Could Self-Quarantine Be The Culprit Behind Your Breakouts?

Photographed by Sara Harry Isaacs.
Unprecedented. Unpredictable. Completely chaotic.
An accurate portrayal of our current state of affairs, yes, but not not relevant to my in-quarantine skin situation, too. I’ve shunned my makeup bag entirely, amped up my evening skin-care regimen to include a firming overnight mask, and taken up facial acupressure in my spare time (YouTube is a truly enlightening place) — and still, my face is patchier, drier, and duller than usual.
I'm not the only one wrestling with unpredictable skin in self-isolation: A new Reddit thread in r/SkincareAddiction is dedicated to airing skin grievances from those experiencing a host of afflictions in quarantine. “My skin is getting worse. Red spots, small pimples, bad texture,” one of more than 75 commenters shared. Another user, who said she hasn’t had a zit in six months, is now dealing with an out-of-the-blue breakout. The forum’s list of newfound skin conditions is endless: eczema, ruddy texture, dryness.
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You would think that this forced hiatus from all the skin-damaging evils of the outdoor world (pollution! Sun!) would do our complexions some good. Plus, we ostensibly have more time than ever to take care of our skin. So, what gives? “Things are just off right now — we’re not eating the same or exercising the same. We’re out of our normal routines and all of that can have an influence on our skin,” says Katie Beleznay, MD, a Vancouver-based dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of British Columbia. Though there are myriad non-quarantine reasons why your face might be stressing (hormones, seasonal shifts, etc.), Dr. Beleznay notes that this special combination of abrupt mental, physical, and environmental changes may be to blame.
We asked the pros to decode our sudden skin complaints, all the in-isolation factors at play, and how to get a handle on it inside your own four walls.

If Your Skin Is Breaking Out

20 to 30% of adults deal with acne, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association, but if you’re experiencing unusual or heightened breakouts in self-isolation, it may be time to take a critical look at your skin-care routine — especially if you happen to have put your more thorough cleansing methods on the backburner. Stress, and the ways we cope with it, can also affect skin. When we’re anxious, the body ramps up the production of cortisol, which causes inflammation and can also result in an increase of oil production in the sebaceous glands. Stress-eating your way through this pandemic, while understandable, doesn’t help either. “There’s some data that suggests high glycemic-index foods like sugary carbs as well as dairy, in particular skim milk, can exacerbate acne,” Dr. Beleznay says.
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Julia Carroll, MD, dermatologist at Toronto-based Compass Dermatology, suggests going back to basics: If your skin is on the oily side, cleanse the face twice a day with a formula that contains salicylic acid to help dissolve the grime that clogs up your pores. Follow it with a non-comedogenic hydrating cream containing sunscreen in the morning and one with moisture-boosting hyaluronic acid for the evening. A drying spot treatment might also be helpful, too: Dr Carroll suggests using it on areas that you’re prone to acne even if there’s no visible breakout, so that you’re always working in preventative measures. Finally, be mindful of touching your face (which shouldn’t be hard given the health professionals’ firm suggestion not to do so).

If Your Skin Looks Dull

Where did your glow go? Of course, not being able to book into a flush-inducing spin class probably isn’t helping, but our new temperature-controlled environments without elements like the wind, which can naturally slough away dead skin on a microscopic level, also plays a role, Dr. Carroll explains. Using a mild chemical exfoliant or physical exfoliant one to three times a week can help. (If you're opting for a physical formula, just be sure it's a gentle scrub that won't exacerbate irritation or cause micro-tears in the skin.)
Naissan Wesley, MD, a cosmetic and surgical dermatologist in Los Angeles, says now might be a good time to try out a more intensive skin-brightening treatment, like collagen-generating retinol, hyperpigmentation-nixing vitamin C, or higher-concentration AHAs, if you're not already (and definitely not all at once). All this downtime — and lack of face time, except for those fuzzy Zoom meetings — means you can go through the initial growing pains (irritation and redness, which can last up to a month, depending on the product) without an audience.
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If you’re unsure what products to use, ask your dermatologist what they recommend. While most offices are obviously closed at the moment, many are offering virtual visits to help address needs during this period, Dr. Wesley says. Some health-care apps also have dermatologists on standby to help with skin needs.

If Your Skin Feels More Dry

Hands up if your wine nights have migrated from a weekend-only activity to a way to pass the never-ending time (no judgement). Turns out that happy-hour-starts-whenever attitude is likely playing a part in your ultra-parched skin. “Alcohol is a toxin to the body,” Dr. Carroll says — straight up. Aside from potential hangovers, skin side effects include dehydration (the lack of water, not oil, in skin), but also inflammation (hello, puffiness) and dilated blood vessels.
Besides minding your intake, look for serums and moisturizers that contain antioxidants, which fight free radical damage. Hot, dry environmental conditions might also be to blame for your arid skin, especially since winter weather isn't quite behind us, which necessitates a turned-up thermostat. You might want to consider investing in a humidifier, Dr. Wesley says, to amp up the indoor hydration further.

If Your Skin Is Experiencing Redness

If you aren't normally prone to redness or rosacea, the same worries contributing to that breakout on your forehead could also be causing blotchy skin. “Stress lowers portions of our immune system, which can lead to inflammation and hormone shifts,” Dr. Wesley says. (She also warns that prolonged periods of this kind of inflammation can lead to the degradation of our skin’s collagen supplies — yikes.) But given the daily onslaught of distressing news, chilling out is a lot easier said than done these days. The derms’ best advice? Look for a moisturizer that contains niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, which boasts anti-inflammatory properties and bolsters the skin’s protective barrier.
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And try not to go overboard with the new product pile-on just because every day feels like face-mask Monday: Experimenting with new products without caution can cause its own red, irritated results. Find a product that’s suited to your skin’s needs in the moment (like a clay mask for a breakout) and test it on a small area first, or use for less time than recommended, to be sure your skin can tolerate it.
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