In Ask a Dermatologist, Medical Dermatology, Skin Care

Stress from difficult projects, frustrating relationships and the busyness of life affects your mind, your body and your skin. While stress is a normal part of life, the weight of carrying stress manifests itself through physical symptoms. Stress affects your skin health by increasing oil production, acne, inflammation, itchy skin and dryness. 

In this article, our dermatologists discuss how stress affects your skin and ways to help decrease the stress response that can impact your skin. 

The connection between your brain and your skin 

The brain and the skin have a close connection. Your skin is your body’s largest organ and your body’s first line of defense. So, when you become stressed, your brain responds by triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response via a series of glands. This process increases the production of a hormone called cortisol. 

Cortisol regulates your blood pressure, blood sugar, wake-sleep cycle and also your body’s response to stress. When stress on your body boosts cortisol production, it stimulates a surge in oil production from the sebaceous glands. This increased oil can clog pores and cause acne and breakouts. Cortisol also binds itself to cells where it can speed up the loss of collagen and elastin in the skin. 

Cortisol also sends signals to your body’s mast cells, immune cells that protect the body from pathogens. Mast cells activate the allergy response in the body causing various skin conditions, especially those with itchy reactions. 

Your brain’s reaction to stressful triggers also generates cytokines. Cytokines are molecular messengers between cells that can cause inflammation in the top layer of your skin. This layer protects you from harmful microbes, UV rays and pollution, and it locks moisture in your skin. Increased cytokines can make your skin dry, red, irritated and more sensitive.

Stress-related skin issues

Psychological factors or environmental factors can cause stress. Stress negatively affects your skin by causing acne, dry skin, wrinkles, rashes and inflammation, thinner skin and slower healing. The effects of stress can even trigger or worsen skin diseases.

Some of the ways stress shows on the skin include:

Acne and breakouts

The development of acne and breakouts is one of the most noticeable ways that stress affects your skin. After cortisol prompts the sebaceous glands to produce more oil, dead skin cells can become trapped, clog pores and cause pimples. An American Academy of Dermatology study found a strong correlation between increased stress and increased acne severity in women. 

Dry skin

The release of cortisol and other hormones when you are stressed can cause your skin’s barrier to weaken and dry out faster. Your skin also loses its ability to retain moisture, resulting in dryer skin.


People who undergo chronic stress seem to age faster. When stress hormones like cortisol remain high for a long time, they break down the skin’s collagen and elastin. They also prevent your skin from repairing itself. 

This causes your skin to thin out, take a long time to repair wounds, lose firmness and elasticity and form fine lines and wrinkles. 

Rashes, skin inflammation and skin disease

Stress inflames the body and can trigger the onset of skin disease or worsen it. From psoriasis, eczema and rosacea to hives, rashes and cold sores, these all can worsen because of stress. 

Stress has also been linked to hyperpigmentation, or changes in skin color, and changes in texture over time. 

Stress management for healthier skin

While no one will ever be able to completely prevent stress, strategies for stress management can help strengthen your body, mind and skin.

When people feel stressed, they often neglect their bodies and make unhealthy choices. This makes skin issues worse. Try to gradually incorporate these tips into your life to manage stress and keep your skin looking and feeling better:

1. Develop a skincare routine. This is an easy first step to managing stress and taking care of your skin. Every day, wash your face in the morning and evening with warm water and a gentle cleanser. After washing your face in the morning, apply moisturizer and sunscreen to protect your skin from UV rays. 

2. Develop healthy habits to cope with your stress, like building exercise into your week. Exercise decreases stress levels, improves mood, fosters better sleep, and can improve the skin, too.

3. Get outdoors and absorb vitamin D naturally from the sun for a few minutes every day. Most Americans, especially women, are deficient in vitamin D, which we naturally absorb through our skin from sunshine. Vitamin D is a mood-booster, too!

4. Improve your eating habits by choosing more fruits and vegetables over carbs and fatty foods. Avoid fried, fatty and sugary foods, as they can cause skin inflammation. Instead, eat a healthy diet of foods high in vitamins and antioxidants for healthy skin. Also, remember to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated to keep skin moisturized and more elastic. 

5. Schedule time to relax and practice deep breathing, even if just for a few minutes a day. Deep breathing decreases stress levels and improves oxygen transmission around the body.  

6. Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Teens and children need more sleep. Lack of sleep can cause premature aging, wrinkles, decreased mental sharpness and can cause emotions to flare faster. Your body heals and rejuvenates while you sleep, so getting enough sleep supports healthy skin. 

7. Talk with someone if you’re feeling stressed. A trusted friend, family member or counselor can help you cope with stress. Obtaining the tools you need to deal with your stress is wise.  

Get help with skin issues caused by stress

Columbia Skin Clinic’s specially-trained dermatologists recognize and treat skin issues caused by stress. They will develop a personalized plan to help your skin heal and return to radiance. Trust your dermatological needs to our highly-rated team. Contact our offices today to schedule an appointment.

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