Even the most zen among us still gets the occasional pimple or dry patches from stress. Maybe it’s because of a perpetually too-long to-do list, never-ending bills, familial pressures, or just general existential dread amidst being in a global pandemic, but *shouting into the sky* why do stress and skin have to be so inextricably linked?
Turns out, this has to do with the way human bodies are hot-wired to react in fight or flight situations. Dermatologist Dr. Cristina Vajaitu says that under times of intense stress blood redirects to vital organs — and that does not include the skin. “Skin circulation is reduced, with spikes in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol leading to a reduction in collagen and antioxidants production,” she explains.
Basically, all that tension in your bod can wreak havoc in a number of ways. Let’s break down how to spot skin in crisis-mode, and more importantly, talk some essential treatment options to get your glow back.
Noticing breakouts around your chin and mouth where things were clear before? Well, acne from stress is all about the hormones. While you worry, excess cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) is pumping through your system causing an increase of oil production which can get trapped inside hair follicles and produce pimples (ugh).
Too, Dr. Vajaitu says that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might be less likely to stay on top of hygiene needs. If you’re skipping your skincare routine, eating junk food, and not drinking enough water, those habits are going to take your skin out of balance.
“Treating stress acne requires a cleanser that will correctly and safely exfoliate the skin. Effective acne cleansers contain glycolic, salicylic, lactic, malic, and mandelic acids or benzoyl peroxide,” says Dr. Katina Miles, dermatologist at Skin Oasis. “Next, acne-prone skin needs a topical retinol or retinoid, and possibly a topical antibiotic. Chemical peels and Aerolase lasers are also effective in treating acne.” You can also try Differin Gel, which contains adapalene 0.1%, the first FDA-approved prescription-strength retinoid acne treatment available over the counter.
Rosacea appears because stress reduces the skin’s ability to protect and fight inflammation, altering the skin barrier. This might look like facial redness, general blotchiness, and acne-like bumps on the face. Cute! Applying the right skin moisturizer and avoiding the triggers are essential in preventing those uninvited flare-ups.
Dr. Claire Chang, dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, recommends anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide, centella asiatica, and green tea if your skin is prone to redness. “Centella asiatica is used in skincare products due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging activity,” she explains. “It can soothe the skin and calm down redness, and has also been shown to help hydrate the skin and revitalize the skin’s barrier. One of my favorite skincare products that contains Centella asiatica is Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment.”
Eczema And Psoriasis
When you’re super stressed, minor things can irritate you — and the same goes for your skin. You might experience a breakout of itching or dry patches redness when your skin reacts poorly to soap or detergent, and the same goes for stress.
When it comes to treating eczema and psoriasis, gentle formulas and moisturizers can help big time. “Patients with eczema and psoriasis should use thick moisturizing creams to hydrate the skin. Cerave Moisturizing Cream contains three essential ceramides as well as hyaluronic acid and is ideal for those with dry, sensitive skin,” Dr. Chang notes.
Tossing and turning all night long? Yeah, you might wake up looking haggard with dark shadows under your eyes and dull skin. Beauty sleep is a real thing, but it can’t happen properly when you’re plagued with worry. (And in addition to getting a full night of sleep, chances are you need to be guzzling down some more water too.)
To keep skin glowy, Vitamin C serums have been shown to fight free radicals, protect the skin against environmental damage, brighten skin complexion, and stimulate collagen production. Dr. Changs’ favorite vitamin C products include Skinceuticals CE Ferulic and No7 Youthful Vitamin C Fresh Radiance Essence for even skin tone.
Other Treatment Options
There are a bunch of other products out there in addition to the ones mentioned above to help alleviate symptoms and mellow out your skin. If you’re stressed, you won’t have to look it.
Dr. Chang’s favorite way to be kind to angry skin is with gentle, non-irritating products. “Stress has been associated with lower levels of ceramides in the skin. I recommend moisturizers that contain ceramides, which are a natural lipid that is important in protecting the skin barrier. One of my favorites is No7 Restore & Renew Face & Neck Multi Action Night Cream, which can be used for the face and neck to hydrate the skin and restore its radiance.” She also recommends a No7 Restore & Renew Multi Action Face & Neck Day Cream SPF 30 that can be incorporated into your regimen, so you have hydration all day long. And note that when selecting day creams, SPF is key too, as it protects and defends the skin from harmful UV rays and environmental stressors.
Keep in mind that one size does not fit all when it comes to skincare for stressed skin. Just as stress can manifest in different ways in people, your skincare regimen should be personalized to reflect this.
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A version of this story was published August 2021.
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