As skincare addicts, we are cursed with the compulsion to find out how everything in the world impacts our skin from the foods we eat and our environment to our daily product routines. But we rarely stop to think about what's going on within our bodies.
Personally, I sometimes feel like no matter how many serums I slather on my face, my skin never looks better than it does after an intense rush of adrenaline. I receive a piece of exciting news, and bam—a healthy glow floods my cheeks, almost as if I just received a two-hour facial. It's unfair if you think about it, spending all of this money on skincare products when the simplest emotional curveball has such an impact on our complexions.
This made me curious: How do our emotions affect our skin, both short-term and long-term? Does the key to perfect skin lie in our emotional and psychological health? To find out, I spoke with three top medical experts: Dr. Neal Schultz, dermatologist and founder of BeautyRx; Dr. Jennifer Linder, dermatologist and chief scientific officer for PCA Skin; and Dr. S. Manjula Jegasothy, dermatologist and founder of the Miami Skin Institute.
Read on to discover the fascinating ways love, excitement, stress, and other emotions are affecting your skin.
Good news: That whole “glow” thing people associate with being in love is, on some level, actually true. According to Linder, those giddy butterflies and mushy feelings you experience while falling in love reflect a physiological process that can benefit your skin, unlike any sheet mask. We have the hormone oxytocin to thank for this.
“Oxytocin is the hormone of love; it is often referred to as the ‘attachment hormone,’” says Linder. Surges of oxytocin are responsible for the bonds between sexual partners, between mother and child—even between people and their beloved dogs.
The hormone is thought to reduce some of the inflammatory factors that slow healing, says Linder. So more oxytocin means potentially less irritation and more glow. Oxytocin also helps lower the body’s production of cortisol, a stress hormone that may negatively affect the skin.
(Of course, being in love usually begets a lot of smiling, and smiling can cause creasing and wrinkles, long-term. But hey, that’s why we have anti-aging serums, right?)
Speaking of cortisol, that’s exactly which hormone is released when you’re feeling worried or anxious. Apparently, an unabating sense of impending doom is not the best thing for your complexion.
“Elevated cortisol levels induce inflammation and suppress the immune system,” says Linder. “Inflamed cells are also prone to breaking down collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and strong.” Higher cortisol levels can also contribute to a decrease in skin barrier function. In other words, anxiousness (and the cortisol that comes with it), can not only make the skin susceptible to irritation but can also reduce its ability to retain moisture. As we know, moisture loss results in visible dryness and wrinkling of the skin.
All the more reason to stock up on lavender and maintain your meditation practice, no?
Do you ever notice a healthy flush fill your skin after something exciting happens? That’s because the face contains “thousands of tiny capillaries that can become dilated anytime you feel an emotional rush of adrenaline,” Jegasothy explains.
This happens with invigorating physical activity—exercise, a hot shower, sex—but also with internal excitement: “When these capillaries are dilated, it can give the entire face a rosy glow and make the skin look more hydrated and smooth,” Jegasothy continues.
Of course, we can’t all expect to be thrown a surprise party every day, but Jegasothy says we can re-create the same flush by using radiance-boosting skincare products. Ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, and lactobionic acid all work to stimulate that excitable glow. We suggest doing a patch test with any active ingredients to make sure that the rosy-glow you receive is not a reaction.
I think we can all agree that being in a melancholy mood does not feel good. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look good either. “People who are sad or depressed tend to stay indoors, which can make the skin look sallow,” says Jegasothy.
And, sobbing your eyes out can do more than just cause the face to puff. “If you’re chronically crying for long periods, it can cause increased wrinkling, particularly in the delicate eyelid skin,” says Jegasothy. Plus, tears are super salty, which might dry out the skin. “One thing I tell my patients to do when they are sad is to catch their tears,” adds Jegasothy. So next time you feel the floodgates opening, remember to grab a moisturizing tissue or the shoulder of your best friend. (Whatever’s closest.)
"Stress and anxiety may sound like synonyms, but they’re not always the same thing," says Schultz. Stress is usually brought on by an external trigger, whereas anxiety isn’t always brought on by any one specific trigger and can cause a feeling of constant worry. Both can manifest in several ways: anger, frustration, or even muscle pain.
Physiologically, stress and anxiety do have one thing in common: cortisol and its yucky effects on the skin. “Cortisol enlarges blood vessels,” says Schultz. “That enhances dark circles because there’s more blood in the veins under your eyes.” Ah yes, the cause of that exhausted look we experience when we’re racing toward a work deadline or doing our taxes.
Aside from cortisol, there’s additional muscle tension in your body when you’re stressed, says Schultz. That tension works its way into your face. Essentially, when you’re stressed, your face freezes in a contracted position. Maybe you’re a frowner, a jaw-clencher, or perhaps you tend to look surprised (subconsciously, of course). Whichever stress expression you default to, it may form lines perpendicular to the contracted muscles, which can cause deep wrinkles over time.
“Stress also takes circulation away from the skin,” adds Schultz, “Because when you’re stressed, your body is ready for fight or flight.” When that happens, the body directs blood internally to your muscles and away from the skin, removing any lit-from-within glow.
Now, shop the products we recommend to keep your skin happy.
This Glossier mask is one of those products that is just as fun to put on as it is good for the skin. With simple, yet powerful ingredients of kaolin clay, aloe, and açaí extract, you can expect to clear your skin and support its overall health.
It is no surprise that we love Renée Rouleau and her celebrity-loved skincare line, so we had to share this moisturizer. This creme is packed full of anti-aging ingredients like niacinamide and red marine algae meant to soothe the most irritated skin. It's light-weight, barrier-repairing, and leaves behind smooth and radiant skin.
We know, you're tired of seeing it, but the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum is one of Byrdie's most-loved skincare products. Vitamin C, in the form of L-ascorbic acid can help brighten even the dullest and most tired skin. Vitamin E serves as a hydrator and protectant. And, of course, the ferulic acid promises to neutralize free radicals that impact skin health.
With the addition of Jegasothy's recommended lactobionic acid, NeoStrata offers a facial serum that will truly pack a punch. With vitamins A, C, and E, you'll find that your skin will glow. Not to mention this serum is known for its brilliant anti-aging effects. The brand adds that you should utilize an SPF while using this serum, and we could not agree more.
Want to learn more about the physiology of emotion? Don’t miss the fascinating science behind love at first sight.
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Chen Y, Lyga J. Brain-skin connection: stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets. 2014;13(3):177-190. doi:10.2174/1871528113666140522104422
American Psychological Association. What's the difference between stress and anxiety? Updated September 21, 2020.