Last summer, my skin was, dare I say, actually perfect—or the closest to perfection I had ever seen my acne-prone, combination face look. Breakouts were few and far between, my hyperpigmentation was fading, and my cheeks glowed while my T-zone stayed balanced. I had never felt so confident in my skin, as I’ve dealt with breakouts since I was about 11. But all good things must come to an end, apparently, because for the last four months, my skin has done a 180 and is looking the worst I’ve ever seen it. What gives?
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I finally made an appointment with my dermatologist and discovered the culprit: stress. I had no idea the major effects stress could have on my skin. We’ve seen the memes of a president’s hair going from full and dark to thin and grey after eight years in office—my skin was basically that. But it makes sense—after a few months of stressful events in my personal life, the busy season at work, lack of sleep, and pandemic fatigue catching up with me, my skin was crying out for help.
If you think stress could be impacting your skin too, here’s a little bit of background on why so you can make sure to treat it effectively. I asked Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, Miami-based board-certified derm with over 40 years of experience and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare, for her insight (I trust her with my life) on why stress affects your skin so much and what you can do to treat it.
How Stress Affects Your Skin
In the simplest of terms, “increased stress causes the release of more cortisol,” Ciraldo explained. “Our skin has cortisol receptors that then go on to trigger an increase in skin blood vessel dilation, resulting in skin redness and worsening of conditions like rosacea as well as an increase in collagen breakdown leading to the deepening of lines and wrinkles.” Over time, this increase in cortisol can deplete your skin’s natural oils, leading to a compromised moisture barrier that brings a whole host of skin issues along with it.
Stress can cause more than just breakouts. If you suddenly feel like your skin looks much older (fine lines and wrinkles cropping up or deepening, dullness, etc.) or you have a rosacea or eczema flare-up, stress could be the culprit. You likely already know the impact hormones can have on your skin (ahem, breakouts before your period); it’s the same principle.
What is most likely to impair your skin is chronic. Yeah, you might break out before a performance review at work or after a big fight with your significant other, but that stress is situational and your body calms down after a few days. When you’re experiencing continued stress over a long period of time that never feels like it lets up, that’s when you’ll begin to notice a big shift in your skin. Hyperpigmentation lingers, your skin gets really oily or dry, and it just looks overall “blah,” no matter how many face masks and exfoliating treatments you try.
How to Ease the Effects of Stress on Skin
The good thing about treating your skin after a bout of stress is that it’s basically free, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Pinpointing what’s making you stressed is the first line of defense. Is there too much on your plate at work? Are you fighting with a significant other often? Generally, stress comes about from things we cannot control, so instead of trying to “fix” things that don’t have an easy solution, focus on how you cope.
Therapy is a great way to learn and implement coping strategies to help you better deal with stress and process the negative emotions that might be leading to it. You can find distracting strategies that challenge your mind to think about other things than what’s making you anxious, like calling a friend, cleaning your room, reading a book, or taking a nap (don’t have to tell me twice).
When your skin is flaring up from stress, avoid getting even more stressed worrying about your skin. Ciraldo recommended staying away from pore-magnifying mirrors (those really are evil, aren’t they?) that make you look way worse than you ever could. Swipe on some moisturizer and your favorite concealer and call it a day.
Start slow with skincare
But while you’re waiting for all that me-time to magically make you feel more relaxed, you can employ the help of a little skincare. “The best approach to lessen the effects of stress on your skin is to determine what visible effect the increased stress is having on your skin and to address the unwanted changes with appropriate skincare,” Ciraldo said.
In her dermatology practice, Ciraldo explained she’s had a number of patients come in after a divorce, losing a loved one, traumatic life events, school finals, and more who are experiencing accelerated aging or breakouts. “The most successful approach is to address these issues in a more skin-friendly, less aggressive approach, whether they are aging changes or acne.” Because stress can weaken your moisture barrier, you’ll want to forgo exfoliating treatments and harsh products while you get your skin back on track.
“It may be that you have been so stressed out that you are getting more aggressive with your use of exfoliants or retinoids to try to look better faster, but stress can also make our skin more sensitive, so it is important to dial down on aggressive products, either in the frequency of application or the concentration of the product,” Ciraldo suggested. Cool with the at-home peels and drying face masks for the time being and focus on strengthening your moisture barrier with simple, hydrating products.
When you are ready to bring treatments back into your regimen, Ciraldo recommended following the product’s directions to a T (meaning if it says only leave on for three minutes, don’t sit in a bathrobe for 20!). If you experience stinging, itchiness, or redness, dial down your use to only once or twice a week.
Follow your skincare routine
Be sure to try to have a good morning and nighttime skincare routine if you don’t already have one. “Skincare cannot work unless you apply the products on your skin,” Ciraldo said. Make sure that you have a standard morning and evening skincare routine and that you’re following it. Stress can often make us too tired to wash our faces before bed or too busy in the mornings to do a big routine, which is why it’s so important to develop a routine that you can stick to and feel excited about. A routine with too many steps will feel like a chore, so make sure your routine is realistic.
Your routine should also make you excited. Fill it with products that you enjoy using. Sometimes, a splurgy skincare product is more about the experience than if it’s actually any better than a drugstore alternative. But there are also tons of affordable skincare out there that get us giddy to take off our makeup at night too. Regardless, your skincare routine should spark joy. “Try to think of your regimens as your ‘me time’ and as something positive you are taking the time to do for yourself.”
Increase your sleep
Getting an adequate amount of sleep is imperative for both healing chronic stress and your skin. Ciraldo recommended getting at least seven hours a night, but you know your body the best. If you require six hours, try to get that six hours; if you can only function with a pot of coffee in hand on less than eight hours a night, you know what to do.