What Stress Does To Your Skin

Wendy Rodewald
Stress and your skin: is there a connection?

Photo: Getty Images

If you’ve ever gotten a breakout or a rash during a particularly stressful time in your life, then you probably realize that stress isn’t just internal — it can show up on your skin, too. But how does the state of your mind end up affecting the state of your skin, and what’s the best way to stop stress-related skin issues? For answers, we consulted Dr. Josie Howard, Simple Psychiatrist, who specializes in psychodermatology, an area of medicine that focuses on the relationship between stress, emotional well-being and skin health. Some of her answers may surprise you.

How does stress show up on the skin?

Stress and emotional turmoil can show up in the skin in a variety of ways. Signs include everything from brittle and ridging nails to hair loss, hives, and breakouts, as well as worsening other topical skin conditions – such as eczema and psoriasis.  It’s also important to remember that skin problems in themselves can increase ones stress so there’s a bidirectional feedback loop that exists between the mind and the skin.

What’s the best way to tell if your skin issues are stress-related, or caused by other factors?

While this may be difficult to pinpoint, the skin and mind are intimately connected from even before birth as they have a common embryonic origin. (Between weeks three to eight after conception, the same cell layer called the ectoderm gives rise to both the skin and nervous system).

Given this connection, we know that the most effective approach is a holistic one – that incorporates both a dermatologic solutions with emotional support, stress reduction, and a generally healthy lifestyle consisting of a whole foods diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise.

A good starting point is to simply begin to take note of how your body reacts in different settings. Take note of any tension or discomfort you may have, like headaches, a sore neck or back, or itchy, dry, or sensitive skin. These symptoms can be a clue that your body is responding to your life stressors, emotional upset, and/or lack of attention to self-care (i.e., diet, exercise, sleep).

Maintaining a consistent skincare routine is a part of the holistic approach as well, and cleansing your skin morning and evening is the first step.

How long does it take for stress to have an effect on the skin? If I have a stressful day, will I break out tomorrow?

This depends on both the individual as well as the condition and exists across a fairly wide range.  Responses can be almost immediate – a matter of seconds – with things like excessive perspiration to acne flares which may take several days before the development of tender red papules to hair loss which can take 2-3 weeks to become apparent.  Other effects may be more subtle, such as impairing the skin’s moisture barrier or slowing skin’s healing which can make the skin more sensitive and more reactive.

What types of treatments do you recommend for patients dealing with stress-related skin issues?

In my view, there is a stress component to virtually all skin issues – either as a cause, a contributing factor, or a consequence of the skin condition.  The first step is literally to simply start noticing – what are the major stressors in your life and how do you react to them?  What are your current coping mechanisms that are working – this could be in the form of speaking with a therapist or a trusted friend, participating in a support group, or even keeping a journal.

Practicing relaxation and mindfulness can be a great stress -beauty tonic.  There are many resources to help with this – from yoga classes to recordings of guided visualization, progressive relaxation, and breathing exercises.  Keeping a consistent sleep routine is also essential for your brain and skin to function optimally.  Ideally it is helpful to aim for a consistent sleep schedule (i.e.,  get up and go to bed at the same time every – yes every! – night). Also, it’s imperative to remove all technology from your bedroom. Cell phones, tablets, and laptops can stimulate the brain, so you should avoid using these for at least one hour before bed.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, a holistic approach that incorporates both dermatologic and psychological treatment is the best treatment for stress related skin issues.  I refer patients to a dermatologist if they have not yet been evaluated by one.  Additionally, it is essential that readers understand that if their emotional state is of a more serious nature, they should consult a psychiatrist or other mental health professional to evaluate whether other treatments such as psychotherapy or medications might be indicated.

Skincare products to treat stress' effects on the skin

Try These Stress-Reducing Products

With stress such a common affliction in our world of overscheduled calendars and overflowing inboxes, skincare companies are targeting products to treat both the effects of stress and its causes.

Kiehl’s Skin Rescuer ($40, kiehls.com) is designed to minimize the dryness and blotchiness that stress can cause. Chamomile and rose gallica botanical extract soothe skin while mannose acts as a barrier to shield skin and promote recovery. The light formula made our skin unbelievably soft.

Dr. Howard recommends using Simple Foaming Cleanser ($7.49, drugstore.com) morning and night as the first step in sticking to a consistent skincare routine. The gentle foaming formula “removes impurities and remaining traces of make-up to leave skin refreshed and moisturized,” she says. (Additionally, the online diagnostic tool Simple Sense can help you assess diet, exercise, lifestyle and stress levels to determine a customized routine.)

Aveda Stress-Fix Body Lotion ($28, nordstrom.com) hydrates skin with an aromatherapeutic formula, scented with stress-relieving lavender, lavandin and clary sage. Use it before bed, since the scent of lavender aids relaxation.

Read more: How To De-Stress With A DIY Facial