How Does Stress Really Impact Your Skin?

Photo: Eylul Aslan
Life can be stressful, there's no two ways about it. Spinning the plates of a career, healthy lifestyle, and social life can end up draining your immune system and, as one Twitter user recently pointed out, the rate at which we absorb world tragedies, such as the Assam flood and displaced Rohingya Muslims, can be detrimental to our mental health and stress levels. Whether you're struggling to keep your head above water or have neglected yourself too much of late, there are some telltale signs that stress is getting to you.
While for some, stress manifests in swollen glands, the inability to sleep or eating too much (or not enough), another part of your body that takes a hit is your skin. After a few weeks of existing on coffee and junk food, barely moving past running for the train, and too many late nights trying to tackle out-of-work projects, my skin put me in my place before my brain did. A greyish tone washed over me, my under-eyes were puffy, and I broke out like all my periods had come at once. Pretty, hey? Wanting to know more about the impact our stressful lifestyles have on our complexions, I asked some skincare experts for the lowdown.
"As we all have unique and changeable skin, stress-induced symptoms can manifest differently in everyone," Andrea Pfeffer, founder of Pfeffer Sal, explains. "This can include acne flare-ups, rashes, inflammation (especially for those with psoriasis and eczema), excessive dryness and rosacea." It doesn't stop there. Noella Gabriel, cofounder of Elemis Therapies, explains that it can extend to "hypo-sensitivity, chapped lips, or a depleted, dusty, chalk-like complexion that doesn’t make a great base for makeup".
While tired eyes and dry skin are somewhat manageable, a plague of spots before a big event is never welcome. "Breakouts on and around the chin and jawline area are mainly down to your hormones," Andrea explains. "Your body’s reaction to stress is to produce the hormone cortisol, which, unhelpfully, tells your sebaceous glands to produce more oil – leading to oilier skin, congestion and breakouts. Cortisol also destroys collagen, weakening the skin and leaving it more susceptible to uneven textures and pimples – it’s a real baddie for good skin!"
So now that we're all familiar with the signs of a body that hasn't been taking care of itself, what's the solution? Why does no amount of concealer or moisturiser – or in fact, sticking to our regular beauty regime – seem to help? Even if your body is a temple and you feed it with all the green juices and quality products your bank balance can handle, if you're stressed, your skin simply ceases to do its job well. "Once we struggle with managing our stress levels, adrenalin becomes like a loose cannon and keeps the body moving at a very fast pace," Noella adds. "This immediately has a direct effect on one’s breathing, which becomes sharp and shallow. As a result, the skin is robbed of its main energy source – oxygen – and ultimately is inadequately cleansed. This decrease in optimum skin function means your products can stop being as effective as they are normally, as the skin just isn’t able to function at its best."
The last thing we need on top of stress is stress-inducing skin, but if stress is literally stopping our skin from doing its job, what can we do to help? This feels like a bigger task than a week of early nights and drinking water non-stop. "While we wish it were that simple, maintaining good skin is very hard work," Andrea says. "It’s important to think of skin health like going to the gym: one session will not solve everything, but with the right treatments, lifestyle and aftercare routine, you will be able to see real progress over time." Remember, this isn't just about physical health. Burnout is real, and your skin will be one of the first places to show it. "You must remember to look after yourself mentally and physically," Noella agrees. "Your skin is a mirror of your lifestyle, so even if you get eight hours' sleep a night but have a high-stress day while living off a diet of chocolate biscuits, your skin most likely won’t be glowing! It really is important to look at skin from a holistic view."
It looks like repairing and preventing stressed-out skin is more of a marathon than a sprint. First things first, step back and look at the root cause. Once you've got your head around that, break it down. Whether it's grief that requires a councillor, an overworked and underpaid job that calls for a discussion with your boss, or asking for help when you're overwhelmed with responsibility, the stress won't cease until you've taken steps to address it. Next, sort your skin. "Implementing an effective routine is invaluable and it doesn’t have to be complicated – less is more!" Andrea insists. "Make sure to wear your SPF to prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and, as tempting as it is, never pick at spots – this is a big one – leave it to us." Life is stressful enough; don't let your skin add to your worries.
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