Stress, skin and the best solution
It should come as no surprise that stress has a considerable impact on the body. Stress actually impacts every part of the body. Stress affects our muscles, our heart, our immune system, our breath, our bodily functions—and worst of all for us skin-health fanatics—our precious skin.
The skin is our largest organ; so it’s only intuitive that our largest organ would reflect the internal, physiological processes that our bodies are going through. When we encounter a stressful situation, we jolt into fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies unleash a surge of stress hormones (namely cortisol and adrenaline) that cause our heart rate to speed up, our blood pressure to rise, our muscles to flex, and our senses to boost into overdrive.
This influx of cortisol and adrenaline overwhelms our neurons and confuses the messages they’re carrying. Because these messages are responsible for telling our skin (and every other organ) how to react in a stressful environment, this chaos often leads to stress skin rashes, hives, itchy skin and breakouts.
Everyone’s skin is different, and everyone’s skin reacts differently to stress. Understanding your skin type, observing your skin’s unique reactions to stress, and identifying the sources of stress are key to minimizing the effects of these reactions and maintaining beautiful, radiant, unbothered skin.
Stress and skin conditions
From acne breakouts and eczema flare-ups, to dark circles, increased oil production, increased sensitivity and hair loss, the skin reacts to stress in a number of unpleasant ways.
Inflammation is one of the body’s go-to reactions to physical and physiological stress. When we encounter viruses, bacteria, or other factors that our bodies see as foreign and threatening, our immune system responds by flooding the invader with inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines rush to the site of invasion and attack the area, which causes the body to swell or inflame, internally and/or externally.
A stress skin rash is an area or patch of the skin where this inflammation manifests, and it’s one of the body’s most common responses to various stressors. Stress skin rashes can arise in the form of eczema, hives, psoriasis, dermatitis or rosacea. Though these stress skin rashes aren’t necessarily caused by stress, they are triggered and exacerbated by stress.
Increased oil production
Stress stimulates the body to ramp up our physiological functions for protection. As cortisol is released in the body, our sebaceous glands are stimulated. The sebaceous glands are responsible for producing and secreting oil, so stimulating these glands causes more oil to be produced and secreted on the skin.
The pituitary gland is in charge of regulating the amount of oil produced, and the pituitary gland is also in charge of our hormonal system. As we know, stress hormones are released when we encounter a threat, so the sebaceous glands (in charge of oil production and secretion) and the pituitary gland (oil regulation) are directly impacted by stress levels.
Increased oil production can cause blockages in the pores, which causes pimples, blemishes or acne breakouts to form. This is why we often experience unfortunate acne flare-ups or breakouts when we’re going through stressful periods in life.
Dark circles under the eyes
Though dark circles under the eyes are often associated with a lack of sleep or poor sleep quality, dark circles are also a product of stress. (And when we go through stressful times, we typically don’t sleep as well or as long as usual, so stress and sleep go hand-in-hand anyway.)
When our bodies perceive a threat or encounter a stressful situation, blood races to our main organs as a defense mechanism and a means of protection. Because blood rushes away from our face to travel to the brain, heart, kidneys and other vital organs, our faces can appear drained and pale without regular blood flow. Studies show that this causes dark circles to become more apparent as stress intensifies pigmentary changes.
Fine lines and wrinkles
While some effects of stress are temporary and may subside within hours or days, other effects can be permanent. Fine lines and wrinkles, unfortunately, can be a permanent effect of physical and psychological stress.
It’s a known fact that emotional distress can speed up the cellular aging process. Stress directly contributes to signs of premature skin aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin. Cortisol, the hormone our bodies release in times of stress, causes the breakdown of collagen and elastin. And what are collagen and elastin responsible for? That’s right.. firm, unwrinkled, youthful skin.
A breakdown of collagen and skin elasticity is the last thing we want for our skin. As we age, we naturally start to produce less of these youthful proteins, but if we’re in a state of constant, chronic stress, our bodies speed up this breakdown process, which speeds up the appearance of aging.
Though stress is not a main cause of hair loss, it can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of hair loss or baldness. If a person has a baldness gene that hasn’t previously manifested, stress can bring this gene or condition to light.
Telogen effluvium is a condition that describes temporary hair loss or hair thinning due to stress. This condition can cause hair to fall out days, weeks, or months after a stressful encounter. Luckily, this condition typically goes away on its own once the cause of stress is eliminated.
Hair loss can also indicate insufficient nutrition or malnutrition. When we’re stressed, we may not eat enough, or we may opt for unhealthy comfort foods that lack nutrition. These changes in appetite can cause the hair to become thinner or to fall out in strands, clumps or patches.
Sun, stress and skin
If we allow our skin to face the sun without SPF protection, UV rays are incredibly stressful on our skin. Intense UV rays damage our skin in a number of different ways. Sun exposure induces signs of premature aging (wrinkles, fine lines and sagging skin). It also causes discoloration in the form of dark spots, hyperpigmentation, blemishes and moles.
The sun’s UV rays weaken our skin’s protective responses, because (like all other stressors) sun exposure triggers our cells and neurons to increase their activity. As a response to concentrated sun exposure, whether it be from natural sun rays or from artificial tanning bed rays, our body’s melanocytes rush to the areas of sun-exposed skin.
Because melanocytes are responsible for our pigment or melanin production, the congregation of these cells causes the appearance of hyperpigmentation, dark spots and discoloration. These pigment skin conditions often contribute to an unhealthy appearance and are a common skin concern for many people.
It’s estimated that sun exposure is responsible for a terrifying 90% of skin aging. More importantly, beyond cosmetic concerns, sun exposure also damages the skin on a cellular level and is known to cause skin cancers.
How to minimize the effects of stress on skin
The effects of stress on the skin are not to be ignored—in fact, they’re often impossible to ignore. As cortisol levels increase, so do our skin problems. Although there are many ways stress damages and irritates the skin, there are also many ways to minimize skin damage caused by physical and psychological stress.
1. Lather with sunscreen
Always. Wear. Sunscreen. We can’t stress this one enough. And your skin can’t stress this enough either. According to dermatologists in the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen should have an SPF of 30 or higher to effectively protect the skin from sun damage.
Sunscreen should be worn every day, and it’s a good idea to add some natural sun-protecting oils to your skincare routine too. Oils, such as red raspberry seed oil (28 to 50 SPF), carrot seed oil (SPF 38 to 40) and wheat germ oil (SPF 20), have naturally high SPF levels that can provide your skin with some additional, much-needed protection.
2. Double up on antioxidants
Double up, triple up, quadruple up on antioxidants. Antioxidants are extremely helpful for our bodies in the war against free radicals. Free radicals are the unstable molecules in our bodies that attack our healthy, stable molecules. These damaging molecules are the result of various stressors, like sun exposure, environmental pollutants, pesticides, smoking, and exposure to other toxic chemicals.
Antioxidants effectively neutralize and stabilize these free radicals that cause premature signs of aging, cancers, and various diseases. It’s critical to include an anti-pollution cleansing cream with antioxidants or a vitamin C booster in your skincare routine and fill your diet with antioxidant-rich foods to curb these free radicals daily.
3. Hydrate with Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is a must-have solution for many skincare concerns. Our bodies naturally produce hyaluronic acid, which aids our bodies in retaining moisture and hydrating the skin. Hyaluronic acid can mitigate quite a few effects of stress, including dry skin, fine lines and wrinkles, hair thinning and hair loss, and dark under-eye circles.
Although our bodies already produce hyaluronic acid, the natural production of this substance, unfortunately, slows down over the years. Adding a hydrating serum rich with hyaluronic acid to your skincare routine is key to supporting the skin in its response to stress and maintaining a healthy level of hydration.
4. Eliminate stressors
Possibly the most efficient way to reduce the effects of stress is to eliminate the source of stress. With no stress trigger, there’s no stress response. It’s a simple solution, yet easier said than done.
Some stress factors are unavoidable. Environmental pollutants aren’t easy to escape—especially for our fellow urban dwellers out there. Stressful situations are bound to arise throughout life, because, well… that’s just life.
What we can do to support our bodies in reacting to stress is eliminating poor habits, such as smoking cigarettes and basking in the sun without protection. We can also engage in stress management activities, such as yoga, deep breathing, and exercise, to promote a healthy immune system and to reduce our stress levels.
Developing and committing to a daily skincare routine is essential for providing the skin with antioxidants, hydration, and sun protection. Listen to your skin; observe its reactions to various stressors, and keep yourself educated in all-things-skincare to empower your body with the stress relief it deserves.