8 Ways Your Skin Reflects Your Stress — and How to Calm It

Chronic stress can drive our skin haywire

Tim Robberts/Getty Images
Tim Robberts/Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Carissa Stephens, RN, CCRN, CPN, written by Adeline Hocine

We’ve all heard, at one point or another, that beauty starts from within. And for good reason: Your skin is your body’s largest organ. External issues can be a telltale sign of the wars waged within.

While bottled serums and sheet masks possess a certain level of aesthetic and soothing allure, a solid skin care routine may not be enough to provide calm for the imbalanced hormone battles happening underneath the surface.

Fact: Stress makes your skin battle harder. The increased jump in cortisol can jumble up the messages your nerves decide to send, causing anything from an outbreak of hives to fine lines.

While this correlation between stress and skin can be traced back to ancient times, formal studies revealing the deeper connection only date back to the last two decades.

And yes, your diet or skin care products can cause skin concerns, but it’s also important to consider stress as a potential culprit — especially if a rash appears out of nowhere or persists long after you’ve tested for everything.

We’ve outlined eight proven ways that mental, physical, and hormonal stress changes your skin. But more importantly, we also tell you what you can do about it.

1. Sun stress and exhausted skin defenses

Even before looking internally, there’s one beaming factor that can physically stress out your skin and weaken its defenses: ultraviolet (UV) radiation. A carcinogen via sun exposure, it can have a negative effect on skin.

Whether in the form of natural sunlight or more artificial means such as tanning beds, absorbing ultraviolet rays can signal blood cells to rush to the exposed area in an attempt to repair it. This manifests into sunburns, but it doesn’t end there: Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation may lead to darkened blemishes, moles, and even skin cancer.

The best way to combat UV rays and sun stress is by applying sunscreen every morning. Brands like Avène and Dermalogica have cute and compact oil-free versions, making the mundanity of a daily routine less so. They’re not only easy to carry around, but also easy to use, so you’re less likely to forget to apply daily.

You may also want to layer on natural oils that hold some sun protection. According to a cell study, olive, coconut, peppermint, tulsi, and lemon grass have the highest SPF value.

While they can’t replace sunscreen, it can be a great boost for people who have a hard time finding sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white cast.

On top of oils and creams, you can also fight sun damage from the inside outResearch has linked certain nutrients to the ability to boost your skin’s natural sun protection.

You may recognize limonene, a chemical derived from the skin of citrus fruits and studied for use in cancer prevention medicines. Well, eating those fruits — in particular citrus peel — might also provide sun protection too.

Fruits high in antioxidants and vitamin C (like strawberries and pomegranates) possess the ability to protect your cells from the free radical damage caused by sun exposure.

2. Inflammation and extra-irritated skin

Hives, psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, rosacea… these are often a result of inflammation, but studies also show that when your brain is on overdrive it can actually compromise your skin’s protective abilities.

In other words, stress makes it harder for your skin to regulate and stay balanced. It’s no wonder you might have an extra breakout during a sleepless week or after an intense argument.

Inflammation can also cause acne, but remember, some skin conditions like rosacea can look like acne too. It’s important to note the difference before treating the conditions — including whether or not your irritation is a result of stress, allergies, or a bad product.

Fighting stress inflammation begins with eliminating the cause. Finding out the exact reason behind your stress might be difficult or impossible, but there are still ways to tame the fires with food, exercise, or therapy.

Stress elimination

  • Practice long-term stress management, such as meditation or yoga.
  • Avoid processed or artificial foods and sweeteners.
  • Choose fruit over artificial sweeteners, olive oil instead of margarine, and fish rather than red meat.
  • Drink a homemade stress tonic to build up your body’s defenses.

3. Increased oil production and acne

Whether it’s the impending dread of finals week or spontaneous heartbreak, we’ve all likely suffered at the hands of a stubborn pimple (or two).

It’s no surprise science has found that kind of stress to be highly associated with acne, especially for women — and stress can mix up our skin’s nerve signals, causing imbalanced hormones and chemicals that increase oil production.

While it’s nearly impossible to remove stress from the equation entirely, there are ways to combat it. Keep 5- and 10-minute stress-relief tricks handy and try longer stress-management techniques, like exercise, to increase your body’s abilities to adapt.

Fortunately, most acne reacts to topical treatments too.

The secret ingredient in our most beloved anti-acne products is a beta-hydroxy-acid known as salicylic acid. This oil-soluble chemical penetrates pores extremely well for unclogging and cleaning, but this doesn’t mean that it’s exempt from its own set of cons. Too much or too strong salicylic acid can dry out and even irritate skin in the process.

So with careful application in mind, nightly spot treatments are a godsend for targeting troubled areas without harming skin in the surrounding areas. Origins Super Spot Remover Acne Treatment Gel contains cucumber extracts (which can also remedy hyperpigmentation) while Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment is good for tackling inflammation and redness, or, for those rich with melanin, bluish-brown discoloration.

4. Waxy scalp, hair loss, and peeling nails

There is no one way to experience stress. Ever unconsciously pulled your hair, bitten your fingernails — or picked at both? That could be the stress hormone, cortisol, triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response.

Before you assume it’s stress though, you might want to check in with a dermatologist and doctor to rule out other potential. For example, in the case of scaly or waxy skin, it could be eczema. Or in the case of hair loss or peeling nails, it could be insufficient nutrition from skipping meals.

In the time being, avoid extremely hot showers to prevent further damaging your skin and scalp. Bring more consistency to your day by aiming to exercise regularly and eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables.

5. Thinner, more sensitive skin

In cases of abnormally high cortisol levels, the skin might get thinner. Cortisol results in the breakdown of dermal proteins, which can cause the skin to appear almost paper-thin, as well as bruising and tearing easily.

However, this symptom is most noticeably associated with Cushing syndrome. Also known as hypercortisolism, this hormonal disease includes additional symptoms such as glucose intolerance, muscle weakness, and a weakened immune system (you may experience increased infections).

If you think that you may have Cushing syndrome, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. In most cases, medication can be prescribed for the management of cortisol levels.

6. Delayed natural wound healing

In the face of severe stress, your epidermis can quickly become weakened, increasing your risk for infections and environmental pathogens. This also slows down your skin’s natural ability to heal wounds, scars, and acne.

To repair your skin barrier, you can use products with glycerin and hyaluronic acid. The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 is a pared-down serum that aims to provide you with exactly what your skin needs, without all of the extra additives found in most products.

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence is also lightweight enough to layer with other serums. The formula’s key ingredients, hyaluronic acid and snail secretion, work to retain the skin’s natural moisture while balancing out any visible scarring.

The same remedies you’d used to combat sun exposure apply here too! Consume antioxidant-rich food for similar effect and strengthened internal healing.

And in addition to keeping skin hydrated internally (through water consumption), focus on using products based in zinc, sal (Shorea robusta), and flaxseed oil. These ingredients are shown to your keep your skin moisturized and provide a packed healing punch for wound healing.

7. Exhausted eyes and orbital skin

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a comment regarding the undeniable dark circles around your eyes, then you know just how much sleep deprivation reveals itself physically. And yep, that’s stress talking too.

In activated fight-or-flight mode, our bodies keep adrenaline running on a constant cycle, including during those precious, much-needed hours late at night.

If you’re already trying meditation and yoga for sleep, ramp up your bedtime routine with essential oil diffuserswhite noise machines, or the most easier-said-than-done practice out there — avoiding screens altogether in the two-hour time span before sleep.

For sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, CBD oil and melatonin pills may act as more reliable remedies.

8. Fine lines and wrinkles

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves and some wear them all over their face. From the furrow of a brow to a frown that overpowers facial muscles, psychological stress inevitably finds a way to make permanent evidence of our emotions for the whole world to see. Smile lines, eye creases, an “11” in the mid brow… those appear after repeated facial movement.

So what’s one to do about it? Well, face yoga. Arguably safer than Botox, face yoga can lead similar results, although the commitment to doing this every day might not be worth it.

By targeting the facial muscles we subconsciously use every day, through pointed massage techniques in high-tension areas such as our foreheads, brows, and jawline, these exercises can counteract developing wrinkles and leave skin flexible and resilient.

For additional assistance, applying facial pressure with a chilled jade roller activates the lymphatic system, which can also reduce puffiness and the appearance of stress damage on the skin.

Stop the stress cycle

Stress does not manifest the same in every person, but every person ultimately does experience stress to some extent. Instead of comparing stress levels with others to gauge whether or not your stress is “all that bad,” choose to care for yourself when you need it.

While we can’t control the myriad ways stress rears its head at us when we’re all too unexpecting, we can control the way that we choose to react to it. Knowing how stress can impact your skin can be freeing if you allow it to be. If that means tackling your acne flare-ups or fine lines (despite them not being entirely awful), do it.

Remembering to care for ourselves, and for our skin, is one of the small ways in which we can slowly but surely reclaim control — and these coping mechanisms for stress are a good place to start!

Adeline Hocine is an Algerian Muslim freelance writer based in the Bay Area. In addition to writing for Healthline, she’s written for publications such as Medium, Teen Vogue, and Yahoo Lifestyle. She’s passionate about skin care and exploring the intersections between culture and wellness. After sweating through a hot yoga session, you can find her in a face mask with a glass of natural wine in hand on any given evening.

Article resources

Originally published on Healthline.

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