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How does stress affect our skin?

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This post is part of a series about skin stressors and skin health. Read the rest of the posts in this series:

Ever notice that you’re more prone to a breakout after a stressful month?

Much as it feels like the universe is just out to get you (seriously?), we promise that’s not the case. Your inevitable post-deadline breakout is just one of the more obvious examples of how stress affects our skin.

Sneaky as it may be, stress causes the same kind of oxidative damage as more obvious sources of environmental stress like UV exposure, pollution, and poor diet.

In this post, we’ll dig into what stress is, explain how stress affects our skin, and outline some of our favorite stress-busting strategies.

What is stress, anyway?

So, what is stress? The answer to this question is less obvious than it may sound!

We can all identify the feeling of acute stress. Whether you’re late for a big meeting or worried about a loved one, the sweaty palms and racing heart remain the same. This acute stress—the kind that goes away after a few hours— is one source of environmental stress.

But prolonged stress is far more likely to cause prolonged skin problems. When we say prolonged stress, we mean the kind that creeps in and takes root over weeks, months, or years.

We might attribute this type of stress to objective forces like lack of sleep, a poor diet, or illness. These factors cause literal stress to our bodies at the biological level, sapping our resources and leaving us depleted. Often, treating that stress is as simple as treating the stressor itself.

woman on a red floor with her head between her kneesThe tricker stressors to untangle are the ones the medical community refers to as psychosocial stressors. This kind of stress isn’t caused by a single, objectively stressful thing. Work stress, for instance, can eat away at our health. So can a sick family member, a big life decision, a move to a new city, the loss of a loved one, the process of finding childcare, or tension in a relationship.

The key here is that these chronic stressors are completely individual. What chronically stresses one person out may be only a minor annoyance to another. The particular psychosocial stressor doesn’t matter as much as how we perceive the stressfulness of what’s happening in our lives.  

And how does stress affect our skin?

Researchers aren’t exactly sure how stress affects our skin, but the hypothesis goes like this: when our stress systems are activated for a prolonged period, it impairs our immune systems and increases oxidative stress in our cells.

That means that like UV light and smog, psychosocial stress creates oxidative stress. Read more about environmental stressors in our post What are environmental stressors, anyway?. Chronic stress is known to make many skin diseases like psoriasis, acne, and eczema even worse. Some data shows it may play a role in prematurely aging our skin as well.

pink paper hole surrounding a mouth and nose

Researchers have also explored chronic stress’ ability to impair our skin’s barrier function. Normally, our skin does a great job of keeping water in while keeping nasties like pathogens, chemicals, and injury out. It turns out that stressed-out skin isn’t great at doing its job. Studies have actually linked stress to decreased barrier function.

In fact, the “brain-skin” axis, the complex relationship between our brains, skin, and immune systems is a very active area of research. Our skin was designed to communicate well with our brain, as evidenced by the dense collection of nerves that report back on heat, cold, touch and pain. In that way, our skin affects the way our brain interacts with the world. 

Stress-free skin strategies

Much as we love a good product, the solution to stressed-out skin is lowering our overall level of stress. Psychosocial stress, in particular, might be tough to untangle, so try implementing one of these tools.

Pick up meditation. Stress relief doesn’t come in a bottle, but it might come in an app. Calm and Headspace are two of our favorites for cultivating a regular meditation practice, which studies show has a positive effect on perceived stress.

Ditch caffeine. We know, we know. But caffeine kicks up our cortisol response, is even more sensitive when we’re chronically stressed. If too much coffee leaves you sweaty and stressed, try cutting back or even (deep breath) eliminating it for a month.

Tackle your sleep. Sleeping too little causes stress, decreases our immunity, and makes us more prone to chronic disease—all factors that cause stress on their own! Stop this cycle by focusing on your sleep.  Simple tactics like putting down screens an hour before bed, lowering your bedroom temperature, nixing caffeine in the afternoon, and implementing a moderate exercise routine, can help.

Improve your diet. Like lack of sleep, a poor diet increases stress. A diet that’s lacking fruit and vegetables is also lacking antioxidants, which are our bodies’ first lines of defense against environmental stress (see our post How do antioxidants for skincare work, anyway? for more). Try simply adding one more serving of vegetables per day, packing a lunch instead of eating out, or tracking the nutritional value of what you eat in an app like MyFitnessPal.

man with head in hands

Get outside. The Japanese process of “forest bathing” has gained popularity in recent years, and researchers are taking notice. The bottom line is that spending a few minutes outside each day, particularly among green and growing things, is likely to make you feel better.

Exercise regularly. Exercise regulates our hormones and releases endorphins. Yes, like that scene in Legally Blonde. While too much exercise might CAUSE your body stress, finding the right balance (even if that looks like a daily walk) can be beneficial.

Support your skin from within. Remember that the antioxidants in Sundaily gummies are great at fighting not just stress, but other environmental stressors we just can’t avoid like UV light, lack of sleep, and poor diet. Start your subscription today!

And, okay, one topical suggestion. Since we know stress affects barrier function, make sure you’re moisturizing regularly to keep the barrier in tip-top shape. Juice Beauty Tinted Mineral Moisturizer (SPF 30), includes sun protection to fight two environmental stressors at once.


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