How Stress Affects Your Skin

how stress affects your skin
Reading: 5 minutes

We know that stress can take its toll on our health, affecting sleep patterns, diet, and, of course, our mind. But did you know that your stress levels can also be reflected in your skin? 

On a recent Instagram live stream, ISDIN ambassador, LPGA star and professional golfer Jessica Korda spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson to discover more about the connection between stress and the skin. Let’s take a look at what they discussed!

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The relationship between stress and the skin

If you’re the type to flush with embarrassment, you’re probably aware that emotions have some effect on your skin and its appearance. Your skin can sometimes be the reflection of your inner feelings – ever experienced a breakout before a big presentation? Or red, itchy bumps while waiting for feedback from a job interview? Emotions such as anger, stress, and sadness can all influence your skin in their own ways. 

Elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, produced when you feel stressed or anxious, can have negative effects on the skin. “We know that cortisol is a hormone that spikes when we’re under stress,” says Dr. Robinson. “It can really make us break out, and make our skin flare up, whether it’s acne or rosacea.”

This increase in cortisol can cause inflammation in the skin, affect your immune system, and slow down the skin’s natural healing processes. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, we often experience spots, rashes, or itchy skin, and in some cases stress can aggravate pre-existing conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.

how stress affects your skin itchy skin

“Cortisol is a hormone that spikes when we’re under stress. It can really make us break out, and make our skin flare up.”

– Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson

How other emotions can affect our skin 

When you’re going through stressful periods, you may also experience feelings of sadness, which can affect sleep and energy levels. When your energy levels are low, you feel less motivated. Elements of your self-care routine such as skin care may be pushed aside when you just don’t feel in the mood, meaning your skin doesn’t necessarily get the care it needs. 

Poor quality sleep can also take its toll on your skin, as it is related to increased signs of aging (fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation) and affects the skin’s protective barrier function.    

On the other hand, during holiday periods, or moments when you are able to relax and unwind, these signs of stress can disappear as stability forms, in both daily routines, and in your mind – almost as if the skin were the reflection of the soul. When you’re feeling happy, and positive, it shows on your skin. Levels of the hormone oxytocin increase, while cortisol levels go down, helping you to look radiant. All the more reason to avoid negative attitudes!

how your emotions affect your skin

Can stress change your skin type?

Generally, your skin type doesn’t change – but your skin condition might. Stress tends to exaggerate our usual skin features, pre-existing conditions, or skin type. For example, if you have oily skin, you may find it becomes even oilier than usual and more difficult to control. Here’s how stress could affect your skin type: 

If you have dry skin, or eczema, or have sensitive skin, you may experience more rashes or irritation than usual. 

If you have oily skin, with a tendency to experience breakouts, oil production may increase, increasing the appearance of acne (blackheads), too. 

If you already have an existing skin condition such as psoriasis or eczema, symptoms can worsen under stress. “Under stress, that cortisol hormone can bolster up a little bit and underlying skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis can come to the forefront, so treating those during stressful times is really important,” explains Dr. Robinson. 

How to manage the signs of stress on your skin 

Stress can’t be managed with just a serum or a moisturizer – it’s important to be holistic in your habits and view the full picture. Try to find moments where you can disconnect, or ways to stay positive, practicing routines and implementing techniques that can help reduce stress. It’s okay to feel sad and overwhelmed at times, but it needs to be done in a ‘healthy’ way. If you regularly feel sad or stressed, it’s important that you reach out for help, or tell someone about your feelings, so you can try to manage the way you tackle stress and your emotions.

According to Dr. Robinson, the skin is one of the biggest manifestations of stress that we have. “Taking care of ourselves holistically is really important,” she reminds us. 

In terms of managing the signs of stress on your skin, sticking to a skincare routine is important. Don’t allow yourself to feel that it doesn’t matter, or that you don’t need to take care of your skin. Just as Dr. Robinson explains, it can make you feel good about yourself! 

“Have something that you love putting on your face, and that you feel good about, and have that moment of intention, whether it’s in the morning or night. Having that routine and that ritual is the best advice I can give my patients and people about how to take care of their skin.”

The type of products you will need vary depending on your skin type, but there are some basic rules you can follow to help reduce the signs of stress on your skin. 

“Have something that you love putting on your face, and that you feel good about, and have that moment of intention, whether it’s in the morning or night.”

– Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson

1. Start with cleansing

No matter your skin type, cleansing is important to help your skin stay fresh, says Dr. Robinson. “Use a gentle cleanser, something that’s not overly stripping, or overly drying.” In oily skin, cleansing helps to remove excess sebum and regulate excess oil production. Cleansing also helps to remove bacteria, dead skin cells, and dirt, so it’s important for even those with dry skin.

skincare routine for stressed skin

2. The treatment step

Your step after cleansing will vary depending on your skin concern. Want to fight tired, puffy eyes that your lack of sleep has brought on? Use an under eye cream, like Dr. Robinson’s go-to eye product, K-Ox Eyes. “When we’re not sleeping as much, we get that puffiness and dark circles under the eyes. So K-Ox is so good for that, as it has a little vitamin K oxide, and a little hyaluronic acid to help reduce that puffiness and help hydrate that area.” 

If dull, tired-looking skin is your priority, use brightening ingredients such as antioxidants to bring your skin back to life, or products that will help to repair stressed, damaged skin. 

Dr Robinson tells us to look at it this way. “During the day we’re protecting our skin. We’re trying to keep away free radicals and UV, and all of these things that damage our skin. So at nighttime, we need to repair and go after all that damage that we’ve accumulated over the years…and just during the day!” 

Her recommendation for a nighttime treatment to boost skin health? Melatonik™ night serum. “Melatonik™ has melatonin, which topically is really interesting, and a really cool ingredient called bakuchiol which works like a retinol or retinoid. It gives you that repair mechanism and goes after free radical damage, so you’re rebuilding at nighttime”.

Read more: How melatonin repairs your skin at night

3. Hydrate your skin

As stress can affect your skin’s protective moisture barrier, hydration is important for all skin types – even oily skin, where overall moisture loss can increase oil production. Finish up your routine with a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic (that won’t block pores) to keep your skin hydrated.

skincare routine for stress

If you have dry or sensitive skin, or experience rashes and irritation on your body, don’t forget to hydrate all over. A rich moisturizer can help relieve itching associated with dryness, and restore your skin’s smoothness. 

“Taking care of ourselves holistically is really important.”

Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson

To keep your skin well and truly happy, don’t just rely on your emotions. Develop a skincare routine to help keep those signs of stress at bay. The best routine? One that works for your skin, which is effective and simple, that will help you to look after your skin and its own specific concerns as best you can. Healthy habits and skin care that works for you are the best way to really love your skin!

Sources and references
Chen, Y. Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging, Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. 2014 Jun; 13(3): 177-190.
Oyetakin-White, P. et al. Does poor quality sleep affect skin ageing? Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. 2015 Jan;40(1):17-22.
Cho, S.Y. et al. Oxytocin alleviates cellular senescence through oxytocin receptor-mediated extracellular signal-regulated kinase/Nrf2 signalling. British Journal of Dermatology. 2019 Dec; Vol. 181, Issue 6:1216-1225.
Magon, N, Kalra, S. The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2011 Sep; 15(Suppl3): S156-S161.

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Article written and reviewed by:

Editorial Team

Our namesake embodies the spirit of embracing life and all its wonder. As wellness journalists, we explore topics that invigorate the senses and keep curiosity alive. We believe that glowing skin is the result of a healthy body and mind. Weaving beauty with science, we aim to inspire you to live young at every age.

Medical Communication Manager

In addition to ten years as a primary care doctor, Aurora has over 23 years of experience developing and communicating healthcare products, most recently in dermo-cosmetics. She has co-authored many publications in dermatological journals and spoken at international health & beauty conferences. Ref: Colegio de Medicos de Madrid numero 282840102

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