What Does Stress Really Do to Your Skin?

Victoria Moorhouse
stress and skin story

Photo: Fabrice Poincelet /ONOKY / Getty Images

There’s no question that stress has a serious impact on our complexions. And whether it’s through a massive zit or dullness, skin problems only add to the tension we’re already experiencing, thus creating an awful cycle: we stress out, then break out, then stress out because we’re breaking out. Talk about unfair.

But it might not be as simple as that: it turns out that different types of stressful situations do different things to our skin. Your complexion may be affected differently by short-term stress (like a big meeting) and long-term stress (tension with a spouse)—and the ways to fix both may be different, too. So don’t stress; we have the definitive guide to what stress does to your skin—and exactly what you can do to fix it.

Short Term Stress
A smashed iPhone screen at the worst possible time, that big presentation you have to give…these situations don’t last long, but they definitely work up worry. So how do these relatively short-lived but anxiety-inducing events show up on our faces? “A ticking deadline may cause skin to look dull and tired, and can cause skin conditions to flare up,” says Dr. Marina Peredo, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Think dryness around the mouth and nose, general dullness, those huge pimples that pop up on our chin. Yuck.

The Fix: First, you’re going to want to try to diffuse whatever is causing the tension—we know this isn’t always easy, so here are a few tricks you can turn to. “Taking breaks throughout the day to breathe and try to relax for 10 minutes to reduce stress is helpful,” says Peredo. “Exercise and movement are also good for stress reduction. Take a walk, do yoga, go to the gym. Anything that reduces the stress level to relax you will be beneficial,” she explains.

If you’re dealing with dullness, she recommends a scrub or a moisturizer. We love ultra hydrating products like Lancome’s Hydra Zen Anti-Stress Moisturizing Cream ($56, lancome-usa.com) for those moments. And if blemishes are the issue, she notes you can treat your skin and unclog pores with a salicylic acid cleanser. If you really want to chill out and improve your skin (talk about killing two birds with one stone), try a sheet mask like Dr. Jart’s Micro Jet Clearing Solution ($9, sephora.com), a facial product infused with tea tree oil and salycylic acid to clear your complexion.

Long Term Stress
An ailing parent, stress with a partner, work tension…these enduring stress issues are not any better for your skin. On top of all the regular regular side effects of stress, Peredo says that longer term stress can negative aging ramifications. “Long term stress causes the slowdown of skin’s natural functions including collagen production,” she says. And collagen is what helps our skin looking youthful and plump. “If a person is undergoing long term stress, a visit to the dermatologist is essential,” she told us. “In order to manage the individual’s skin condition, especially in the case of acne or atopic dermatitis, professional care gives the best results as these conditions are very much exacerbated by long term stress.”

Stress Is Truly Individual
But remember, not everyone’s face responds to stress in the same way, as Peredo explains that it’s truly an individual function. It’s even slightly based on a skin condition you already have like breakouts, eczema, and more. “If your skin is drier, it will actually get drier as the body reacts to stress by delivering vital nutrients to vital organs,” she explains of stress and dryness.

And yes, women have it worse then men. Peredo explains that women tend to be more hormonal then men, and since the adrenaline we give off in stressful situations upsets our hormones, we could see more reflected on our faces.

So what to do? While moisturizing and staying on top of your cleansing routine are essential, taking a step back and attempting to relax may be the biggest prevention in any stress-induced skin flare-up.

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