In addition to being bad for your health, did you know that stress is also bad for your skin? As an New York City dermatologist, almost 50 percent of the patients I treat have skin issues that are directly related to stress. In addition to making you feel frantic and overwhelmed, the neurological and hormonal effects of stress wreak havoc on your skin.
Think of it this way: When our caveman ancestors were stressed, it was usually because of an immediate threat, like a sabre-toothed tiger crossing their path. This stress would trigger a surge of adrenaline leading to a “fight-or-flight response.” While we don’t have to worry about prehistoric tigers anymore, modern stressors cause our bodies to respond the same way it did in prehistoric times. Stress induced adrenaline surges can cause wrinkles, acne and dullness. Let’s break it down.
Constant stress causes excess adrenaline, leading to abnormal elevations of cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands. Adrenaline is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone called norepinephrine. As a neurotransmitter, adrenaline creates hyperactivity of the brain, while as a hormone it goes into the bloodstream and affects all organs—including your skin. In addition, cortisol, which is referred to as the “stress hormone,” wreaks havoc on everything including your immune system, and it can cause high blood pressure and ulcers. Stress is a full body physiological phenomenon, and your skin is an innocent bystander that gets swept up into the conflict. There are three things that happen to your skin because of stress.
The first is acne. Both adrenaline and cortisol have an effect on your skin’s oil production. When those levels are raised, you begin to produce more oil, and stress changes the actual chemistry of that oil—it becomes thicker and heavier. Instead of flowing like it should, with the consistency of olive oil, stress transforms the skin’s oil to a consistency closer to Crisco. As a result, pores get clogged and blackheads form. From there, pimples, cysts and even back acne arise.
The second thing that happens is dull skin. When stress triggers the fight or flight response, the body immediately diverts more circulation to the vital organs: the heart, brain, lungs and kidneys. It makes sure the most necessary organs are equipped to withstand the stress. Unfortunately, that rationing of blood flow comes at the expense of your skin, including your face, which gets less circulation. That loss of circulation leads to dull skin, which results in a lackluster, tired and unhealthy appearance.
Finally, you can get wrinkles. Stress causes your muscles to tense, which makes sense if you had to either run or fight for your life. This muscle tension is why stress is widely recognized to cause a stiff back. While muscle tension was definitely helpful to fend off a wholly mammoth with a sharp stick, stress is terrible if you want a youthful complexion. Why? Because stress also causes those muscles in your face to tense, causing the facial skin attached to those muscles to be pulled and wrinkled. This constant movement causes wear-and-tear producing lines, wrinkles and pleats on the face over time.
Fortunately, unlike our Stone Age predecessors, we have access to all kinds of remedies. When it comes to stress, anything you do for your skin—from moisturizing to exfoliating—is going to help counteract these effects. Ingredients like retinol, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C will increase collagen production, helping to correct wrinkles, fight free radicals, and brighten and hydrate your complexion.
I also recommend stress alleviation techniques like yoga and meditation. Reversing tension will encourage deep sleep, giving your skin a better chance to heal itself. Another tip is to take a B-complex vitamin. Stress causes a depletion of vitamin B, which is crucial for your nervous system to calm down. Take a tablet everyday with food. Finally, since stress can diminish your ability to get restful and abundant REM sleep, cut off caffeine after 4pm and do not view electronic devices before bed.
The next time you feel stressed, slow down and center yourself. By controlling your fight-or-flight response—and using product to treat your complexion—your health will improve and your skin will look as fresh, healthy and relaxed as you feel.
Board-certified dermatologist, dermatological surgeon and native New Yorker, Dennis Gross, M.D., founded his NYC practice in 1990 following extensive research at prestigious institutes, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He and his skin-care expertise have been featured in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Find him on Instagram at @dennisgrossmd or www.dennisgrossmd.com.