Everyone experiences stress in their lives, and in the midst of a global pandemic, you’re probably experiencing more stress than usual lately. While stress can manifest itself in many ways in our body, one of the most common physical reactions is on our skin. Whether it’s a sudden increase in acne or a particularly bad eczema flare-up, stress can take a serious toll on your complexion. Here, we’ll break down exactly how stress affects us and how to treat it.
First, what is stress and what does it do to our body?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension that’s a reaction to any event or thought that evokes feelings of frustration, anger, or nervousness. But it’s not only a single troubling event that can affect your stress levels, cultural stress—a topic thoroughly investigated by Dr. Howard Murad, one of the pioneers of modern wellness—plays a major role in our physical and mental wellbeing, too.
Cultural stress, which is the stress of modern living, is caused by the pressure to keep up with endless emails, extensive work demands, a constant digital connection and even just increased traffic. Cultural stress can lead to less time with loved ones, causing many of us to feel isolated and provoking feelings of low self worth.
When you experience stress—whether that’s a singular stressful event or everyday cultural stress—your brain tells the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol as part of your “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline is responsible for your pounding heart and sweaty palms, while cortisol releases sugar into the bloodstream, regulating blood pressure, and shutting down activity in nonessential systems like digestion. Although adrenaline drops back to normal levels within 15 minutes, cortisol can remain elevated for hours, and long-term cortisol can ultimately have damaging side effects.
How does cortisol impact the skin?
There’s a profound connection between how we’re feeling emotionally and how our skin behaves thanks to cortisol. Heightened levels of cortisol from stress can create visible reactions on our complexion. The rush of stress hormones causes inflammation, which can trigger bumps, rashes, and breakouts. Stress also causes our sebaceous glands to pump out more of the oil that bacteria thrive on, which leads to clogged pores and increased acne.
But that’s not all, cortisol causes a decrease in the production of keratinocytes—the primary type of cells found in the epidermis—which leads to dullness and rough texture. It also causes a decrease in fibroblast—the cells that make collagen—proliferation which causes expression lines and crow’s feet.
Stress can even physically age you faster than normal. Here’s why: Stress shortens our telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes that affect how quickly our cells age. As our telomeres get shorter, our lives tend to get shorter. One study even found that women with high levels of perceived stress have shortened telomeres that are equal to about a decade of accelerated aging, meaning stress physically aged these women by 10 years.
How can we treat stressed skin?
Before attempting to fix your skin on your own, see a licensed Murad provider to determine the best way to treat stressed skin. Your provider will first do a skin and lifestyle assessment to determine the best course of treatment for your particular concerns. If stress is your biggest skin trigger, they’ll likely recommend the Murad Retinol Dual Phase Power Peel Treatment, which is a no-downtime peel that works to exfoliate away dull, dry skin in order to renew skin tone and texture with Murad’s proprietary Retinol Tri-Active Technology. Since cortisol causes a decrease in keratinocyte proliferation, which leads to dullness and rough texture, this kind of gentle-yet-effective exfoliation is key for removing dead keratinocytes that have accumulated on the skin.
For at-home care post-peel, choose a gentle exfoliator like the Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, which uses salicylic, lactic and glycolic acids to encourage cell turnover. Because inflammation is another major issue in stressed skin, it’s vital to soothe the irritation with a hydrating product. The Murad Revitalixir Recovery Serum uses a blend of neuropeptide, cannabis sativa seed oil, and niacinamide to refine texture, boost softness, moisturize the skin, and reverse signs of stress. Caffeine within the product also minimizes puffiness and re-invigorates the skin tone.
You should also look for ingredients like vitamins B and E to alleviate dryness and add extra moisture to the skin. Lightweight formulas like the Murad Nutrient-Charged Water Gel are a good option for those looking to soothe their complexion.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you should attack the root of your skin issues—stress—if you want them to clear up permanently. With this in mind, it’s probably a good idea to discuss your higher-than-usual stress levels with a health care provider or therapist. By reducing those stress levels and adopting a solid skin-care routine, your complexion certainly won’t be showing signs of stress for much longer.