Stress and your skin: How cortisol affects skin health

Heather Campbell
 min read

Stress and your skin do not make good partners as stress leads to accelerated aging of the skin and other skin disorders.

Stress and your skin: How cortisol affects skin healthChronic or acute stress has effects on our whole body. But have you ever made the connection between your nervous state and your skin problems?

Stress causes an increased production of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, allowing a state of hypervigilance to better weather the stressful situation. Short periods of stress are harmless; however, chronic stress can cause premature skin aging and other skin disorders.

Stress negatively effects the skin, such as: loss of radiance, tired complexion, redness, dark circles, eczema, acne, etc.

We explain all the links between stress and skin in this article and why and how to manage them.

Stress and your skin: Introduction

At the very beginning of the embryonic stage, the skin and the nervous system are one. They are formed from one of the 3 tissues that constitute us: the ectoderm.

The ectoderm is the outermost of the three primary germ layers of an embryo that is the source of various tissues and structures (such as the epidermis, the nervous system, and the eyes and ears).

This creates links between the skin and the nervous system. They maintain a close relationship throughout our lives, communicating non-stop via our hormonal and immune systems.

That pimple on the nose on your wedding day? That intense itch in the neck before a job interview? Logically, our skin is particularly vulnerable to stress.

And we tend to forget it, but our skin is not a simple envelope. It is a real organ that suffers, like the others, from physiological changes caused by too much or frequent stress.

When stressed, our body has other priorities than our skin

This physical prowess, this incredible courage in the face of danger, which we would never have believed ourselves capable of? It’s the stress that allows them!

Stress boosts our reflexes and defenses as soon as our reptilian or archaic brain detects a threat.

There is no need to think because it controls everything like the heart, breathing, balance, and even survival instinct. Should I run away? Attack? Stay still? If the human species has managed to get by so far, it is thanks to stress.

But what does this have to do with our skin? Stress is a degraded mode of the body: it concentrates our resources on what is important for our immediate survival, vital organs and muscles, to the detriment of the rest (including our skin).

Without too many consequences as long as the period of stress remains short. But if stress becomes a daily mode of operation, it’s a different story.

Pressure at work, intensive pace, illness, physical threats, bereavement, traffic jams, etc. Our brain goes into stress mode without prioritizing. As a result, our skin is less well-nourished, less hydrated, and becomes fragile.

Stress is a hormonal storm that the skin does not appreciate

When stressed, the production of certain hormones is activated so that our body becomes battle-ready.

Examples of these hormones:

  • Cortisol ensures, among other things, the release of sugar into our blood to provide us with the necessary energy.
  • Adrenaline is the hormone of strong sensations. As soon as it is secreted, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure accelerate, bronchi and pupils dilate…

Thanks to these 2 hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) we go into hypervigilance. Our brains and muscles are doped by these excess nutrients and oxygen making us ready to accomplish anything!

The problem is that these hormones impact the skin, its collagen, its sebum, its thickness, and sustains inflammations.

In fact, these 2 hormones are the perfect combo to promote or aggravate a number of skin disorders.

What are the effects of stress on the skin?

A small pimple or a temporary pallor, all this quickly returns to normal. But when stress becomes chronic, our skin has a hard time coping.

What are the main effects of stress on the skin? Discover them below!

Stress causes dry, itchy skin and eczema

Atopic skins, prone to eczema or psoriasis know it well: stress is not their friend.

Unbalancing the skin barrier overexposes them to the factors to which they are sensitized, multiplying and aggravating the outbreaks.

Even simply dry or sensitive skin is prone to dehydration, tightness, itching and dry flaking.

In short, while it particularly aggravates skin already suffering from issues, no skin type is immune to the harmful effects of stress.

Stress affects skin radiance

Stress is not good for your morale, and it really damages your skin’s radiance.

Adrenaline causes vasoconstriction and oxytocin (another hormone that boosts and improves our emotional reactivity) causes vasodilation.

In other words, your complexion turns gray and/or red in patches.

The eye contour area is also affected: the dilation or contraction of blood vessels and the accumulation of less well-drained lymph are particularly visible under their thin and fragile skin.

If stress is affecting your sleep, it leads to tired eyes, dark and marked circles, and bags under your eyes.

Stress promotes and aggravates blemishes

Cortisol boosts our androgen hormones, stimulating our sebum production and thickening the skin.

All this on a skin that renews itself less well means a guaranteed traffic jam!

Do you suffer from acne? Stress is one of its main aggravating factors. And stress and acne are self-perpetuating. So when you’re nervous, you tend to fiddle with your pimples and make matters worse by doing so.

Acne sets in, spreads over the face or body and takes longer to heal. Cortisol sustains inflammation and impedes healing.

Another frequent consequence of stress on the skin is seborrheic dermatitis.

This is when stress and overproduction of sebum favor the proliferation of microscopic yeasts whose presence cause redness and oily scaling on the eyebrows, scalp, between the eyes, on the wings of the nose and on the chest.

Stress promotes premature aging of the skin

A stressed skin is more fragile, less protected and renews itself less well. It is particularly exposed to free radicals. And that’s not all!

Cortisol is harmful to collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid, which are essential for the skin’s firmness, elasticity, and tone.

Add tense features, eyebrows frowned by stress and you’ve got yourself some wrinkles.

The worst part is that our immune system interprets stress as a threat. It then produces free radicals to neutralize possible pathogens linked to an injury or an infection.

While that sounds like a good thing, the result is that skin aging goes into high gear, the skin dries out and marks and pigment spots may appear.

Stress and skin problems: how to get rid of them?

So how can you reduce the effects of stress on your skin?

Find your tools to manage stress

Ideally, you should avoid any source of stress. But it’s not always easy.

Look for solutions that suit you to protect yourself and react more serenely to stressful situations. Some ideas are:

  • On a daily basis, strive to focus on the present moment. Look up from your screen, stop doing 12 things simultaneously, and disconnect!
  • Is stress mounting? Abdominal breathing is great for neuromuscular relaxation and brain oxygenation. Three times in a row, at least three times a day. As soon as the tension rises, relax all your muscles, inhale regularly and gently through your nose until your belly swells completely. The exhalation, always through the nose, should be twice as long as the inhalation. Visualize the exhalation clearing your worries and the inhalation filling you with positive energy.
  • Aromatherapy, yoga, sophrology, massage, meditation and hypnosis can be very effective if you are receptive.
  • Sport relaxes and releases endorphins. But not too much at the risk of boosting your cortisol.

Anticipate and adapt your routine to rebalance your skin

Do you know by heart the reactions of your skin to stress? Anticipate them with boosting serums.

Depending on your concern, a few drops of nourishing, antioxidant, purifying or radiance in your usual moisturizer will reinforce its preventive action against stress-related skin disorders.

Multiply their benefits by preparing your skin with a care water. For example, a radiance floral water adapted to the most fragile skins or a care water with hyaluronic acid and Aloe Vera to detox, purify and tone the skin in a gentle way.

Finally, think about an organic face mask once or twice a week.

It can be a clay-based radiance mask for dull and tired complexion or a purifying charcoal mask to regulate sebum, fight against imperfections, and overcome blurred complexion.

Adopt an anti-stress lifestyle

Certain foods strengthen our body’s resistance to stress, such as colorful seasonal fruits and vegetables, rich in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins.

But also fatty fish, legumes, almonds, or chocolate! Drink enough water, limit stimulants and alcohol, and avoid refined sugars and saturated fats.

Getting enough sleep is the best weapon against stress.

An important deadline at work? A good quota of sleep is better than a night of hyper-preparation. Napping is also useful to prevent burnout.

React quickly if the damage is already done

Dark circles or visible bags

Think about the eye contour in the morning and evening and start doing a facial gym and/or facial massage. As decongestants and circulation activators, they will give you real relaxation.

Eczema, dehydration or dry skin

Move up a gear with richer and more frequent care until your skin returns to normal with a more nourishing moisturizer or even a repairing balm.

Not to mention body care. The torso, arms and legs are often subject to intense itching due to stress.

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Stop pimples as soon as possible with an organic pimple concealer or a drop of essential oil of Lavender or Tea Tree.

Add to your routine a balancing and firming aqueous serum based on hyaluronic acid, which is particularly well suited to deal with the consequences of stress in combination with oily skin.

A rigorous daily routine rich in antioxidants

A well-cared for skin, over time, will better resist stress and regenerate itself.

The must-haves? Cleanse and moisturize your skin daily with gentle care products such as nutrition cream adapted to your skin type.

Whatever your concern, this is the key to helping it regulate itself. Yes, oily skin needs moisture, just choose a light facial.

And, even if you don’t feel like touching it, dry and uncomfortable skin also needs to be cleansed to renew itself properly (think of the cleansing milk and floral water duo for example).

And be sure to choose skincare products rich in antioxidants (such as organic cosmetics) that will help your skin deal with oxidative stress (which is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in our bodies).

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Stress and your skin: Conclusion

Finally, the effects of stress on the skin are far from being its only repercussions.

Also hair, nails, cardiovascular health, digestive and immune system, weight, memory, and libido can take a hit.

Do not take stress lightly and do not hesitate to seek help.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More