8 Ways Your Skin Reflects Your Stress — and How to Calm It

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Stress can present itself through skin conditions like acne, inflammation, and more. How can you tell it’s from stress?

Your skin is your body’s largest organ. External issues can be a telltale sign that not all is well underneath.

While bottled serums and sheet masks possess a certain level of aesthetic and soothing allure, a solid skin care routine may not be enough to provide calm for your body’s complex systems.

Fact

Stress makes your skin care routine harder.

The increased jump in cortisol can jumble up the messages your nerves decide to send, causing anything from an outbreak of hives to fine lines.

While this correlationTrusted Source between stress and skin has been known since ancient times, formal studies revealing the deeper connection only date back to the last two decades.

And yes, your diet or skin care products can cause skin concerns, but it’s also important to consider stress as a potential culprit — especially if a rash appears out of nowhere or persists long after you’ve tested for everything.

We’ve outlined eight proven ways that mental, physical, and hormonal stress changes your skin. But more importantly, we also tell you what you can do about it.

1. Sun stress and exhausted skin defenses

Even before looking internally, there’s one beaming factor that can physically stress out your skin and weaken its defenses: ultraviolet (UV) radiation. A carcinogenic (cancer-causing) component of sun exposure, it can have a negative effectTrusted Source on the skin.

Whether in the form of natural sunlight or more artificial means such as tanning beds, ultraviolet rays signal blood cells to rush to the exposed area in an attempt to repair it. This manifests as sunburns.

Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation may lead to darkened blemishes, moles, and even skin cancer. The best way to combat UV rays and sun stress is by applying sunscreen every morning.

On top of sunscreens, you can also oppose sun damage from the inside out. ResearchTrusted Source has linked certain nutrients to the ability to boost your skin’s natural sun protection.

Limonene, a chemical derived from citrus peels, has been studied for use in cancer prevention medicines. Eating citrus peel might alsoTrusted Source provide sun protection.

Fruits high in antioxidants and vitamin C (like strawberries and pomegranates) have the abilityTrusted Source to protect your cells from the free radical damage caused by sun exposure.

It’s important to remember that eating these foods does not replace wearing sunscreen. You should still wear sunscreen in addition to considering eating foods high in limonene, vitamin C, and other antioxidants.

2. Inflammation and extra-irritated skin

Hivespsoriasiseczemadermatitis, and rosacea are often a result of inflammation, but studies also show that when your brain is on overdrive, it can actually compromiseTrusted Source your skin’s protective abilities.

In other words, stress makes it harder for your skin to regulate and stay balanced. It’s no wonder you might have an extra breakout during a sleepless week or after an intense argument.

Inflammation can also cause acne. But remember, some skin conditions like rosacea can look like acne, too. It’s important to note the difference before treating the conditions, including whether your irritation is a result of stress, allergies, or a harmful product.

Fighting stress inflammation begins with eliminating the cause. Finding out the exact reason behind your stress might be difficult or impossible, but there are still ways to tame the fires with food, exercise, or therapy.

Stress elimination

  • Practice long-term stress management, such as meditation or yoga.
  • Avoid processed or artificial foods and sweeteners.
  • Choose fruit over artificial sweeteners, olive oil instead of margarine, and fish rather than red meat.
  • Drink a homemade stress tonic to build up your body’s defenses.

3. Increased oil production and acne

Whether it’s the impending dread of finals week or spontaneous heartbreak, we’ve all likely suffered at the hands of a stubborn pimple (or two).

Stress is highly associated with acne, especially for women. It can mix up our skin’s nerve signals, causing imbalanced hormones and chemicals that increaseTrusted Source oil production.

While it’s nearly impossible to remove stress from the equation entirely, there are ways to overcome it. Keep 5- and 10-minute stress-relief tricks handy, and try longer stress-management techniques, like exercise, to increase your body’s abilities to adapt.

And most acne reacts to topical treatments, too. The secret ingredient in our most beloved anti-acne products is often a beta-hydroxy acid known as salicylic acid.

This oil-soluble chemical penetrates pores extremely well for unclogging and cleaning, but this doesn’t mean that it’s exempt from its own set of cons. Too much or too strong salicylic acid can dry out and even irritate your skin.

So with careful application in mind, nightly spot treatments are helpful for targeting troubled areas without harming the skin in the surrounding areas.

4. Waxy scalp, hair loss, and peeling nails

There’s no one way to experience stress. Have you ever unconsciously pulled your hair, bitten your fingernails, or picked at both? That could be the stress hormone, cortisol, triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response.

Before you assume it’s stress, though, you might want to check in with a dermatologist and doctor to rule out other potential issues. For example, scaly or waxy skin could be eczema. Or hair loss or peeling nails could be due to insufficient nutrition from skipping meals.

In the time being, avoid extremely hot showers to prevent further damaging your skin and scalp. Bring more consistency to your day by aiming to exercise regularly and eating a nutrient-dense diet of fruits and vegetables.

5. Thinner, more sensitive skin

The skin might get thinner in cases of abnormally high cortisol levels. Cortisol results in the breakdown of dermal proteins, which can causeTrusted Source the skin to appear almost paper-thin, as well as bruising and tearing easily.

However, this symptom is most noticeably associated with Cushing syndrome. Also known as hypercortisolism, this hormonal disease includes additional symptoms such as glucose intolerance, muscle weakness, and a weakened immune system (you may experience increased infections).

If you think that you may have Cushing syndrome, make an appointment with a healthcare professional. In most cases, medication can be prescribed for the management of cortisol levels.

6. Delayed natural wound healing

In the face of severe stress, your epidermis can quickly become weakened, increasing your risk for infections and environmental pathogens. This also slows down your skin’s natural ability to heal wounds, scars, and acne.

To repair your skin barrier, you can use products with glycerin and hyaluronic acid.

The same remedies you use to combat sun exposure apply here, too. Consume antioxidant-rich food for a similar effect and strengthened internal healing.

In addition to keeping skin hydrated internally (through water consumption), focus on using products based on zinc, sal (Shorea robusta), and flaxseed oil. These ingredients are shownTrusted Source to your keep your skin moisturized and provide a packed healing punch for wound healing.

7. Exhausted eyes and orbital skin

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a comment regarding the undeniable dark circles around your eyes, then you know just how much sleep deprivation reveals itself physically. And yep, that’s stress, too.

Our bodies keep adrenaline running on a constant cycle while in fight-or-flight mode, including late at night.

If you’re already trying meditation and yoga for sleep, ramp up your bedtime routine by using essential oil diffusers, turning on white noise machines, and avoiding screens in the 2-hour time span before sleep.

For sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, CBD oil and melatonin pills may act as more reliable remedies.

8. Fine lines and wrinkles

From the furrow of a brow to a frown, psychological stress inevitably finds a way to make permanent evidence of our emotions.

So what’s one to do about it? You can try face yoga. Arguably safer than Botox, face yoga can lead to similar results, although the commitment to doing this every day might a hard to do.

By targeting the facial muscles we subconsciously use every day, through pointed massage techniques in high-tension areas such as our foreheads, brows, and jawline, these exercises can counteract developing wrinkles and leave skin flexible and resilient.

For additional assistance, applying facial pressure with a chilled jade roller activates the lymphatic system, which can also reduce puffiness and the appearance of stress damage on the skin.

Stop the stress cycle

Stress does not manifest the same in every person, but every person ultimately experiences stress to some extent. Instead of comparing stress levels with others to gauge whether your stress is “all that bad,” choose to care for yourself when you need it.

While we can’t control the myriad ways stress rears its head, we can control how we choose to react to it. Remembering to care for ourselves and for our skin is one of the small ways we can slowly but surely reduce stress.

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