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Why Some Exfoliate Their Skin When Stressed Out & What To Do Instead

Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director. Previously she worked at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and
woman touching her face

Years ago—before I realized how harsh I was being to my delicate skin and well before I realized how sensitive my skin is naturally—a telltale sign I was stressed out would be flaky, red skin. Some of this was internal, as stressed-out periods often trigger flare-ups like acne, rosacea, and increased sensitivity to external aggressors in the skin. Those are all very real concerns with stressed-out skin and absolutely played a factor in my increased redness and inflamed patches. 

But a big part of my problem was, well, me. I used to have a nasty habit of what I've now deemed "stress exfoliating," which I define as the act of overdoing peels, masks, scrubs, and potent treatments when anxious—one does this as a coping mechanism designed to divert attention to the skin rather than deal what's *actually* happening. (In case it's not obvious, this is not an official dermatological term; it's one I entirely made up myself.) 

Anecdotally, I have spoken to many who act similarly: They layer on one-too-many masks or swipe several peel pads on delicate skin after a bad day. And it's not just exfoliating; derms and psychologists alike will tell you that picking at skin—like popping zits in the evening or even things like tearing at your cuticles—is very intimately related to stress. 

Why do we stress exfoliate? 

"Rather than peeling back the layers to explore what's causing the feelings of stress, our inclination is to focus on what we see on the surface and go after it with vigor," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. "This creates a vicious cycle, though, because if we focus our attention on what we see rather than the factors responsible for them being there, we continue to experience the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. But when we are willing to sit with our feelings and really feel the sadness, grief, or discomfort that is underneath and accept ourselves anyway, we're able to approach ourselves and our skin with compassion instead of judgment."

Essentially, exfoliating our skin—and attempting to rid our face of any perceived imperfection—is a way for us to identify, control, and immediately "treat" an issue that we can see, right in front of our faces. "Most of us, myself included are hoping there is a quick fix, a magic lotion, potion, or pill to deal with the problem, but as I've learned, there is no such thing, and just using surface-level solutions won't heal deeper-level issues," says Barr. To us, in that moment, it's much easier to prod at our own skin rather than deal with why we are stressed out to begin with. 

See, stress and skin are deeply connected—and the relationship between the two goes both ways: "Upward of 90% of doctors' visits are for stress-related reasons, and skin issues are the No. 1 reason people visit their doctors. Translation: Stress and skin are intimately related. Our skin is the most visible organ we have and what shows up on it gives many clues to what's happening beneath it. When we are stressed, our bodies release a cascade of inflammatory signals that can affect the integrity of the skin barrier, suppress the skin's innate immune system, and shift the skin microbiome, making it more vulnerable to irritation, infection, and breakouts," says Barr. "It's a double-whammy, because the blemishes that appear on the skin as a result of stress can compound feelings of stress, shame, guilt, and overwhelm."


Breaking the habit: How to be kinder to your stressed-out skin and self. 

Well, the first step is realizing that you're doing it in the first place—as with many self-soothing and coping strategies, many may not even notice what's going on to begin with. (At first, I sure didn't! I thought my over-exfoliation and umpteenth mask in a single night was a form of "self-care" and was helping me rather than what it was doing: weakening my skin barrier function.) 

Once you realize that you've developed a habit of stress exfoliating, step away from the mirror. "The most important thing to do is to identify the situations that cause the picking and then avoid them; if you pick at night, you need to get out of the bathroom as soon as possible," he says. "Do your skin care, brush your teeth, and get out," says board-certified dermatologist Angelo Landriscina, M.D., as we previously reported about how to stop picking pimples. "You can even go as far as figuring out how long it takes for you to do your skin care routine, set a timer on your phone, and make sure you are out of there when that timer is up."

You may also look into starting a "gratitude practice" for your skin. This can help you look past the parts of your skin that are bothering you and focus on the things you love about it. Finally, there are many ways to reduce stress in the moment and long term: Move your body with a simple yoga flow, practice breathwork, or talk to someone. All these can help you deal with what's actually going on.

And if you are craving a beauty treatment after a long day (which, believe me, I get), try to find a soothing face mask or a facial rolling routine—it'll be gentler on the skin, and you'll still get the same satisfaction.

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