Stress Acne? Here's How To Diagnose & Treat It, STAT

Cropped Photo of a Stressed Woman

Image by Alex Tan / Death to the Stock Photo

Stress launches a domino effect of physiological changes in the body: It can speed up our breathing, tense our muscles, and make us sweat. This stress response originally evolved as a survival mechanism, but these days it can do more harm than good. Too much stress can cause tension headaches, gut issues, irritability, lethargy—the list goes on. And yes, it includes breakouts. Here's what the research says on the link between stress and acne, plus some ideas on how to stress less for the sake of your skin.

The stress-acne connection.

"Our skin is both an immediate stress perceiver as well as a target of the stress responses," dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. tells mbg. "This is why the presence of acne not only contributes to a feeling of stress, but acne is more common in those who experience a higher intensity of stress from life events."

You see, when we experience stress, our adrenal glands are prompted to release a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream. This is a good thing: Cortisol helps the body gather energy to deal with the perceived threat. It's when constant stress floods the body with too much cortisol that problems start to happen—in our body and on our skin.

High cortisol levels trigger a chain of reactions in the body including activating sebocytes, the cells that produce sebum—the oily, waxy stuff that's designed to coat and protect the skin. Too much sebum has been directly linked to acne. "These activated sebocytes [also] release cytokines including IL1-alpha, IL-6, IL-11, TNF-alpha, INF-gamma and PPAR-gamma producing inflammation, one of the primary components contributing to acne formation and flares," explains Barr.

Plus, chronic stress can lead to an imbalanced microbiome in which the bacteria responsible for acne can flourish.

An uptick in sebum, inflammation, and thriving bacteria are three of the four main factors that drive acne according to board-certified dermatologist Jaimie Glick, M.D. (the other one being clogged pores). Together, they form a one-two punch: Overactive sebum production means excess oil traps dead skin cells in our pores. This becomes an ideal environment for the rapid multiplication of the common bacteria that live on our skin. The result is pores that are very inflamed and can quickly become painful pimples.

And to top it all off, your body may be less able to deal with existing acne and scarring when you're really stressed. "[One study on stress and wound healing] has shown that stress can slow down healing, which may worsen acne and acne scarring," says Glick.

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Who gets stress acne?

Those who are chronically stressed are more prone to this kind of acne, and a diet high in processed sugar and carbs can make matters worse since the corresponding blood sugar spikes prompt the body to release insulin, which is also linked to sebum production. Poor sleep is another symptom of stress that has been shown to affect the skin and increase the signs of aging, according to a small study on 60 women.

Signs your breakouts are stress-induced.

Unfortunately, stress-induced acne doesn't stand out from regular old acne. The only way to zero in on whether a given breakout is related to stress is by taking a step back and assessing recent stress levels.

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How to prevent and manage stress acne.

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If you're prone to stress and suspect it's contributing to your acne, you might want to consider introducing a hemp oil supplement to your routine. Hemp oil has proved effective at managing stress and supporting quality sleep in clinical trials.* Not to mention, full-spectrum hemp oil contains lots of cannabinoids and beneficial terpenes that act as antioxidants in the body and may help promote healthy skin.* Some other holistic ways to manage stress include starting a meditation practice or breathwork routine, cutting back on sugar, and exercising regularly. Scheduling designated times for work and work-related matters (like obsessively checking email!) is another way to help minimize your stress levels.

To treat an existing stress-related breakout, try one of these soothing holistic acne remedies and resist the urge to pop your zits, since the bacteria from your hands can just make skin issues worse.

The bottom line.

Pressure at work, financial worries, and your endless commute are all routine stressors that can become visible on your face over time. But understanding the role stress plays in our lives is the first step to managing its symptoms. So stop, breathe, and start to take steps to manage your stress and its related breakouts.

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