photo of a woman examining her skin in the mirror
Chill out to maintain both health and beauty! Studies show that stress can make skin problems more likely and more severe.

How stress affects your skin

25 September, 2014

If you’ve ever had a pimple form right before an important event you have wondered if stress caused the break out.

Nearly everyone has some form of stress in their life, and although most of us intuitively feel that stress can make our skin look worse.

For instance, in one study 60% of subjects reported that stress was strongly associated as a causal factor for their psoriasis. In another study of people with atopic dermatitis, 50% to 67% of atopic dermatitis patients reported psychological stress to be the principal aggravating factor in their disease. Similarly, in a survey of medical students with acne, 67%  identified stress as a trigger of their acne flares.

What these findings suggest is that  most of us already perceive stress as a major contributing factor to skin problems.

But does the scientific research back these perceptions up? In a word yes! In fact numerous case reports and studies have shown a link between stress and a variety of skin diseases.

In fact scientists found that easily demonstrated links between higher levels of perceived stress the severity of acne outbreaks.

Oilier skin and more

When a person becomes stressed, the level of the body’s stress hormone (cortisol) rises. This commonly causes an increase in oil production, which can lead to oily skin, acne and other related skin problems.

But even if you are one of the lucky ones whose skin doesn’t become oily under pressure, research has shown that stress can have other detrimental effects as well.

For example a study in 2001 found that stress can have a negative effect on the barrier function of the skin, resulting in water loss that not only dehydrates the skin but inhibits the skin’s ability to repair itself after an injury.

A disturbance in the skin barrier function makes it more permeable allowing more irritants, allergens, and even germs to penetrate the skin and cause problems. Specifically, stress can make rosacea more red or acne lesions more inflamed and more persistent. It can worsen dermatitis, hives, fever blisters and psoriasis, too.

This is one reason why a good moisturiser is a must when you are stressed. Assuming it is made of quality ingredients that nourish the skin, rather than add chemical stress, it can help boost the barrier function of the skin, and head off stress-related break-outs.

Higher risk of inflammation

Other evidence shows that stress causes distinct biological changes to the body causing the skin to release chemicals called neuropeptides. Many types of cells in the skin, including immune cells and endothelial cells (cells that line blood vessels), can be regulated by neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, which are chemicals released by the skin’s nerve endings.

But stress can result in the skin’s nerve endings releasing higher levels of neuropeptides and this in turn can create inflammation and uncomfortable skin sensations, such as numbness, itching, sensitivity or tingling.

Environmental stressors, as well, can worsen the skin effects of emotional stress. There is some evidence, from animal studies, for example that when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, stressed mice developed skin cancers more quickly than mice that were not exposed to stress. In humans chronic stress that begins in childhood (for instance with maltreatment by parents) has been linked to a higher incidence of the commonest form of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma

Beyond the direct physiological effects of stress, people under stress also tend to neglect or abuse their skin. For example, they often lack the energy and motivation to adhere to regular skin care regimens, and there also might be signs of stress-related behaviours — such as scratching, pulling or rubbing — that can exacerbate problems. And of course when we are stressed we often neglect our diets, or we may forget to drink as much water as we should, and this ultimately is reflected in the health of our skin.

Stressed-out hair, too!

It’s not just your skin that can be impacted. Chronic stress can also take its toll on hair and nails.

Reactions to stress differ from individual to individual. Some may develop an ulcer, or have a heart attack. But some may lose their hair.   This can be the result of hormonal changes caused by stress or by dietary changes – many people don’t eat well when they are stressed and this in turn can impact hair health.

Just like skin, hair can become more dull and greasy when we are stressed and Indeed increase in oil production caused by stress can bring on or worsen seborrheic dermatitis, which can produce red scaly patches on the skin but also a flaky dandruff-like condition of the scalp.

And don’t forget your nails

Nails are not immune to showing outward signs of stress, and some people develop the nervous habit of biting their nails or picking at them when they feel stressed.

Another stress-related nail habit is rubbing your fingers over your thumb nail, which can create a ridge across the nail. This rubbing causes a distortion of the nail plate, and when the nail grows, a raised ridge forms in the middle of the nail.

So what’s the answer?

We can’t get rid of all sources of stress – indeed there is some evidence to show that a little bit of stress might even be beneficial, for instance by making us more alert and enhancing creativity. But chronic stress, with no end in sight, is debilitating to mind, body and beauty.

Stress comes in a multitude of forms but types of stress can fall into one of three general categories:

  • major stressful life events (e.g. separation, death or illness of a loved one, and financial difficulties)
  • psychological or personality difficulties
  • lack of social support

Ongoing problems in any of these areas can lead to a variety of health problems over the longer term including high blood pressure, heart disease, glucose imbalance, sleep problems, headaches, depression, and problems with digestion. In the shorter term you skin can act like an early warning system that things are out of balance.

To help combat stress-aggravated skin conditions it helps to take appropriate action sooner rather than later. Learn to recognise the underlying problem that is stressing you out and develop skills to help minimise that stress before it takes its toll.

  • Plan ahead If you know you have a stressful time coming, build social support amongst friends and family around you ahead of time. Get someone else to do the dishes, or shopping, or just run a nice bath for you.
  • Me time During stressful times make time for yourself a priority. Get exercise whether in the gym or walking or running outdoors. Exercise helps release endorphins in the body that can reduce stress and contact with nature is a proven remedy for stress and depression.
  • Eat well Nourish yourself with good food not junk food. In fact when you are stressed evidence shows that stress can slow your metabolism down and encourage weight gain – especially if you are eating high fat meals.
  • Chill out Spend 10 minutes each day in quiet contemplation – and don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of thinking you can’t spare this time. Turn off the phone and the computer and think of this time as a way to recharge body and mind – as well a mini beauty treat. If you like use essential oils to enhance the experience and help relieve tension and stress.
  • Try to laugh If you can’t meditate – laugh. Studies show that having a laugh with friend can be as beneficial as a meditation for reducing stress.
  • Make sleep a priority Lack of quality sleep can age your skin by as much as 10 years. Aromatherapy can help ease you into sleep and lower blood pressure. See here more here for tips on getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Personal care Keep up your healthy skin, hair and nail care regimes. Avoid very hot showers or baths and use mild organic soaps. Moisturise as soon as possible after bathing. If you are going to be out in the sun for long periods of time make sure you are using a good quality mineral sunscreen to help protect your skin from environmental damage.
  • Seek help If things are very stressy seek professional help through psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnosis. Or book a regular massage or join a group for meditation, tai chi, yoga.


For more tips on reducing stress see our feature De-Stress, Naturally