The Sad Truth About How Stress Really Impacts 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 active social life can end up draining your immune system, and certain external factors, like reading the news, 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. I learned firsthand when, after a few weeks of existing on coffee and junk food, barely moving aside from 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 grayish tone washed over me, my under-eyes were puffy, and I broke out like all my periods for the next year had come at once. It was not pretty. Wanting to know more about the impact our stressful lifestyles have on our complexions, I asked some skin-care experts for the lowdown.
"As we all have unique and changeable skin, stress-induced symptoms can manifest differently in everyone," Andrea Pfeffer, founder of facial spa PfefferSal, explains. "This can include acne flare-ups, rashes, inflammation (especially for those with psoriasis and eczema), excessive dryness, and rosacea." And it doesn't stop there: Elemis co-founder Noella Gabriel explains that it can extend to increased sensitivity, dry, chapped lips, and a "depleted, dusty, chalk-like complexion" that, as you can probably imagine, does not make a great base for makeup.
While tired eyes and dry skin are somewhat manageable, a major breakout before a big event is never welcome. "Breakouts on and around the chin and jawline area are mainly down to your hormones," Pfeffer 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. It also destroys collagen, weakening the skin and leaving it more susceptible to uneven textures and pimples."
So now that we're all familiar with the signs of a body that could use some TLC, what's the solution? Why does no amount of concealer or moisturizer — or even just sticking to our usual routine — seem to help? The short answer: Even if your body is a temple and you feed it with all the quality products your bank balance can handle, if you're stressed, it simply can't do its job as well as it should.
"Once we struggle with managing our stress levels, adrenaline becomes like a loose cannon and keeps the body moving at a very fast pace," Gabriel says. "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" — that would be 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 skin that makes us stressed out, too. 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," says Pfeffer. "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."
Perhaps repairing and preventing stressed-out skin is more a slow and steady marathon than a quick-fix sprint. The first step is to step back and look at the root cause, and once you've got your head around that, you'll be better equipped to break it down. The stress won't end unless you take steps to address it, so do that first — then you can sort out your skin. Life is stressful enough; don't let your skin add to your worries.
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