We all deal with different stresses, whether related to our jobs, our families, the cities we live in or the constant struggle to do it all.
But as Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told HuffPost, “Stress is not our friend, neither for our mind nor for our skin.”
Our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it can show signs of stress in a number of different ways, such as psoriasis and eczema flare-ups, seborrheic dermatitis and even acne.
Of course, everyone’s body and skin will react to stress in different ways, as we all have different genetic makeups. However, according to Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York City-based dermatologist and the author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, our skin can’t tell the difference between different types of stress — physical, emotional, psychological and environmental.
“To the skin, stress falls into one of two categories: acute or chronic,” she told HuffPost via email. “The more detrimental form of stress for the skin is the chronic kind of stress. The longer you endure stress, the more it takes a toll on your skin.”
Read on to find out the different ways stress can affect your skin and the rest of your body.
1. Stress triggers inflammation
To better understand how stress might affect and inflame the skin, Bowe said she looks at the “deep and powerful connection” of the skin, mind and gut. According to her, when the mind perceives stress, it can slow down digestion in the gut. The longer the stress lasts, the more of an impact it can have on your digestion, and when your digestion is slowed, it can affect the bacteria in your gut. A recent study found that high levels of stress can affect the gut bacteria much like a high-fat diet.
“That slowed motility allows for an overgrowth of unhealthy strains of bacteria, and the natural balance of gut microbes is disrupted, leading to something called dysbiosis,” she said. “This in turn causes the lining of your intestines to become ‘leaky,’ or more permeable, which triggers a bodywide cascade of inflammation.”
As a result of the internal inflammation, she said, the skin may break out in acne or experience flare-ups of psoriasis or eczema.
Dr. Forum Patel of Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City echoed Bowe’s point, explaining that when you’re under stress, “Your body thinks it’s under attack, and it’s going to form all these inflammatory markers or inflammatory cells to help treat that attack.”
Because these inflammatory cells have increased in number, it can trigger flare-ups of any skin conditions people may be predisposed to.
2. Stress can dry your skin out
Whenever our body feels it’s under stress, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, Patel noted. As a result, we experience a spike in adrenaline and cortisol.
An increase in adrenaline causes us to sweat more, she noted. It activates the eccrine glands, the sweat glands, which “cause you to become dehydrated, because you’re losing a lot more water very quickly,” she said.
“If your body thinks it’s under some sort of stress, it’s trying to cool itself down,” she said. “If you’re not replenishing your body with water, you’re going to dry out.”
Those who have dry skin in general are more prone to eczema, Patel said. Dr. Michael Eidelman, a dermatologist also based in New York City, added that stress is a known trigger for eczema, which brings us to our next point.
3. Stress hormones can trigger existing conditions to worsen or flare up
The theory is that the immune system is directly affected by stress, Eidelman said.
He noted that stress releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into our systems — “chemical messages that trigger certain physiological responses” in our bodies. For instance, adrenaline increases the heart rate and elevates blood pressure, and cortisol increases sugar in the bloodstream, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In terms of the skin, when the body produces too much cortisol, the immune system is weakened, causing an inflammatory response such as an eczema or psoriasis flare-up. This factor is particularly relevant for individuals who are predisposed to these skin conditions, Bowe said, as stress can “exacerbate or unmask those conditions.”
4. Stress can also make you oilier, which could lead to acne breakouts
That shift in hormone levels ― cortisol in particular ― caused by stress can also be a contributing factor to pesky acne breakouts.
“Stress stimulates the brain to produce a specific set of hormones that prepare the body for the stressful environment,” Zeichner said. “As a side effect, these hormones rev up activity of sebaceous glands in the skin, leading to higher than normal levels of oil, blockages in the pores and acne breakouts.”
5. Stress can also take a toll on your scalp and hair
When it comes to your scalp and hair, there are a couple of ways stress can manifest.
According to Patel, some people might find their hair is oilier or drier than normal during times of stress, depending on the way their bodies react to the shift in hormone levels.
“Everyone’s response is going to be different in severity, she said. “Your scalp and your hair will definitely feel the effects of stress.”
Some individuals might experience flare-ups of seborrheic dermatitis, a cousin to psoriasis and dandruff, Eidelman said. The condition could result in redness and flaking of the scalp.
In some cases, stress can even lead to hair loss, Patel said. For example, when your body experiences a major stressor, like a severe illness, your body stops producing hair, which isn’t crucial for healing or surviving. The effects of such stress might not be noticeable until months later, she added.
She also said that hair often starts shedding even after minor stresses. She pointed to the keto diet ― which she called a crash diet ― as one example, noting that when you put your body through a significant change, it’s essentially a stressor.
6. Stress can wreak havoc on your nails
The same way your body stops producing hair in times of prolonged stress, it also stops making nails, Patel said. Again, she said, nails are not necessary for survival, so when it comes time for the body to distribute energy to promote healing, nails aren’t a top priority.
Additionally, nails can become brittle or start peeling during times of stress, according to Science Daily.
So how should you take care of your skin when you’re stressed out?
Zeichner said it’s best to keep your skin care routine simple by using gentle cleansers and moisturizers to remove excess oil and keep the skin well hydrated (particularly important for those with eczema).
For individuals who are acne prone, he suggested regular use of retinoids to “keep the follicles clear so that oil does not become trapped, causing breakouts.”
In Bowe’s opinion, managing stress is a multifaceted effort. She said she recommends that her patients aim to get a solid seven to nine hours of sleep, exercise three or four times a week and consider meditation or deep breathing exercises.
Eidelman agreed, saying there isn’t one single method for treating skin that’s under stress.
“I think the first thing is being aware that your body is under stress and trying to find ways to either ameliorate the stress or find ways to release the stress,” he said, adding that exercise and meditation have been known to help some individuals feel less stressed.
“There isn’t one right answer for each person, but there are different things that will work for each individual, depending on what their stress triggers are,” he said.