How to Tell the Difference Between Stress Acne and All Other Breakouts

According to experts.

In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes… and breakouts. We’ve all dealt with a blemish at least once in our lives, and I would bet my life savings that the majority of adults reading this article will experience at least one more before the month is over. They can suck, but they’re just a normal part of having skin—which, you know, is something you generally want to have, particularly on your face. But, as an adult, there are times when acne breakouts can indicate a bigger issue, past the general explanation of clogged pores. Things like stress and hormones can cause acne breakouts—and if you're experiencing repeated breakouts, this may be the explanation for why.

Ahead, find out everything you need to know from acne experts to determine whether stress or hormones are causing your breakouts.

Meet the Expert

  • Michele S. Green, MD is a board-certified dermatologist who has worked for global skincare brands including L'Oréal and Johnson and Johnson and has published articles in professional journals including The Journal of American Academy of Dermatology and Cosmetic Dermatology.
  • Donna Hart, MD is a board-certified medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatologist who has published in several medical journals and is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and Women’s Dermatologic Society.
  • Sonia Vaidian, MD is the clinical quality and process improvement manager at ModernMD Urgent Care and has worked as both an assistant medical director and a clinical reviewer after graduating from St. Matthews University School of Medicine.

What Is Stress Acne?

"In times of stress, your stress hormones rise and trigger your oil glands to produce more oil, which then triggers acne flares,” Dr. Donna Hart explains. Hormones also play a similar role, but according to Dr. Hart, the difference is timing.

If you find you mostly get breakouts around your period, it’s likely you are experiencing hormonal acne rather than stress acne. "Hormonal changes, mainly increased androgen levels, have the same effects on oil glands,” Dr. Hart says. "The main way to tell the difference is to track acne triggers, for example, after a period of stress versus more regularly with monthly menstrual cycles."

The location of stress acne can vary. If you find you’re normally breaking out in the same place around the same time of month (i.e., your chin or jawline), you can bet that your acne is likely related to your menstrual cycle rather than your stress levels. This is especially true if the acne takes on the form of painful cysts: According to Dr. Green, these "usually appear in the same spot over and over again and become severely chronic because they’ve accumulated so much oil over a span of days or even weeks."

But stress acne, as opposed to other types of breakouts, will usually appear in the oiliest areas of your face. "[Stress] pimples or acne lesions typically appear on the T-zone," Dr. Sonia Vaidian shares. “When this is the case, the acne is usually accompanied by dilated pores, shininess, blackheads, whiteheads, and uneven or grainy skin.” Regular acne, on the other hand, will not appear with these accompanying symptoms. Similarly, Dr. Green says that stress acne is often accompanied by telltale signs like redness and itchiness.

Woman wearing orange behind orange background with hand covering eyes and mouth open

Stocksy

Causes & Prevention of Stress Acne

First things first: What causes stress acne? Stress, of course, but it's a little bit deeper than that. According to a 2017 research review in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology titled "Emerging Issues in Adult Female Acne," a self-administered, dermatologist-validated questionnaire of 3,305 women ages 25 to 40 years in France revealed adult-onset acne was reported by 41 percent of the women, and that "stress was listed as a precipitating factor for acne in half of the women surveyed."

So, how does stress actually relate to the cause of blemishes on your face? That’s where things get a little more complicated. "Emotional stress triggers an increased release of the stress hormone cortisol," Dr. Vaidian explains. According to the Mayo Clinic, when increased, cortisol triggers a systemic response within the body that has the potential to "alter immune system responses and [suppress] the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes."

Cortisol is key in causing stress acne breakouts as well. "When cortisol levels rise, they disrupt levels of hormones that regulate sebum balance and result in clogged pores and development of acne,” Vaidian explains. In other words: More oil production means more clogged pores, and more clogged pores mean more breakouts.

Considering the involvement of cortisol, when we talk about stress acne, we’re actually talking about hormonal acne in a way as well. It’s not the same as acne that will show up around the start of your menstrual cycle, but it is acne that’s appearing because of a response to an alteration of your regularly scheduled hormonal pattern. "When you’re under an increased amount of stress, this can trigger hormonal changes that simply worsen your acne," Green explains. "Stress acne can happen at any time, at any age. Usually, in adults it’s because they’re stressed at work or at home, in younger adults, it’s mostly because of school."

Woman with acne in swimming pool

Cavan Images / Getty Images

Treatment

“If you work with your skin, the results will be there one step at a time,” Dr. Green says. For treatment options, she recommends “a topical spot treatment, something like salicylic acid which can be found over-the-counter.”

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[Ed. note: We recommend this salicylic acid acne spot treatment to target acne, reduce blemish size and redness, and soothe skin.]

If it’s something deeper—a stress “cyst,” something under-the-skin, perhaps—"just hold a warm or cold compress over the affected area to decrease the pain and/or redness.” This should be done for a few minutes twice a day until the spot is minimized.

“If stress acne seems to happen often, then try switching your skincare routine. Find products that work with your skin, not against it,” Dr. Green recommends. Dr. Vaidian also suggests taking care to ensure your stress levels are managed as well. “Drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet, and do things to manage your stress such as get more sleep and do things to relax,” she says.

If you suspect that your acne may be due to stress or hormonal-related reasons, talk to your dermatologist about your immediate skincare options to help speed up your recovery.  

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Melibary YT, Alkeraye S, Alnutaifi KA, Melibary NT, Alsuwaidi MK, Algzlan HI. Occasional acne; an acne variantClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2019;12:219‐222. doi:10.2147/CCID.S199991

  2. Elsaie ML. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: An updateClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2016;9:241‐248. doi:10.2147/CCID.S114830

  3. Zeichner JA, Baldwin HE, Cook-Bolden FE, Eichenfield LF, Fallon-Friedlander S, Rodriguez DA. Emerging issues in adult female acneJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(1):37‐46.

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