Are you experiencing persistent skin issues despite all the fancy skincare? It might just be time to start managing your stress. Science shows that stress affects the skin by either manifesting or exacerbating a skin condition. Why and what you can do about it?

When Does Stress Get Under the Skin?

It is worth mentioning that stress isn’t altogether hazardous. It is just a natural response of your body in the presence of a threat. To deal with the threat, your body prepares itself in the form of a fight/flight response and carries out a plethora of activities: physiological, and biological responses to adapt the body to stress.

When stress subsides, your body returns to its normal functioning. However, when stress persists for a long time, your body is also stuck in an abnormal, prolonged fight-or-flight state. This, in turn, initiates or exacerbates a variety of diseases. 

Being under an actual stressful situation is one thing, but there is also “perceived stress,” or when one perceives that the threat of external demands exceeds one’s adaptive capacity. And the perceived danger is usually more than what the actual situation holds. It significantly affects social, emotional and physical, and psychological well-being. 

Many skin issues have their roots in the psyche. Hence, there is a growing field of psychodermatology to address the impact of stress on the skin. 

How Stress Can Affect the Skin?

There are different levels of mind-skin connection. A lot of nerve endings are connected to the skin. This means that when your emotions manifest in the brain, your skin plays into them too. 

Under stress, the body produces cortisol which serves an important part in stress response. However, it isn’t very good for the skin. The skin barrier has a crucial role in the body including maintaining body integrity and keeping allergens, chemicals, and microbes from penetrating the skin. Cortisol affects the barrier compromising its function. As a result, skin becomes dull, and loses moisture, resulting in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Cortisol also causes the skin to heal more slowly as stress has been known to delay wound healing. Moreover, it increases the production of sebaceous glands causing clogged pores, pimples, and spots. 

Stress and skin diseases have a reciprocal relationship. No doubt, persistent skin conditions are a cause of distress and low confidence. On the other hand, long-term stress can manifest different skin conditions, and exacerbate existing ones. 

Heightened stress levels can cause an itchy rash on the hands, alopecia, scaly skin, flaky, waxy, oily patches on the scalp, trichotillomania (pulling hair out), onychophagia (fingernail biting), alopecia (hair loss), pruritus (itching), and hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating).

Stress induction can enhance itch severity. If someone has inflammatory skin diseases such as atopic eczema and psoriasis (bumpy red patches on the skin), stress can exacerbate it. Moreover, acne also flares up in the presence of stress and anxiety.

Some skin conditions also occur as a result of psychiatric conditions such as compulsive disorders (trichotillomania), or factitious disorders manifesting as dermatitis artefacta in which the individual creates lesions in nails, hair, and skin to achieve secondary gains. Chronic stress can cause prolonged emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses that contribute to the onset or exacerbation of diseases. One approach is that high levels of stress can cause maladaptive behaviors such as more scratching responses.

This makes the chronic skin condition worse, as in the case of compulsive disorders.

Does Stress Make Your Skin Darker?

Under stress, your body’s preferences in terms of activities changes, and skin is not a priority at that time. So, yes stress makes your skin look darker. Stress limits blood supply to the skin. Less blood supply means less oxygen, nourishment, and lower production of regeneration cells. This leads to pigmentation and uneven skin tone. 

Moreover, people neglect their skin under stress. And as mentioned earlier, maladaptive behaviors such as scratching and rubbing the skin cause inflammation in the skin. Inflammation activates melanocytes, in addition to other cells, leading to dark skin tone and pigmentation. At times, healing of the skin can also reverse pigmentation and uneven skin color. 

Another factor that affects skin color is unhealthy eating choices during stress. What you eat affects your skin. Unhealthy junk food, or food high in fats, calories, and sugar affects digestion, and hormonal balance causing acne, and darkening of the skin.

Effects of Stress On the Face

Stress affects your face in more ways than you can imagine. Though aging is a time-dependent process, stress can accelerate it. Skin aging is characterized by increased pigmentation, wrinkles and lines formation, dull skin, and loss of elasticity and firmness. Stress can cause oxidative stress which is a significant causal factor of skin aging. 

Simply put, under stress, the body produces free radicals that act like missiles. They destroy the cells they target. Keeping in mind the skin, targets can be collagen and elastin, DNA, or lipids. All this damage shows up on the face in the form of dehydration, skin barrier damage, fine lines and wrinkles, acne, and other above-mentioned skin conditions. 

Concerned about bags under the eyes? Again, stress can be the reason. As skin loses its elasticity, it begins to sag, contributing to eye bags. 

Hair turning grey due to stress is no longer a myth, either. Due to stress, melanocyte-generating stem cells deplete resulting in hair greying. Hair becomes drier and oilier. Other possible hair issues due to stress include hair loss and scalp issues such as dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis (psoriasis on the scalp).

Another way stress affects your face is through the weakening of the immune system. A weak immune system makes you vulnerable to autoimmune diseases such as adrenergic urticaria or a form of hives in which itchy, red, raised bumps appear on the face or other areas of the body. 

How Do I De-Stress My Skin?

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned factors behind skin issues due to stress, you may now know exactly what to address. 

For instance, when your body is chronically exposed to cortisol, it will hinder the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid. And no high-end collagen creams and hyaluronic serums will work until you manage your stress. 

The following are some ways to de-stress your skin:

  1. To repair the damage done by stress, a gentle skin-care routine may help. For instance, remove salicylic acid, glycolic acid, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide from your skin-care routine as these are barrier-degrading ingredients. Stressed skin may already be irritated. In this case, avoid leave-on products that have essential oils in them as they can further irritate the skin. Instead, add ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids, and glycolipids to your routine to help boost your skin barrier. 
  2. As stress and skin diseases are connected, there is a more integrated approach to the treatment of stress and associated skin conditions. If psychiatric conditions such as depression or anxiety are causing skin issues, seek help for these conditions as well. Cognitive Behavioral Therapies and relaxation techniques may help. 
  3. Treatments such as cognitive imagery, and biofeedback relaxation are effective. The relaxation techniques decrease cortisol and inflammation. Meditation and deep breathing are easy and effective ways to reduce stress. Just three minutes a day to start with can work wonders. 
  4. Stress causes sleep deprivation affecting the appearance of the skin in the form of wrinkles, and dark circles, hindering the function of the skin barrier. To de-stress your skin, ensure eight to 9 hours of sleep at night.
  5. What you eat will influence the health of your skin. Therefore, include healthy ingredients in your diet such as vegetables, fruits, whole foods, and plenty of water. 
  6. Exercise daily. Yoga, stretching, or other forms of physical activity reduces cortisol. These enhance the production of endorphins that not only serve as painkillers but also enhance mood and reduce stress. You can practice face yoga or give yourself a facial massage to improve the elasticity and tone of your skin. It further eases tension, strengthens facial muscles, and improves mental health. 
  7. Include healthy activities and hobbies into your regular routine to de-stress yourself. 
  8. Last but not least, change your perspective. Identify the triggers, and reduce negative thinking by replacing them with positive and rational thoughts. Be compassionate to yourself and practice gratitude. 

You can’t prevent stress altogether but you can learn ways to manage it. Find out what works for you. And if you still struggle, don’t hesitate to ask for help. 


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Javairia Noureen is a clinical psychologist and health writer.

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