Experts Weigh in on Stress's Role in Premature Skin Aging
Everybody experiences occasional moments of stress, but what happens to your skin when your stress becomes chronic? We asked doctors and leading experts to find out.
In this article, discover:
- How Stress Causes Skin Problems
- How Anxiety Affects Your Skin
- What Stressed Skin Looks Like
- Exactly What To Do To Calm Stressed Skin
Does stress cause skin problems?
The simple answer is yes.
Licensed esthetician Crystal Shaefer explains, “Our skin is a target for [external] environmental stressors such as pollution and UV exposure. What we don’t hear a lot about are the internal stressors that can have the same, if not worse, of an impact.” Here’s why: While we’re no longer being chased by wild animals like our ancestors were, our flight or fight responses are still being triggered the second a stressful situation occurs. When your body experiences stress, these flight or fight responses cause our bodies to pump blood mainly to your vital organs (i.e. your brain, lungs, and heart). In other words, stress puts your body in a sort of survival mode, directing your blood to your most vital organs, and unfortunately, our skin doesn’t make the cut.
According to Shaefer, the impact that stress has on our complexion is deeper than we’d think:
Anytime we are under stress, our brain responds through our central nervous system and our skin cells. Chronic stress can disrupt our skin's barrier and immune functions, causing us to be more susceptible to infections and can exacerbate allergic and inflammatory diseases [including] psoriasis, acne, erythema, and contact dermatitis.”
Naturopathic doctor Stephanie Nichols, NMD, adds “There are a few factors that adversely affect your [skin] like stress. From premature wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone, and puffy eyes to dark circles, stress can lead to or aggravate a large number of beauty problems.”
But how is stress causing all these skin concerns? Nichols explains to us that the reason stress does so much damage is because it negatively impairs the barrier functions of the stratum corneum (aka the skin’s protective barrier on the outermost layer of the epidermis). “Once your barrier is compromised, skin defense is weakened and your skin cells have a harder time [performing basic functions like] retaining moisture.”
Can anxiety affect your skin?
Yes, anxiety can affect your skin. In short, when we no longer feel in control or safe, our skin tends to respond with unwanted flareups. This anxiety then triggers physical and mental symptoms like insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, irritability, and lastly, fragile skin that’s prone to havoc.
What does stressed skin look like?
Stressed skin manifests in several ways. Here are the most common symptoms of our skin under stress:
Chronically-stressed people are no strangers to acne breakouts, Shaefer shares. “The most common symptoms of stressed skin are acne flare-ups and inflammation.” Unsurprisingly, a study in South Korea examining causes of acne in 1,236 patients identified stress as one of the leading causes of troubled skin. As you may know, when you feel stressed, your body produces higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Recent studies have revealed that when our cortisol levels are high, our skin ends up secreting more sebum. This excess sebum can clog your pores, leading to acne and blemishes.
Since stress can domino a chain of other health disturbances including sleep deprivation, it’s common to experience swelling under your eyes when you’re
going through a hectic time.
Have you noticed how quickly presidents age during the years they’re in office? This is because long-term stress can cause premature graying and thinning of your hair and slow down your body’s production of elastic fibers, leading to increased visible signs of aging like sagging, fine lines, and a loss of elasticity (source).
Skin dryness & inflammation
When you’re stressed, your immune system is simultaneously weakened. Unfortunately, this includes skin immunity too. To put it simply, your body’s primary form of skin defense is a protective film layer called a hydrolipidic barrier. When you’re stressed, this protective layer is no longer maintained, leaving your skin prone to issues like dryness. “Stress causes transepidermal water loss and impaired barrier function,” Shaefer explains. “[When left untreated, this can] trigger inflammation which leads to dry or flaky skin.” Itchiness, cracking, tightness, and even psoriasis, contact dermatitis, and eczema are more possible consequences of dry stressed skin.
How can I calm my stressed skin?
A little self care, anyone? If you’re experiencing chronic stress, the physical effects on your skin are your body’s way of telling you to slow down.
Get inspired with our recommendations of healthy habits that you can use to manage your skin when you’re experiencing stress:
- Apply a face mask (we recommend this one to revive your skin with fruit-sourced actives or this combo cleanser mask to detoxify and hydrate), light some candles, throw in some essential oils, and enjoy a hot and steamy bath. The steam from the hot water will help open your pores to enhance the masks’ effects. Dr. Nichols says to be sure to take the time to massage the product onto your skin. Not only will they help increase the efficacy of the active ingredients, “gentle facial massages will improve collagen production and circulation.” In the meantime, to further reduce stress hormones, Dr. Nichols recommends using magnesium oils on your skin or throwing some magnesium salt into your bath to help your body diminish cortisol levels.
- Sweat. Whether it’s in the sauna, hot yoga, or a high-intensity training, working up a sweat can help stimulate your circulation and eliminate toxins before they lodge in your pores and cause trouble. Follow up with a pH-perfecting toner and soothing facial oil to keep stressed skin in check.
Radiant skin starts with healthy habits. Dr. Nichols shares, “You should try to get enough deep sleep, and eat a healthy and balanced diet, which ideally should be rich in antioxidants and healthy fats.” Consider this is a sign to treat yourself to a late morning with an avocado toast for brunch.
Pro tip: Studies show that the peak of skin repair is while we sleep. So applying potent skincare (like the high-performance ABO +|- face and eye rejuvenation serums) before you sleep is the ideal time to reap maximum effects.
- Prevention is key. “Prevention wise, use antioxidants such as vitamin C and always wear sunscreen when you go out. If you are acne-prone, use a product with [gentle] acids. If your skin’s barrier function is compromised, look for a product with fatty acids to restore your skin's integrity,” Shaefer shares. And don’t forget, Dr. Nichols urges, about keeping up with daily moisturization. “Adequate hydration is also of the utmost importance [for maintaining healthy skin when stressed].”
- Stay protected. The secret to healthy skin is maintaining the health of its microbiome. All the more reason to give your complexion some much-needed TLC with a gentle, non-stripping cleanser, a pH balancing toner, deeply repairing serum, and a nourishing source of hydration when you’re stressed. Being consistent with a healthy skincare regimen is essential to keeping your skin’s defensive barrier intact and help it better protect itself against the inflammatory effects of stress.
- See an esthetician. “If you consult with an esthetician regularly, [he or she] will know you and your skin well enough to catch any kind of problem and be able to guide you in the best direction,” Shaefer shares. Getting expert help from a qualified dermatologist or esthetician is a sure way to keep your skin in check.
- Talk to a therapist. If your stress and anxiety are constant, remember that our skin tends to reflect what we’re feeling on the inside. It may help to seek professional help to identify and address the root causes of your anxiety. What’s more, developing healthy coping mechanisms will keep your skin safe from becoming an emotional battleground for an overall healthier complexion in the long-term.
- Treating stressed skin is all about skin defense. To boost your skin’s natural defenses, turn to the skin-transforming effects of medical grade gas carriers. These potent active ingredients take on a similar role to red blood cells in the way they deliver oxygen to cells, which in turn strengthens cell membranes and promotes youthfully bouncy skin (read more about these powerful ingredients here). Using them topically allows them to deeply penetrate your skin barrier to deliver oxygen to cells, fortifying cell membranes, helping heal your skin and reverse the effects of stress.
As we all know, stress is an unavoidable part of life. But the moment stress becomes a constant in your daily life, it can leave your skin with lasting consequences. Minimizing the avoidable internal causes of stress in your day-to-day and learning how to better mentally manage intense moments of stress can help your skin better defend itself to avoid premature aging.