Our bodies are quite adept at dealing with high-anxiety situations. Once the stress hormone cortisol kicks in, a chemical cascade of events follows, helping us to tackle whatever challenge is being thrown our way, from a tight deadline to a ferocious dog. But while this process can be helpful physiologically and mentally (we tend to be quicker on our feet because of it), it can also wreak havoc on our hair, skin, and nails. Breathe easy: Here are simple ways to overcome the aesthetic effects of stress.
Why it happens: Let’s face it—great hair is an asset but not essential to good health. Your body knows this intrinsically, so when you’re so stressed that you’re eating poorly or losing weight, it directs all its energy to making sure that your vital organs are functioning properly; it doesn’t waste precious resources on your hair. As a result, says Amy McMichael, the chair of the department of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “follicles in the growing stage go immediately into the resting and shedding phase,” a condition known as telogen effluvium.
How to treat it: If, instead of shedding the normal 100 strands a day, you’re shedding more like 300—meaning handfuls fall into the sink when you’re brushing—see your doctor. If your hair loss is caused by a poor diet due to stress, your doctor may start by testing your levels of B12, zinc, iron, and the protein ferritin—nutrients that are crucial to hair growth—and suggest that you take supplements if you have any deficiencies. She may also discuss stress-management techniques if diet alone is not to blame. Once the stress is addressed (ohmmm), the condition should fully reverse in 6 to 10 months. In the meantime, you can make the effects less noticeable: Lather up with a thickening shampoo that coats the hair with amino acids, such as L’Oréal Paris EverStrong Thickening Shampoo ($7 at drugstores), and consider styling with a dry-shampoo spray, such as Bosley Bos-Renew Volumizing Dry Shampoo ($19, ulta.com). It will keep scalp oils from weighing down thin hair while still offering hold.
Why it happens: As we’ve witnessed time and again, anyone who holds the most stressful job in the country—president of the United States—goes gray fairly quickly. And until now researchers have never completely understood why. But this past summer researchers at New York University School of Medicine found that physical stress, such as burning your hand, causes melanocytes, the stem cells responsible for hair color and other regenerative processes, to migrate from the hair follicles to other parts of the body to promote healing. This leaves hair without pigment and therefore gray. The researchers theorize that emotional stress may also be associated with depletion of melanocytes, setting off graying.
How to treat it: There is currently no known way to reverse graying, but some of the latest home and salon hair colorants are formulated with an oil-based delivery method that can help mask silvery strands by increasing the dye penetration into the shafts and coating wiry grays so that they lie flat and smooth. (Try Garnier Olia Oil Powered Permanent color, $10 at drugstores; or Redken Chromatics Beyond Covers, prices vary, redken.com for salons.)
Ragged Cuticles and Tips
Why it happens: According to Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City, trying times don’t directly affect the thickness or the strength of the nail beds. But they can cause people to ease their stress by biting or picking at their cuticles, which may have long-term effects on the appearance of the nails, she says. Picking at cuticles leaves fingertips vulnerable to inflammation, infection, and swelling, which can, in turn, cause nails to grow with unsightly grooves and bumps. And over time nibbling can permanently weaken nails, altering their shape and ability to grow.
How to treat it: If you’ve picked your cuticles to the point of redness, apply a small daily squeeze of an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. If they’re ragged, rub in a treatment like CND SolarOil ($11, cnd.com for info), which conditions with sweet-almond and jojoba oils. If nail biting is your bête noire, try a long-lasting salon gel manicure. “The professional grooming will keep your nails neat, so you’re less tempted to pick and bite, and the amount of time that you can expect a gel manicure to stay on—three weeks—can help wean you off a bad habit,” says Dana Stern, a New York City–based dermatologist who specializes in nails.
Grooved Nail Beds
Why it happens: Not unlike telogen effluvium, stress-induced changes in diet can cause nails to stop growing. Luckily, nails don’t fall off en masse the way that hair can. Instead, about three months after the intense event, a deep and harmless horizontal groove, known as a Beau’s line, appears on the nail bed.
How to treat it: “As the nail with the Beau’s line grows, it can occasionally lift off the nail bed and smooth itself out,” says Stern, and this is normal and painless. But more often it simply grows out and is filed away. To even out the divot temporarily, use a ridge-filling base coat, like Deborah Lippmann Ridge Filler Base Coat ($20, neimanmarcus.com).
Why it happens: In a 2003 Stanford University School of Medicine study, researchers suggested that undergraduates’ acne worsened during exams. Adjusting for changes in diet and the amount and quality of sleep, the researchers determined that increased stress levels were the primary cause of acne flare-ups. “The exact mechanism is not totally clear, but hormone levels that rise in times of stress are known to increase oil production,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. More specifically, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline tell the body to free up more glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar) so it can be used as an immediate energy source to fend off threats. The problem is, raised glucose levels also switch on a gene that promotes acne. To make matters worse, cortisol, in and of itself, increases sebum production and decreases the skin’s ability to reduce inflammation. At the same time, adrenaline, during periods of chronic stress, binds to sweat glands, which brings more pore-clogging sweat to the skin’s surface. The result: a perfect storm for acne to proliferate.
How to treat it: Stress-induced acne responds to the same treatments as regular acne. You just might need to step up your game a bit. For example, “if you usually use an over-the-counter product and it’s not effective, talk to your doctor about a prescription treatment, such as a topical containing a retinoid,” says McMichael. (For an acne-reducing, skin-care regimen, try washing with a gentle cleanser, such as SkinCeuticals Gentle Cleanser; $34, skinceuticals.com. Next, moisturize with a calming cream, such as Kiehl’s Skin Rescuer Stress-Minimizing Daily Hydrator; $40, kiehls.com. Offset any redness with Dermalogica Ultra Sensitive Tint; $40, dermalogica.com.) Of course, few strategies work better than reducing the stress itself: Take breaks. Meditate. And get sufficient Z’s (sleep deprivation is also associated with increased cortisol).
Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Why it happens: The aforementioned spike in blood sugar, prompted by cortisol and adrenaline, also raises the amount of sugar molecules in collagen, the protein that gives skin its structure. The process, known as glycation, forms compounds called advanced glycation end products—shortened to, fittingly, AGEs—which stiffen collagen, giving the skin a more brittle appearance over time. On its own, cortisol also reduces levels of glycosaminoglycan and hyaluronic acid, molecules that keep skin plump and youthful looking.
How to treat it: The effects of AGEs on the skin are naturally more apparent as we A-G-E, but dietary adjustments can slow down the process. Minimizing simple carbohydrates in the diet, like white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which increase the rate of glycation tenfold, may stabilize blood sugar. Traditional anti-aging treatments can be effective, too. Peptide- or retinol-containing products help produce new collagen, and antioxidants fend off free-radical damage.