We skincare addicts are cursed with the compulsion to find out how everything in the world impacts our skin—food, the environment, products of all kinds. But rarely do we stop to think about what's going on internally.
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, as if I just received a two-hour facial.
This made me curious: How do our emotions affect our skin, both short-term and long-term? Does the key to perfect skin lie within? 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 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 can have a number of negative effects on the skin.
(Of course, being in love usually begets a lot of smiling, and smiling causes 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. And apparently an unabating sense of impending doom is not so good for the 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 hyaluronic acid, a natural skin lubricator. In other words, anxiousness and the cortisol that comes with it not only make skin susceptible to irritation, they can also reduce its ability to retain moisture, resulting in visible dryness and wrinkling.
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.
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. When you’re sad, your blood vessels constrict, causing your skin to look even paler.
Sobbing your eyes out certainly doesn’t help. “If you’re chronically crying for long periods of time, it can cause increased wrinkling, particularly in the delicate eyelid skin,” says Jegasothy. Plus, tears are super salty and can dehydrate 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. Whereas anxiety comes with worry and fear, stress isn’t always brought on by something negative. Plus, stress can manifest itself in a number of ways: anger, frustration, or even manic energy.
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 or a squinter, or you tend to look surprised (subconsciously, of course). Whichever stress expression you default to, it will form lines perpendicular to the contracted muscles, which 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.
Feeling yourself getting stressed just by reading about stress? Cool off with seven easy things you can do to instantly feel more relaxed.
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Want to learn more about the physiology of emotion? Don’t miss the fascinating science behind love at first sight.