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How Does Stress Affect Skin Health?

How Does Stress Affect Skin Health?

If you’ve been noticing changes to your complexion, stress could be to blame. 

While stress can impact our mental and physical health in countless ways, when left unchecked, it can start to show up in a variety of symptoms on our skin. From triggering breakouts and rashes to worsening existing skin conditions, here’s everything you need to know about the stress-skin connection– and what to do if you think it may be wreaking havoc on your complexion.


The Brain-Skin Axis

When trouble appears at the skin’s surface, the culprit can often be found within. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, “The intricate relationship between stress and skin conditions has been documented since ancient times.” When we experience psychological stress, our bodies produce cortisol and other stress hormones. Over time, these excess hormones can begin to throw our bodily systems out of balance, weakening the immune system and giving rise to inflammation. Imbalances can look like anxiety and depression, aches and pain, or blurry vision, among other things, but they can also appear on our skin. 

Like all organs in our bodies, skin– the largest– relies on the immune system to stay healthy and function properly. But unlike other organs, skin is the only one in contact with the outside world, and more vulnerable to environmental stressors. When met with potential environmental threats (skin stress), like severe temperatures, skin can actually produce stress hormones of its own.     

“Our brain and skin are intimately linked, and they communicate with each other,” says the American Academy of Dermatology. “This means that when we experience chronic stress from work, relationships, or current events, the skin is both a target and a source of stress hormones, which can make the skin more vulnerable to itch, inflammation, irritation, and infection.”  

So when stress levels rise, the ongoing conversation between our brain and skin and its resulting cortisol spikes can open the door for breakouts and other skin issues to enter the scene.  


Skin Stress Signals

Think stress could be causing your skin woes? Here are 10 telltale signs to watch for.

1. Acne. Imbalances caused by stress can lead to acne, both due to hormonal breakouts and a weakened skin immune response– and not just on the face. Gut health is also impacted by stress, which can lead to an imbalance in acne-causing bacteria on the surface of the skin. New or worsening acne, or breakouts that are taking longer than usual to heal, might be your body’s way of waving a stress red flag.

2. Dermatitis. Rashes, redness, dryness, itchiness, bumpiness, and inflammation can all be signs of dermatitis. Hives – raised, itchy bumps– can also appear on the skin as a stress response. Any of these unpleasant signs could be your signal of a deeper stress concern.

3. Burning or itching. Hormone spikes and nervous system fluctuations caused by stress, according to Medical News Today, can cause unpleasant sensations like burning or itching along nerve endings at the skin’s surface. If you’ve noticed yourself scratching or experiencing unusual skin discomfort, your stress levels may be to blame.

4. Flare-ups. Because rising cortisol levels can cause an inflammatory response, both on the skin and elsewhere in the body, you may notice flare-ups or worsening of existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea in times of duress. If your normal treatments and routines are suddenly failing to ease your skin struggles, it could be stress hormones running amok.     

5. Scalp issues. Stress appears to have potential impacts for every system in our bodies,  and every inch of our skin – including the scalp. Hormonal fluctuations can cause excess oil production, leaving hair looking greasy or requiring more frequent washes. But they can also lead to dandruff, redness, and flaking, as oily environments create an excellent ecosystem for the fungus that causes dandruff to flourish. In addition to reaching for soothing, specialized hair products, you may want to consider adding new stress management techniques into your daily routine.

6. Delayed wound healing. Because cortisol impacts the body’s immunity, if you’ve been under chronic stress, you may notice that cuts, scrapes, and bruises are taking longer than usual to heal. In this case, you might also notice you’ve been getting sick more often, or having a hard time recovering from the common cold. If your body’s healing responses aren’t what they used to be, it could be time to reevaluate stress levels.   

7. Hair loss. Alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss, can be triggered or worsened by stress hormones. But increased hair shed, or hair loss in general, can also be the result of stress. According to the Harvard Gazette, “Harvard University researchers have identified the biological mechanism by which chronic stress impairs hair follicle stem cells.” When stress hormones spike, they impact the ability of hair follicle stem cells at the skin’s surface to regenerate frequently enough. If you’re noticing an increase in hair shed, thinning, or experiencing patches of hair loss, stress could be at the root of the problem.

8. Dry or weak skin, hair, and nails. When we’re under stress, our bodies may not properly absorb or utilize nutrients, leading to noticeably weak or brittle skin, nails, and hair. Stress can also cause unconscious nail biting, so if the appearance of your finger tips is beginning to look rough, it may be time to check in with yourself.

9. Accelerated signs of aging. The effects of stress can cause not only scowling and furrowing, which can contribute to fine illness and wrinkles on the face, but a reduction in the proteins like collagen that give skin its elasticity. While supple skin proteins like collagen naturally decrease with age, according to Harvard School of Public Health, stress can speed this process, leading to premature wrinkles, fine lines, discoloration. If life’s troubles are starting to make themselves known on your face, consider a stress management reset.

10. Under-eye bags and dark circles. When the body is under stress, high cortisol levels can lead to an increase in blood flow that may cause both dark circles and puffiness or bags under the eyes. Both may also show up as a symptom of dermatitis or a result of a reduction in collagen, mentioned above. A change in the eye area’s delicate skin could be your body’s way of crying out for help with stress levels.


Get Back in Balance

Stress happens, but shifts in our daily lives and how we manage difficult moments can help to ease the impact of stress on our bodies, minds, and skin.

Get Social. 

When life feels challenging, it can be tempting to isolate. According to Dartmouth, following a stressful event, people are more likely to socialize less for a number of days.  

But, try to resist the urge. Socializing directly combats stress by increasing the presence of hormones that help to lower anxiety levels and increase our ability to cope with stress. 

Try this: Is there a certain friend or colleague who lifts your mood, or leaves you feeling peaceful and energized? Invite them to a standing weekly lunch. Even a handful of nourishing social interactions a month can mean the difference between boosting happiness levels and increasing stress levels. 

Practice Self-Care.

More than a day of pampering or indulgence at the spa, self-care is the practice of tending to your physical, emotional, practical, spiritual, social, and mental wellbeing. And, practicing self-care can help us to develop habits that will serve us well when stress runs high. 

From making sure that our needs are met to carving out time to spend with loved ones or enjoy our favorite hobbies, filling our own cups is paramount to laying a strong personal foundation from which to handle difficult situations or circumstances. 

Try this: If you’ve noticed yourself doom scrolling social media, only to feel low and depleted afterward, schedule a window of time in the evening to go social-media free. Turn off notifications, silence your alerts, and set down the phone. Studies show that regularly detoxing from social media can have enormous impacts on our stress levels and mood, and can even lead to improvements in self-esteem and sleep quality.

Sleep Soundly.

There appears to be a stress-sleep cycle: The quality and amount of sleep we get is not only impacted by the levels of stress we experience, but can also cause us to become more stressed, more easily. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), getting less than eight hours of sleep per night greatly increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of stress like irritability and feeling overwhelmed. And, their research found, the lower stress levels are, the more hours and better quality of sleep is reported. 

Sleep,” says the APA, “is a necessary human function — it allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rest… Sleep is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment and mood.” 

Are you getting enough sleep? The National Institutes of Health recommend between 7 to 9 uninterrupted hours of sleep each night, stating that any less than 7 hours of sleep nightly can put us at greater risk of many health problems, including stress and its related symptoms.

Embrace Mind-Body Practices.

There is a reason that mind-body relaxation techniques have been lauded by many of the world’s cultures for thousands of years: Practices like breathwork, meditation, yoga, and tai-chi invoke a “relaxation response” – the opposite of a stress response– in our bodies.  

According to Harvard Health, It's a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways. With regular practice, you create a well of calm to dip into as the need arises.” 

Try this: The 4-7-8 pranayama breathing technique. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This exercise is a form of  pranayama, the regulation of breathing during certain types of yoga. The 4-7-8 method has been shown to reduce anxiety, support relaxation, and even help people fall asleep more easily.

Prioritize Nutrition. 

Similar to the cycle of stress and sleep, stress and nutrition can impact each other. When we do not eat a diet that fully supports our body’s nutritional needs, we do not have what we need to function properly. Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D and magnesium, have been linked to greater levels of stress and anxiety. And, when we’re under stress, we are more likely to reach for unhealthy foods that, in addition to providing insufficient nutrients, can actually contribute to stress levels, such as fried foods and sugar. 

Try This: Get ahead of your nutritional needs. Work high vitamin D foods like salmon into your diet, or add a fish oil supplement into your routine for extra support. A multivitamin with a full range of nutrients will help to fill gaps in your diet where you may be missing crucial vitamins and minerals, and exploring chronotherapy will help you get the right nutrients at the right time of day to keep your energy up for whatever comes your way. Plus, balancing gut health with a daily probiotic or reaching for fermented foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, can go a long way to helping ensure you’re properly absorbing the nutrients your body needs to properly guard against the effects of stress.

Don’t Skip Your Skin Care.  

When we’re overly stressed, it can be easy to let self-care habits like our skin care regimen slide. But in addition to getting the proper nutrients and rest we need to prevent the symptoms of stress on our skin, the right skin care can also help to calm our skin’s stress response to environmental factors. 

When cortisol levels on our skin spike, the skin’s natural protective barrier becomes depleted, leaving it vulnerable to the inflammation and irritation behind many of the conditions and skin stress signals above. From acne to premature aging, the right skin care routine may help to not only ease stress-related symptoms, but to prevent them altogether. 

Try this: Opt for a cleanser and moisturizer that actively work to balance harmful bacteria on the skin’s surface while strengthening the skin barrier, and avoid harsh scrubs and chemicals, which can cause it to deteriorate and leave skin vulnerable. To help reduce signs of premature aging and return your complexion’s natural glow, give your skin a boost of the collagen protein it’s been missing or add a potent anti-aging supplement into your wellness regimen. You can even try a vitamin K treatment for dark undereye circles if you need a little extra help with healing them.

And of course, if you’re experiencing persistent skin concerns, be sure to consult your doctor to rule out anything potentially serious.


While some stress may be unavoidable, taking stock of how we manage difficult days can help to drastically improve its impacts on our skin, lives, and wellbeing. And, if we know what to look for, our skin can let us know when we’ve been pushing ourselves too hard. 

Deep breaths. How can you show your skin– and yourself– a bit of extra care this week?

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