Here's Why Stress Is Messing With Your Skin and How to Calm the Flare Ups

skin stress lead
Why Stress Is Messing With Your SkinDesigned by Yoora Kim

There's never a good time to get a zit, but have you ever noticed how pimples always seem to appear at the actual worst time, like right before opening night of the school play, or the morning of a party you've been planning for weeks? Between finals, your graduation planning, and friendship drama — there are a million reasons why it may seem like your skin may is turning against you — but one culprit that may not be top of mind is stress.

Stress messes with your skin, causing breakouts, flare-ups, and even wrinkles over time. "

"There’s a biological link between your mind and your skin," explains Dr. Alia Ahmed, a consultant dermatologist who specializes in the psychological effects of chronic skin disease and the link between the skin and stress. "We all have a stress pathway in our brains, so when your body is perceiving stress — anything from being late for work, to something more serious — your brain activates the stress pathway.

And tbh — getting a grasp on what's triggering your breakouts and exactly what products to use to get it all under control can be stressful in itself. Dr. Ahmed and other experts are here to share all the tips on how stress affects your skin and what you can do to stay in the clear.

Does stress cause pimples?

When you're stressed, your body pumps out stress hormones as part of your fight-or-flight response. These hormones direct blood away from your skin, sending it to fuel your muscles and organs instead. That's great if you're trying to outrun a bear, but it can be a beauty nightmare, especially if you're feeling perma-stressed. (Midterms, anyone?) "Chronic stress deprives your skin of oxygen and essential nutrients, which leads to skin conditions and inflammation," says Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.

One stress hormone in particular, cortisol, can also cause your oil glands to go into overdrive, so if you're acne-prone, you may notice more breakouts. Cortisol can have far-reaching effects on all your body’s systems, including your skin," Ahmed further explains. "Specifically, it can affect the skin’s barrier, the way your body heals wounds and repairs itself." So, in other words, that tiny pimple can take forever to clear up when you're stressed. Additionally, Ahmed points out that "Stress-induced cortisol production can also reduce the amount of hyaluronic acid, a natural acid in the body and skin, which helps us to retain water." If you're prone to dry skin, this can make it worse.

Does losing sleep make breakouts worse?

When your brain goes a mile a minute, it can be hard to power down at night. But don't skimp on shut-eye, because sleep is super-important for healthy skin (and healthy everything, really). "When you're sleep deprived, your body interprets that as stress," says Ahmed. Dr. Bowe also notes that "sleep is a key time for your body to repair itself from the day." Lack of sleep can boost your cortisol levels, which — along with the whole oil-overload thing — can make it even harder to sleep. Less sleep = more cortisol = more stress = less sleep. "It's a vicious cycle," Dr. Bowe adds. "Not getting a good night's sleep, paired with more stress, can weaken the immune system and leave you with dull skin and more pronounced lines."

Can stress cause other skin flare-ups?

If you deal with chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, you may notice they flare up when you're feeling overwhelmed. "It's usually not the sole cause for these conditions, but in someone who is already genetically predisposed, stress can be the last straw," Dr. Bowe says. If your eczema suddenly gets worse, that may be a cue to decompress.

Carmen Castilla, MD a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist further explains that psychological stressors are more likely to result in hives, cystic acne flares, eczema, and psoriasis flares. Whereas, "Environmental stressors such as excessive UV radiation and pollution potentiate oxidative stress in the skin through the formation of free radicals — this can lead to collagen breakdown." More on the collagen effects in a sec.

Do skincare ingredients help with stress?

While much of your skin stress management involves changing your habits and minding your mental health, there are certain ingredients that you can incorporate into your beauty routine to help get ahead of breakouts. Some ingredients like Edelweiss, a plant active, thrives in extremely stressful environments like the snowy Swiss Alps. The same parts of the plant that help it stay alive in these temps can help balance the stress in your skin. If the thought of adding another layer to your skincare routine feels stressful, Ahmed suggests setting it and forgetting it before bed. "Skin repairs itself overnight, and blood flow also changes to make absorption of active ingredients more efficiently. Using night-time skincare, like the Edelweiss bouncy sleeping mask, is an ideal way to nourish skin overnight."

Does stress up your skin cancer risk?

Don't panic — stress won't give you skin cancer. But it can raise your risk. "Stress lowers our immune system in general, but now researchers have found that your immune system's response to fighting basal cell skin cancers is also affected," Dr. Bowe says. Keep slathering on that SPF — it's still your best defense — but try to find some stress-busting techniques to keep your immune system on its A-game.

Can stress speed up aging?

Okay, so you're probably not counting your wrinkles just yet. But too much stress now could translate to more fine lines in a few years. "Stress hormones lead to accelerated aging in the skin because your body is busy fighting stress instead of protecting you against environmental stressors such as UV rays, cigarette smoke, and pollution," Dr. Bowe says. "You only have so many natural defense systems in your skin, and if you deplete them because of internal stress, then you use up your resources."

The good news? A few simple stress management techniques could work wonders for your beauty regimen (and your sanity, obvi). Next time you're feeling frazzled, go for a walk, do some power yoga or deep-breathing exercises, or call a supportive friend to vent. These can all lower your cortisol levels, which can help clear your mind and your skin.

Self-Love Shows on Your Skin

While organizing your busy life is a more obvious way to reduce stress, managing your mental health is equally as important. "People can be really harsh on themselves about how they look. Negative self-talk is a huge stress trigger that, once again, alters how you produce collagen and proteoglycans — the building blocks of skin," says Ahmed.

Redefine your self-care time into what Dr. Ahmed calls a "mini self-love ritual". "Give yourself a loving face massage, fully enjoying the textures and scents of your wonderful skincare products. Not only does it aid circulation, but it also allows you to really tune into yourself. Self-love builds inner resilience and it shows up on your skin."

You Might Also Like