How Does Stress Cause Acne?

Medically Reviewed on 7/9/2021

Excessive amounts of sudden and prolonged stress may cause changes in the brain and body chemistry. Stress increases the risk of acne by drying out the skin, ramping up oil production and increasing levels of stress hormones which ages the skin.
Excessive amounts of sudden and prolonged stress may cause changes in the brain and body chemistry. Stress increases the risk of acne by drying out the skin, ramping up oil production and increasing levels of stress hormones which ages the skin.

Excessive amounts of sudden and prolonged stress may cause changes in the brain and body chemistry; acne may be one of the results of such stressful situations.

Stress makes the skin age faster

  • Severe stress can make you look older than you are. You may feel that your skin is drier or you may be seeing more fine lines, wrinkles and have a generally dull appearance. This happens because of the decrease in collagen and hyaluronic acid synthesis in the skin. These changes may occur due to elevations in cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which goes into overdrive after long or excessive bouts of stress.
  • Stress can also accelerate the aging process of the skin by increasing the formation of harmful chemical species called free radicals.
  • Abandoning healthy habits when under stress, such as working longer hours, disruptions in sleep patterns, not following a healthy and balanced diet, consuming too much caffeine and alcohol or smoking can give you dark or puffy areas under the eyes, causing you to have a tired appearance. Skin affected by acne also loses its former shine and looks pale and dull.

Stress dries the skin out

  • As your body enters fight or flight mode while under stress, levels of cortisol and adrenaline hormones increase in the body.
  • With the increase in adrenaline, the sweat glands are stimulated and more sweating occurs.
  • Too much water loss in a short time causes the body to become dehydrated. If you do not consume enough water, your skin can dry out from the inside.
  • Cortisol also disrupts the synthesis of hyaluronic acid (a naturally occurring chemical in the body that helps retain water to keep tissues well lubricated), resulting in dry skin.
  • On particularly stressful days, you may be more inclined to skip self-care and forgo the moisturizer, which can compromise the skin barrier and impede the skin's natural exfoliation cycle. This can lead to a flare-up of acne in sensitive skin.

Stress ramps up oil production

  • On the contrary, stress can also make skin oilier and greasier, leading to clogged pores and acne. This happens when large amounts of cortisol are released into the bloodstream due to stress, alerting the body to secrete more oil from the sebaceous glands.
  • Although this is more common in people with oily or combination skin, other skin types may also notice more oiliness.
  • Stress may cause a delay in wound healing, which happens because stress hormones disrupt the skin's self-repair process.

Researchers found that stress can trigger a variety of chemical responses within the body, which may cause breakouts. Then, if you nervously pick at your skin when you are under a lot of stress, you could exacerbate the problem because this may cause infection and scarring.

How can I stop stress-induced acne?

American Academy of Dermatology recommends addressing the problem head-on by identifying sources of stress and taking some steps to minimize their effects. These can help eliminate stress-induced acne breakouts.

  • For some people, building some “quiet time” into their daily schedules can help rein in stress.
  • Examples may include taking a walk around the block, meditating, listening to soothing music or engaging in other similar activities that allow you to take a break from stressful triggers and focus on yourself, even if only for a few minutes each day.

Along with stress management, you may also try the following methods:

  • Cleanse and exfoliate your skin. This can sweep away any dirt, oil, makeup and other debris that may be trapped inside your pores and contribute to your breakouts.
  • The most common active ingredients used to treat acne are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, but you may want to discuss your options with your dermatologist before adding an acne treatment to your daily routine.
  • In some cases, professional laser treatment may be the most effective solution to acne and acne scars. Laser treatments can also be highly effective at minimizing or eliminating the appearance of acne scars, sunspots and other blemishes.

Studies show that 30 percent of dermatology cases originate from a psychological problem. To make matters worse, this creates a vicious cycle. The more stressed you are, the worse the skin condition gets. This makes skin look and feel worse. It makes you feel worse, adding to existing stress. Learn to recognize the underlying problem that is triggering your symptoms and develop skills to minimize the stress. Exercise helps release endorphins in the body that can reduce stress. Avoid extremely hot showers or baths and use detergent-free soaps. Moisturize as soon as possible after bathing. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher daily to protect your skin from sun exposure. Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and keep yourself hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day.

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Medically Reviewed on 7/9/2021
References
Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica: "The Impact of Pyschological Stress on Acne." https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/85119286.pdf

WebMD: "Stress and Acne." https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/stress-and-acne

American Academy of Dermatology: "Adult Acne." https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/really-acne/adult-acne