How does stress affect our skin?

Why caring for your mind is integral to how you care for your skin.

Most of us understand skin care in terms of products, treatments, tools, and perhaps diet… but your mental wellbeing may be the hidden factor that’s making your skin flare up. If you feel like stress is affecting you, and your skin’s acting out in response, read on.

My own personal experience of how skin conditions can trigger stress and affect our mental health was one of the main reasons I became a dermatologist. Later, studying psychology and neuroscience helped me develop my dermatology practice, which prioritises my patients’ mental wellbeing as part of the care I provide.

But, exactly how does stress affect our skin?

This is a topic that’s being explored more and more in dermatology. Interestingly, it was noted in a 1995 study that found caregivers of dementia patients needed 24% longer for their wounds to heal. As our understanding of skin health grows and the world becomes better attuned to the importance of supporting our mental health, we’re learning more.

Here’s what we know.

Why is stress a trigger?

You might have heard that stress can trigger skin issues, but why is this the case? When we’re stressed, our bodies produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline – our ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones – and our skin can respond to these in several ways.

One response is increased inflammation, which is why inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, acne and eczema can flare up when we’re stressed. But raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline can also lead to increased oil production, further triggering conditions like acne, as well as a weakening of the skin’s immune function – which can make it more susceptible to infection. Further research has also shown that increased cortisol inhibits production of hyaluronic acid, which can lead to dehydrated skin and signs of ageing.

What feels so unfair is the ‘vicious cycle’ aspect of all this: we get stressed, our skin reacts, we feel more stressed… it can feel hard to break the loop.

So what steps can we take to try to reduce our stress levels, for the health of our skin as well as our minds and bodies? Well, undoubtedly it’s not a simple fix, and stress is bound to play some part in our lives no matter what we’re going through. But knowing what to prioritise, and having some simple steps in your back pocket to use when you feel like stress or anxiety is overwhelming you, can make a difference…

Prioritise your sleep

We’re seeing a lot more evidence of how much our sleep schedule can impact our health. How much sleep you need can vary for everyone, but getting the right amount is so important for our overall wellbeing, and can play a big part in reducing stress.

Get moving

Overloading your skin with too many products may work against it. If you’re introducing any new Exercise boosts your endorphins, which can help enormously to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. It also improves blood flow, helping to nourish skin cells and flush out free radicals that can lead to signs of ageing.

Practice breathing

When we’re stressed or anxious, our body’s fight-or-flight response can make our breathing become shallow and rapid. Taking a few moments each day to pay attention to your breathing can help you to relax, and lower those cortisol and adrenaline levels.

Take time for your skin care routine

Your skin care routine can be a great opportunity to unwind and destress. Try taking a little longer for yourself; this might be easier for you in the evenings, or even just once or twice a week. Giving yourself a gentle facial massage when applying treatments can also help calm your nervous system and get your mind and body to slow down a bit.

And always remember: if you’re really struggling with your mental health, seeking professional help is one of the best ways you can take control.