The connection between stress and skin is more than speculation. It’s fact! According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA), stress can significantly influence the health and appearance of your skin.1 From rashes to pimples to scaly patches, stress writes itself onto the skin in a variety of ways. Stress is a normal part of life, but there are steps you can take to keep it from affecting your skin.
The Biology of Stress
The physiological experience of stress, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, indigestion, and acne breakouts is your body’s response to life’s challenges. It’s this response to stress that gives you the extra energy and adrenaline to do anything that your body finds stressful, from fighting through acute danger to meeting tight deadlines. The stress response is deeply ingrained in your biology as a survival mechanism and is an essential part of being human. Unfortunately, the stress response also speeds up cellular aging in skin, which can further ignite additional skin problems. And with an epidemic of chronic stress sweeping the modern world, this stress response has potential to wreak long-term havoc on the health of your body and your skin.1
Stress Response and Your Physiology
The body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls basic body functions, like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. It’s this system that also controls the body’s response to stress, called the “fight-or-flight” response, which is why stress can affect all systems of the body. This stress response was originally intended to provide a survival advantage in times of fleeting, acute dangers, with your body returning back to baseline once that danger passed. Now that humans are exposed to stressors on an unprecedented level, many people inadvertently activate their stress response continuously, which can take a major toll on the body and skin.2
Your Stress Hormones
During the fight-or-flight response, the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys, flood the body with stress hormones, including:3
Stress hormones light up the brain, nerves, muscles, heart, lungs, and blood vessels – powering them all to respond to the danger at hand. These stress hormones raise heart rate, dilate blood vessels, and push energy to the brain and larger muscles. The response is carefully orchestrated and almost instantaneous. Perfect for running away from a lion in the Savannah, but not so suited for modern stressors, like tricky social situations and demanding jobs.4
More than likely, you’ve probably benefited from stress hormones at one time or another. However, the stress response can also adversely impact the body, especially when it is chronically activated. And perhaps the most visible effects of stress can be seen in the body’s largest organ – the skin.
What is stressed skin?
If you’re stressed out, your skin is often the first to show it. One of the most harmful impacts of stress on skin is that it disturbs the skin barrier, the uppermost layer of skin that protects the body from the environment. A healthy and intact skin barrier is critical for healthy skin and a healthy body. When injured or disrupted, as in the case of stress, a compromised barrier can lead to skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, acne, and small wounds.5
Hormones and Stressed Skin
As indicated in an article from the journal Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, stress alters skin’s balance, due to the increased presence of stress hormones. Stress hormones aggravate skin cells, increasing the risk of acne and other conditions. The stress hormone also impacts the immune system and the inflammatory response, leading to chronic inflammation and a higher risk for skin infections. 6
For example, stress hormones, especially cortisol, activate the following changes in skin:
- Increased inflammation
- Impaired wound healing
- More oil and sebum production
- Impaired resistance to infection
Considering the above effects, chronic stress can lead to significant changes in the skin. Additionally, the psychological stress from conditions like anxiety and depression can also affect skin cells. A study of 237 participants published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that stress from conditions like anxiety was linked to multiple skin diseases.7 What Are Signs of Stressed Skin?
1. Increased Inflammation
Chronic stress over-activates the inflammatory response that is caused by increased levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol. Immune cells called mast cells are located near blood vessels and nerves in all the body’s tissues, including the skin. When triggered by stress hormones, these mast cells have a proinflammatory response and promote skin inflammation. Puffy or swollen skin is a sign of a stressed epidermis with activated mast cells.7
2. Impaired Wound Healing
The same mast cells that trigger inflammation in skin also suppress the immune system, making the skin more vulnerable to the effects of pathogens and slowing down the healing process. The production of newer and healthier cells necessary for healing is impaired by chronic stress. Keratinocytes, the most abundant cells within the skin, provide both a structure and an immune function. Unfortunately, stress hormones impede the development of keratinocytes and reduce the skin cell’s immune function – resulting in delayed or impaired wound healing.7
3. Increased Oil and Sebum Production
Stressed skin can become both dehydrated and show an overproduction of oil and sebum. The skin barrier plays a primary role in regulating oil production and keeping skin hydrated. When exposed to stress hormones, the skin barrier experiences a reduction in beneficial skin oils and healing proteins, which leads to reduced skin hydration, changes in pH, and water loss. As a result, dehydrated skin may overcorrect by stimulating oil and sebum overproduction. The end result shows up as irritated, oily skin and acne.1
4. Impaired Resistance to Infection
The skin barrier shields the body from external toxins and pathogens. When the skin barrier is weak and dry– as in the case of stressed skin – this barrier becomes prone to small cracks and tears. These small injuries allow microorganisms the opportunity to enter into the body, which increases the risk for infection. Additionally, stress response hormones suppress the immune system, weakening the body’s ability to combat infections. If you’ve ever wondered “what causes dry flaky skin on your face
?”, it may be worth evaluating your current stress levels to weed out whether your skin is beginning to feel the effects of high stress.7
Stressed Skin and Cellular Aging
The continued presence of stress hormones may also stimulate accelerated cellular aging in skin. Most living cells in your body contain chromosomes, which are tightly packed molecules containing DNA. At the end of each chromosome is a small compound called a telomere, which protects the integrity of the cell’s genetic information. With each cell division, the telomeres shorten, and eventually, once the telomeres are degraded, the cell’s DNA is impacted. According to research, stress is the third leading cause of telomere shortening, behind only aging and genetics. When telomeres within skin cells shorten, the cells remain alive but imperfect. Therefore, the shortened telomeres promote thinning of the middle layer of skin and weakening of connective tissues, resulting in visible signs of aging, such as sagging, fine lines, and wrinkles.8,9
What Does Distressed Skin Look Like?
Stressed skin is acutely affected by the inflammation caused by increased levels of stress hormones. Depending the individual, stress can show up on skin in the following ways:10
- Atopic dermatitis (Eczema)
- Seborrheic dermatitis (Dandruff)
- Dry skin
- Increased oil and sebum production
- Heightened sensitivity
In addition to the direct effects of stress hormones on the skin, stress also influences individual behaviors. For example, stress may cause some people to touch or pick at their face. Furthermore, stress may impact lifestyle habits like sleep, eating, exercising, and grooming – all of which can affect the health of your skin.
Other Ways You Might Stress Your Skin
The following factors may also lead to stressed skin.
- Medical Conditions: Cardiovascular, renal (kidney), and hormonal medical conditions may cause itching, rashes, redness, and other signs of stressed skin.
- Medications and Medical Treatments: Medical interventions like chemotherapy and radiation can significantly impact your skin’s appearance.
- Chemical Irritants from the Environment: Exposure to synthetic fragrances, sulfates, and environmental toxins can result in the signs and symptoms of stressed skin.
- Overuse of Cosmetic Treatments: Although cosmetic treatments can be an effective way to remove dead skin cells on face, excessive exfoliation, use of retinol products, and harsh cosmetic compounds can lead to inflammation, irritation, redness, dryness, or acne flare-ups.
Exposure to ultraviolet light through sunlight is an often overlooked cause of stressed skin. Too much sunlight results in photoaging (sun damage) and inflammation.
How Do You Fix Stressed Skin?
Stress might be an inevitable part of life, but there are ways you can help mitigate its impact on your health and your skin. First and foremost, make a concerted effort to manage your emotional response to stress, as it will help prevent all body systems, including your skin, from experiencing its damaging effects. Some ways to cope with stress include:1
- Implementing a healthy sleep routine
- Obtaining adequate exercise
- Practicing stress-relieving interventions like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga
- Engaging in a healthy hobby you enjoy
- Implementing time management techniques
- Speaking to a counselor to help manage psychological stress
- Limiting your sugar intake ( Stress increases sugar levels, which affects skin health.)
- Avoid smoking, alcohol, and other environmental stressors
- Limit your sun exposure and use sun protection
OneSkin for Stressed Skin
Sometimes, you need a little extra TLC when you feel stressed – and the same goes for your skin! Try using topical skin care products
that focus on your skin’s health and promote a healthy skin barrier. OneSkin’s line of skin longevity products work to counteract the effects of stress on skin. Their proprietary OS-01 peptide helps stressed skin by:
- Fortifying the skin barrier*
- Increasing skin's epidermal thickness*
- Supporting damage repair pathways*
Developed with all skin texture types
in mind, OneSkin’s collection includes OS-01 FACE, OS-01 BODY
, and OS-01 EYE
, which are formulated to help soothe stressed skin leading to healthier and smoother skin.
Are sulfates from traditional cleansers stressing your skin? Try OneSkin PREP
, OneSkin’s daily cleanser that’s gentle enough to use every day. Give your stressed skin the attention it needs with OneSkin. * Shown in lab studies on ex vivo human skin samples (Zonari, et al)
- The stress response releases hormones that directly impact the skin.
- Signs of stressed skin vary from person to person. Some signs of stressed skin are: dryness, acne, redness, inflammation, and sensitivity.
- Stress can lead to increased cellular aging by prematurely shortening telomeres.
- Managing stress and using skin soothing products, such as OneSkin, can help calm stressed skin.