Just because you're stressed doesn't mean your skin has to be too.

By Kristin Corpuz
May 27, 2020
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It's long been established that what happens inside your body has an external effect on your skin. When you're drinking lots of water, eating a balanced diet, and getting a decent amount of sleep every night, your skin is pretty happy overall. But when you're dehydrated, consuming a lot of junk food, and not sleeping well, you usually see the effects exhibited on your skin in the form of acne breakouts, hives, and other inflammation like rosacea and eczema

But did you know that your mental state can also have a substantial impact on your skin? Namely, stress can really take its toll on your complexion. And in times like these, when uncertainty is the norm and stress levels are high, your skin is likely feeling the effects of current circumstances. 

"It has been well-documented that stress has a harmful effect on the skin," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Stress slows wound healing, impairs the skin barrier, and promotes inflammation." He explains that stress is associated with worsening of skin conditions like eczema and rosacea. It can also cause acne breakouts because the same hormones that prepare our bodies to deal with stressful environments also stimulate our oil glands and cause inflammation in the follicles.  

So what exactly causes your skin's reaction to stress? It all starts with a hormone called cortisol. "Cortisol is our body's main stress hormone," says Dr. Zeichner. "It helps our body break down sugars to give us energy as part of our fight or flight response. Blood is shifted away from the skin and towards our muscles, to prepare our bodies for the stressful environment." 

But when your cortisol level is raised, it stimulates inflammaging, breaks down collagen, triggers acne and rashes, and disrupts the skin barrier. While a spike in cortisol is great for fight or flight situations, it isn't healthy for the level to stay elevated for long periods of time. So in order to help reduce the effects of cortisol on the skin, you should do what you can to reduce your stress, and therefore, your cortisol level. 

It probably sounds obvious, but anything that helps you live a less stressful life is beneficial. Getting fresh air, exercising, sex, yoga, meditation, and other activities can help relieve stress. Dr. Zeichner also recommends avoiding junk food. "High sugar levels have been shown to promote inflammation in the skin, and may exacerbate the effects of stress on the skin," he says. 

And at the end of the day, if you're still stressed and can't avoid your skin breaking out, there are a few products that can help. Read on for a few of our favorites. 


"The goal of a cleanser is to cleanse the skin without compromising the integrity of the skin barrier itself," says Dr. Zeichner. "Some harsh cleansers can strip the skin and cause skin barrier dysfunction." If you like bar soaps, check out Herbivore's Emerald 50mg Cleansing Soap Bar ($14; herbivorebotanicals.com), which contains organic CBD, hemp oil, and kaolin clay to soothe, nourish, and purify your skin. For oil cleansers, Tatcha's Pure One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil ($48; tatcha.com) has oleic acid and a mix of vitamins and omegas, which are rich in antioxidants to protect your skin from environmental stressors. Plus, you can use the oil to massage your face to relieve muscle tension. And for wet cleansers, the Summer Fridays Super Amino Gel Cleanser ($38; sephora.com) is a gentle, nourishing cleanser that balances your skin's pH and releases impurities, but doesn't strip it of its natural oils.


"Look for soothing, calming products to address sensitized stressed skin," says Dr. Zeichner. He recommends the Kate Somerville DeliKate Recovery Serum ($85; sephora.com), which delivers high levels of repairing ceramides and fatty acids to repair the outer skin layer. (He says to think of them as "grout to fill in the cracks between skin cell tiles.") You can also try the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Stress Rescue Super Serum ($74; sephora.com), where hero products, niacinamide and B3, supports lipid barrier function to help your skin retain moisture. 


"Skin hydration levels decrease starting in the afternoon, so a night cream is important," explains Dr. Zeichner. "When the skin is stressed and the barrier is disrupted, dryness can be even worse." He recommends looking for ingredients that help your skin retain hydration, like hyaluronic acid or ceramides. Check out the Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream ($48; sephora.com) or Drunk Elephant's Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer with Ceramides ($60; sephora.com), both of which support the skin barrier and shield it from water and moisture loss. 


There are a variety of treatments that can help combat the signs of stress on the skin. Retinol is known as an anti-aging ingredient, but it also helps people who are prone to stress-related changes in their skin's oiliness, dryness, and congestion. Try out Sunday Riley's A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum ($85; sephora.com) or Shani Darden's Retinol Reform ($88; sephora.com). If stress exhibits itself in the form of acne breakouts, Alleyoop's Spot Me ($12; meetalleyoop.com) works on all kinds of bumps and blemishes, including acne and ingrown hairs. And for an anytime, anywhere treatment, the Sarah Chapman Liquid Facial D-Stress ($45; net-a-porter.com) can be applied before or after makeup, right after cleansing, and any other time your skin needs a little extra protection. 


Like treatments, masks help address stress-induced inflammation as it comes up. Look for masks that work to purify or soothe your skin, depending on the type of issues you're having. Alpyn Beauty’s Calming Midnight Mask ($68; sephora.com) is made to be applied overnight while you sleep, using melatonin to soothe inflamed skin and wild dandelion to detoxify. For masks that you rinse off, try Glossier's Mega Greens Galaxy Pack ($22; glossier.com), which helps control excess oil, or Glamglow's Supermud ($59; sephora.com), which draws out skin's impurities.


"The skin under the eyes is among the thinnest and most sensitive on the body, so it is most at risk for dryness, irritation, and even puffiness," says Dr. Zeichner. He adds: "Soothing eye masks are great for stress because of calming benefits both to the skin and to the mind as you relax with them on." Check out Peter Thomas Roth 24K Gold Pure Luxury Lift & Firm Hydra-Gel Eye Patches ($75; sephora.com) or Patchology Flash Patch Rejuvenating Eye Gels ($50; nordstrom.com). 


Lastly, you can't forget about your lips. "Stress may mean nail biting and lip biting, which can cause dryness and cracks in the lips themselves," explains Dr. Zeichner. Opt for a lip product that's more mask-like so that it provides lasting hydration to your lips. Try Summer Fridays Lip Butter Balm ($22; sephora.com) or Bite Beauty Agave+ Intensive Lip Mask ($26; sephora.com), both of which are vegan products that use nectars, butters, and other natural extracts to smooth the lips.