Does Stress Cause Acne? A Definitive Answer

skincare portrait

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Given the crazy-busy nature of the lives we all live, stress is inevitable. Even when you try to zen out and practice self-care, stress always seems to find a way to sneak in and take over. It’s hard to gain complete control over your mind and let go of your worries—it’s almost like stress is ingrained in the human psyche.

Unfortunately, stress doesn’t only affect our minds, as anyone who’s ever had to contend with a stress-related breakout can attest. Once a telltale bump pops up, you’re left with one more thing to stress over—does stress actually cause acne? We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but the two dermatologists we spoke to say there’s a clear connection between acne and stress. Read on for the full rundown…

Stress Activates Your Oil Glands

Stress causes your body to make hormones like cortisol, which tells glands in your skin to make more oil,” explains certified dermatologist Margarita Lolis, MD. “When we’re stressed and in fight-or-flight mode, our adrenal glands, which are responsible for regulating stress, are in action mode. These adrenal glands stimulate sebaceous glands, leading to more oil production.”

Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care and associate clinical professor at the George Washington University Medical Center, agrees: “Stress causes an increase in hormones like cortisol, which inflames the skin, and causes acne, sallowness, and dark under-eye circles,” she says.

Stress and Acne Create a Vicious Cycle

“It’s a cycle of stress causing acne and then acne causing more stress,” explains Dr. Lolis. “Let’s say you’re stressed out at work and then you break out along your jawline. Then the stress of the breakout leads you to squeeze and pick. Then the stress leads to low levels of thyroid hormones, causing inflammation.”

Stress Has Different Impacts on Various Skin Types

“If your skin is already oily, stress only produces more oil leading to clogged pores, bacteria, and breakouts,” explains Lolis. “Stress damages collagen by hardening it, and this causes wrinkles. When the cortisol is released, our natural production of hyaluronic acid is lowered, making it difficult for your skin to remain hydrated. It’s as if our skin loses its ability to protect itself when we’re stressed.”

Adds Tanzi, “Chronic stress can reduce the skin barrier function, so the skin can get more irritated by products and environmental exposure than it typically does.”

There Are Ways to Lower Your Risk of Stress Acne

“The key is getting to the core issue and managing the stress,” says Lolis. “Things like daily meditation and practicing mindful assessments of stressful triggers can help. Also managing work schedules, allowing time for self-care, exercise, plus sticking to a regular bedtime and wake time helps.”

Tanzi notes that certain skin products can also help. “Usually stress acne is in the same category as dry-skin acne,” she explains. “In general, I would choose acne treatments made for sensitive skin because they won’t dry out the skin or be too irritating.”

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