the impact of stress on the skin

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the impact of stress on the skin

Biologically, stress is the body’s way of responding to a demand or threat. In today’s society, we never really seem to slow down (unless there’s a global pandemic which forces us to!), meaning our bodies are constantly experiencing prolonged, chronic periods of stress.

A little bit of stress is good. It can be the reason you managed to get the kids out of bed, dressed, fed, to school and you’re sitting at your desk by 9am. However, it’s when our body is in that constant state of stress that things can turn sour.
But how does the stress we feel come to manifest in the skin? We are only beginning to understand the relationship between stress and the skin. Psychodermatology is a relatively new field that addresses the impact of an individual’s emotion as it relates to the skin.
When we are stressed, our fight-or-flight response hormones kick in, including the hormones epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol. The body responds the same way to any type of stress – by releasing inflammatory chemicals. Inflammation in the body results in inflammation in the skin. This can appear as redness, heat, rashes, hives and breakouts.

Ever notice your skin breaks out during exam week or before an important job interview? A side effect of cortisol is that it can trigger a surge of sebum (oil) production in the skin. Excess oil on already breakout-prone skin can result in pore blockages and breakouts. A Stanford University study published in 2003, showed a strong correlation between the severity of acne in students who had increased emotional stress levels during examination periods [1].

Cortisol works to suppress nonessential-in-an-emergency functions, like your immune response and digestion. Chronic stress can do a number on our gut health, affecting how your food is digested, alter the acidity of your stomach and even affect what bacteria grow in your gut. Stress can also exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders including IBS and peptic ulcers. Our gut health is massively correlated to our skin health and therefore, must be taken into account when treating any skin condition.

Ever hear the phrase that someone has ‘aged 10 years in the last year’ after a particularly stressful time? External factors such as our diet, lifestyle and stress make up for about 80% of skin ageing, whereas our chronological age only makes up for around 20%! Heightened levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol have been found to increase DNA damage, interfere with DNA repair, and alter transcriptional regulation of the cell cycle [2]. Constant furrowing of the brows and pursing lips lead to permanent fine lines, wrinkles and the formation of dark circles under the eyes.

Stress weakens the immune system, causing the body to induce an inflammatory response, which can worsen a current skin condition. If you are predisposed to eczema, psoriasis, rosacea or acne, the inflammation caused by stress can lead to impairment of the skin’s natural barrier and result in a ‘flare up’. What’s more, a poor immune function means the skin’s healing response will be much slower. The vicious circle continues as you can then feel even more stressed every time you catch a glimpse of your skin in the mirror!

De-stress Tips:
Don’t neglect your skin – try to opt for gentle, less active products when you’re going through a flare up. Fighting fire with fire isn’t going to work in this case!

Exercise – now I’m definitely not saying you need to head to the gym and lift weights! Even a quick walk and some fresh air can be just enough to blow off some steam.

Netflix – probably my favourite way to de-stress and turn off my brain is to plonk on the couch and watch Netflix. For those extra stressed times, I will try choose something light hearted like Brooklyn 99 which never fails to make me laugh.

Be kind to yourself- don’t beat yourself up for having not so good skin days/weeks. It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole, scrolling through photos of dreamy, pore-free, wrinkle-free, blemish-free skin online, Instagram is not real life! *Except our Instagram– that is real, unedited, healthy skin!


Ailbhe Gullane

1. Chiu, A., Chon, S. and Kimball, A., 2003. The Response of Skin Disease to Stress. Archives of Dermatology, 139(7).
2. Flint, M., Baum, A., Chambers, W. and Jenkins, F., 2007. Induction of DNA damage, alteration of DNA repair and transcriptional activation by stress hormones. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 32(5), pp.470-479.

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