally accepted that masculinity and self care are not mutually exclusive and began to find balance within the parts of myself which were over-compensating (like the many years spent forcing femininity). 


Nine months ago, at 23 years old, I started Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT). Standing in my room, I applied testosterone gel onto each of my shoulders and — with a grin on my face — waited for it to dry. I was excited for the changes to commence. But at the same time, I had flashbacks of puberty racing through my mind. The hormones. The hunger. The acne. It’s not exactly glamourous, and (un)luckily for me, I was about to go through it all again. 

In the build-up to puberty 2.0, I had a lot of questions… but limited resources and no transgender friends to turn to for answers. Skin care was one aspect of transitioning that had a question mark hovering over it — so I took to TikTok for advice, fostering a safe space on the platform for other transgender individuals to share tips on all aspects of their transition, skin care included. 

Thanks to the support of my community on TikTok, when it came time to starting TRT, I felt prepared for some of the expected changes — such as an increase in oil production, and therefore clogged pores and acne breakouts. Anticipating this (and on the advice of those on TikTok) I stocked up on some salicylic acid cleanser, which I’ve since been using twice a day. Salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid that promotes the skin’s natural exfoliation process, reducing oil production and blemishes) has worked wonders in keeping my skin clear — when I can remember to use it! — as has changing my pillowcases up to twice a week to minimise dirt and oil build-up. 

I’ve seen success with salicylic acid but I’ve also found things that don’t work as well for me. One product I tried — and swiftly stopped using — was minoxidil oil. You may have heard of minoxidil, as many trans and cisgender men use it to assist with beard (or general hair) growth. A lot of people on TikTok say it’s worked for them, but I’ve realised it’s not for me at this moment in time because I’d prefer not to add more oil onto my now oily skin. That being said, I’ve decided I’ll try to reintroduce minoxidil oil later in my transition when my hormones have balanced out. 

Although I’ve experienced a lot of changes to my skin (hi spots!) in the months since starting my transition, the advice I’ve received from my TikTok community has thankfully kept disruption to a minimum. What’s more, I’ve found it’s been enjoyable to observe these changes, and I’ve learnt to embrace them.  

Side by size collage of a transgender person, on the left he shows a close up of his skin and on the right he is topless with a towel around his waist


Adding shaving into my self care routine has been a major highlight of my transition. There is something incredibly euphoric about standing in the mirror with a towel around my waist, lathering my face with gel and razoring it off bit by bit. Admittedly, it hasn’t come without its challenges, though…  

Sadly, my dad passed away a few months before I started my Hormone Replacement Therapy journey, so I never got to experience that special father-son ritual of him sharing tips that he’d learnt in his years – although, remembering the shaving rashes and cuts he used to walk around with, I might have had a lucky escape.  

In the absence of my dad, I do, however, have an amazing circle of male friends around me to give advice — the best of which has been that: “becoming good at shaving is mastering how to remove as much irritation from the process as possible.”  

In the spirit of sharing the same good advice my friends have shared with me, here are some of the tips that have helped me in the last few months:  

  • Wet your skin with hot water first to soften it – this is why many recommend shaving after a shower 
  • Prior to shaving, leave the razor in the sink under running hot water – this cleans the razor and further softens the contact with your skin 
  • Cleanse or exfoliate before shaving to remove excess oil and dead skin 
  • Do not shave against the grain! This may sound obvious to any cisgender men, but for those of us who grew up only concerned about body hair, the grain is not something we’ve ever really worried about. In my very recent boyhood, I’ve learnt that shaving against the grain increases the chance of ingrown hairs which, on legs is a very minor detail, but on your face can cause an acne-like appearance 
  • Do not skip post-shave moisturising 


Four months ago, I underwent ‘top surgery’, during which I had my breast tissue removed. The type of procedure I had is a bilateral mastectomy with a free nipple graft — this involved removing the breast tissue through two incisions in my chest, then removing the nipples and re-shaping them before they were re-attached to my chest.  

Since having the procedure, I’ve been left with two large scars, which are now staple focusses of my everyday self care routine. Following my surgeon’s instructions, I apply a silicone gel twice daily, thoroughly massaging the scars (in small circles, followed by lateral pinching movements) to break down the scar tissue. I also apply silicone tape strips, to keep the scars hydrated and covered during my day-to-day activities. Gradually, I’ve found that the harshness of the scars is starting to fade. 

I’m often asked if the scars bother me or if I am worried about stretching them in the gym. Honestly? Not at all. Just two weeks ago, I got to experience being on a beach topless for the first time since I was seven years old, and the joy that brought me was unparalleled. I finally feel in sync with the person in the mirror and the road from an insecure teenager hiding beneath layers of make up to where I stand now has been long, but at last, my skin truly feels like an extension of my identity. 


Perhaps surprisingly, the most rewarding part of transitioning has been finding excitement in the mundane. Shaving, playing football shirtless, walking around changing rooms with a towel around my waist – these simple acts have brought me profound happiness and I’ve come to truly understand what it means to ‘heal my inner child’. 

To any transgender individuals embarking on their own transition, be patient. I know, it’s easier said than done. It’s a long process. It’s sometimes solitary and confusing. At times you’ll want to skip a few chapters, but you’ll get to where you want to be, and I wish you the best of luck in finding comfort in your skin. 


This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have.

Cult Beauty

Cult Beauty

Writer and expert