Stress and Acne: Can Worrying Really Cause a Breakout?

Stress and Acne: Can Worrying Really Cause a Breakout?

Stress is an indispensable part of life. Whether you’re going through finals, moving house, changing career paths, or making other important life decisions, chances are your cortisol levels will be higher than usual. And often, we can’t do anything about that. 

But have you ever wondered how psychological or emotional stress affects our body as a whole? Stress has a larger influence on us than we know, mostly because our minds are good at ignoring symptoms. If we can’t do anything about it, then why bother detecting the problem in the first place?

One of those commonly misinterpreted symptoms of stress is acne. Acne can be caused by all sorts of issues – overproduction of sebum, hormonal imbalance, puberty, and bacteria. But what’s the actual correlation between stress and acne? Let’s find out.

Stress and Acne: What’s the Connection?

We all experience stressful times differently; not everyone will get acne flare-ups because of stress. However, the cells responsible for producing sebum have receptors for stress. Sebum, along with dead skin cells and bacteria, contributes to the appearance of breakouts. 

When our bodies are put under a lot of stress, more cortisol is produced, which results in an overproduction of oil in the hair follicles. This can cause mild acne or worsen severe acne.

Stress Increases Overall Inflammation 

Stress triggers our body's inflammatory response, which is another major cause of acne breakouts. Not only can inflammation trigger acne, but it can also lead to other skin disorders, such as psoriasis and eczema.

You can decrease the inflammation levels and prevent stress acne by including a lot of anti-inflammatory food in your diet, such as vegetables, fruits, and food high in omega-3 fatty acids like flax seeds or chia seeds. Exercising can also go a long way in decreasing overall inflammation levels. 

Stress Messes Up Our Hormones

Stress raises the levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When the body produces more cortisol than is healthy, the immune system is enfeebled. This, in turn, will increase inflammation levels, which, as we’ve established, are not good for the skin. It can cause hormonal acne.

Some people might experience other symptoms, which can be a sign of increased inflammation levels. If you’re one of those people who is prone to breaking out, it’s important to establish the cause and treat it on time.

Stress Can Make Us Pick Our Skin 

Another way in which stress can worsen acne is by making us more prone to picking the skin. Popping pimples without dermatological supervision is never a good idea, especially when you’re doing it subconsciously or using it to deal with stress. Avoid picking at your skin, no matter how alluring the idea might be.

Stress Can Dry Out Your Skin

Besides increasing the oil produced in the skin, high stress levels can also cause your skin to dry out.

The idea that something might make your skin drier and oilier is paradoxical, but hear us out. When we experience a spike in stress hormones, our skin starts to sweat profusely. You might have noticed sweat as a symptom of anxiety whenever you're in a stressful situation. Well, when that sweat affects the palms of our hands, we don’t experience any side effects. However, when the glands on our face are triggered to sweat, our skin becomes dehydrated and loses a large amount of water. 

When the skin is dehydrated, this causes the oil glands (also known as the sebaceous glands) to produce more oil to compensate. This can make acne worse or create acne where there wasn't any before.

This has a domino effect on other skin conditions. Drier skin is more prone to eczema, so if you suffer from that skin issue, stress can be a major trigger.

Stress Can Have a Negative Impact on our Lifestyle Choices

Speaking of domino effects, stress can impact our lifestyle as well, including the small choices we make daily that influence our health in a major way. Our habits are out of order. Our sleeping patterns are pretty much non-existent. And the dietary choices we make seem to be the most disrupted. This will change from person to person. Some people eat more when stressed, and others eat less. Neither option is healthy.

Stressful periods cause us to reach for fast food, which will provide quick bursts of energy. The trouble is that highly processed foods filled with refined sugar, oils, and other nasty ingredients don’t agree with our skin.

To minimize the damage caused by stress, consume vegetables, fruits, and whole grains regularly. Healthy food takes more time to prepare (which you might not have the energy for), but it’s ultimately worth it. Next time you’re reaching for takeout pizza, remember how your skin will react in the morning, and maybe you’ll be motivated to go for another option instead.

Stress Makes Us Neglect Our Skincare Routine

When we’re stressed, our mind is consumed by so many thoughts that it’s hard to keep track of them. In the midst of all that chaos, chances are, you won’t remember to keep up with your regular skincare routine.

The good news is this is within your control! Just remember to keep reminders about your skincare routine during stressful times. Either write it down as a chore on your to-do list or set a reminder on your phone daily.

Taking your skincare seriously is crucial for maintaining healthy skin in the long run. And no, it doesn’t have to be a complicated skincare routine with lots of products. When you’re stressed, stick to the basics, such as a good-quality moisturizer, an effective cleanser, and maybe a toner. If you’re up to it, try pampering yourself with a mask. It might reduce your stress levels, at least for the time being. 

Signs your Acne is Stress-Related

So you know all the ways psychological stress can worsen your acne. The next step is identifying whether emerging acne can be attributed solely to stress. There are a couple of ways to determine whether stress has everything to do with your acne. 

It’s not an easy process, but one that will require a lot of attention and perceptiveness. The first step is to note whenever you’re feeling stressed and experiencing breakouts. Continue this process for a couple of weeks. Journal the majority of the changes you notice on your face. Then reflect on what you’ve written down and see whether the stressful times coincide with the breakouts. If they do, there is a possible connection between your stress levels and the breakouts. 

If they don’t match, look for the cause of your acne elsewhere. Multiple factors can be attributed as a cause of acne, such as environmental factors, hormonal imbalances, certain types of medication, excess sebum, and a skincare routine that doesn’t match your skin type.

This process of determining where your acne comes from sounds very difficult and time-consuming, but in actuality, it’s not that hard to keep at it. It’s similar to keeping a food diary to determine which food isn’t agreeing with you.  

There is another catch. As we've mentioned, the habits people tend to pick up during stressful times might be the causes of acne and not the stress itself. These habits include eating processed food high in refined sugar and saturated fats, consuming more caffeine than usual, not getting enough sleep or disturbing your sleeping patterns, neglecting your skincare routine, and many more. This is where determining the source of your acne becomes difficult. If you’re in this situation, the best course of action is to visit a dermatologist and let them determine the cause of your acne and the correct treatment for your particular case.

How to Treat Stress-Related Acne

You know how to identify stress acne and its triggers by now. You know the functions of stress and how it affects acne. Now it’s time to explore all the different ways you can treat stress-related acne if going to a dermatologist isn’t an option.

If your acne isn’t severe, treating your stress pimples at home is more than doable. You'll need a lot of patience, determination, and time to find your perfect in-depth skincare routine.

Spot Treatments Work Wonders if Your Acne Isn’t Severe

If you’re experiencing the occasional pimple and don’t need severe acne treatment, then topical spot treatments are the perfect fit. On top of that, if you like DIY skincare products, we have the perfect article for you!

Spot treatments are easy to make, and most importantly – they’re cost-efficient. So, don’t hesitate and try one yourself. Don’t try and pop pimples since that can lead to unwanted scarring and marks. 

Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are amazing options for more serious products or ingredients. They can function as spot treatments, or you'll find them in gels and cleansers.

Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are very effective in exfoliating the skin and preventing congestion and clogged pores. AHAs are a great option if you suffer from scarring or redness from previous acne. 

Oral Medication as a Last Resort

Oral medication is an option for those who’ve suffered from acne for a long time and haven’t found a suitable solution. Oral medication includes birth control pills, isotretinoin (brand name Accutane), antibiotics, and spironolactone.

Most of these treatments last for a few months, and you’ll need to wait a while to see results. The topical skincare regimen your dermatologist will prescribe simultaneously with the oral treatment will also help. You’ll need to follow it carefully and go to regular check-ups so that they can measure your progress.

If you’re a good fit for oral acne medication, visit a doctor. Since most of them come with pretty serious side effects, your doctor will give you guidance to ensure your treatment is successful. Difficult and persistent acne is no joke, so if you suffer from stubborn acne that won’t go away, visiting a dermatologist is your best bet.

Lifestyle Changes that Will Help you Get Rid of Stress Acne

Other than treating acne directly and topically or taking oral medication, certain lifestyle factors also affect acne caused by stress. 

Include lots of unprocessed, whole foods in your diet, providing essential nutrients and helping you fight acne. Avoid acne-triggering food such as dairy and processed sugar whenever you can. Get at least seven hours of sleep each night and exercise regularly. Get a proper skincare regimen and stick to it. If you wear makeup, look for non-comedogenic products so your pores won't clog, and make sure you take off your makeup every night before you go to bed.

How to Minimize your Stress Levels

There are many ways you can get rid of stress, so choose a method that will fit in with your lifestyle best. Find ways of coping with anxiety and stressful periods that aren’t self-destructive, such as exercise or yoga. 

Pay attention to your diet, as that also has an effect. Minimize your consumption of alcohol and caffeine since these substances can exasperate your problems and stress levels. When times get rough, talk it out with somebody. Talking might not help you solve your problems, but sharing your struggles with somebody can make you see things more clearly and give you an alternative perspective.

In Conclusion

Stressful periods are inevitable, and they happen to all of us. We’ve all felt the negative effect of raised stress hormones at some point in our lives, and we know how easy it is to indulge in bad habits and neglect our skin. Keep fighting and finding new ways to cope with the stress and anxiety this modern age brings us.

Stress can harm our skin. It makes us neglect the habits that keep our skin healthy and glowy. We forget to use products, neglect our diet, and avoid sleep, leading to more breakouts than usual. However, managing stress acne doesn't have to be difficult. With a few lifestyle switches, a carefully selected skincare routine, and a lot of patience, you can get rid of stress acne once and for all.


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