Lately, despite the twice daily cleansing and moisturising, weekly scrubs and face packs and copious amounts of water, I have been noticing that my skin has never ever looked this terrible.
Time to visit the dermatologist — who takes one look at my blotchy complexion, flaking chin, dark circles and the monstrous zit on my forehead and decides what I need is a “life questionnaire” rather than a session of microdermabrasion.
And through gradual prodding and poking, we arrive at the root cause — stress (and a lot of being pissed off, to boot), which is literally killing my skin cells.
I have always known that stress leads to high blood pressure, depression, migraines, heart disease, obesity… yada yada yada!
But honestly, it never bothered me because all that’s in the future.
However, skin problems like stress acne and stress skin rashes, are in the here and now! Hence, this required some serious research.
And what I found is that given our increasingly crazy lifestyles, there is actually a field of medicine called psychodermatology, which focuses on the mind-beauty connection.
Experts of psychodermatology treat skin conditions that are caused or worsened by stress and here I am summarising what they say happens to our complexions when we are emotionally troubled.
But remember, these “quick fixes” are just that — quick fixes.
To actually reverse the beauty (and overall health!) effects of stress, you need to go much deeper than lotions and potions!
Stress and skin #1: Dull skin
Stress triggers cortisol (a stress hormone), which slows down the production of skin cells, making them take longer to reach the surface and flake off. Hence, dead skin cells build up, making your face look dull and lifeless.
Quick fix: Exfoliate regularly.
Stress and skin #2: Stress acne
Psychological stress puts sebaceous glands in overdrive, which increases the skin’s oil production. This excessive oil, combined with the buildup of dead skin cells, is the perfect recipe for blocked pores and acne breakouts.
Quick fix: Keep skin clear of surface dirt, oil and dead cells. Use non-comedogenic beauty products and wash your face gently with a soft flannel.
Stress and skin #3: Skin infections
Another way in which emotional stress can affect skin health? Normal epidermal cells are packed tightly together, forming a strong skin barrier that blocks the entry of bacteria and other toxins.
When you are under stress, this protective layer becomes less effective, allowing harmful bacteria to reach the deeper layers of skin.
Quick fix: Keep skin scrupulously clean with a mild soap. Use warm, not hot water, and pat skin dry instead of rubbing; put moisturiser on immediately.
Stress and skin #4: Stress skin rashes
Chronic stress decreases skin’s self-repairing abilities, while also releasing histamines (which create allergic reactions) into the bloodstream.
The result? Stressed skin is much more prone to flareups of immunity-related conditions such as rashes, hives, atopic dermatitis, cold sores, psoriasis and eczema.
Quick fix: Look for beauty products that contain soothing ingredients like avocado oil, almond oil, aloe vera, Shea butter, sunflower oil and chamomile.
Also, cut down on the number of skincare products you use — fewer products means lesser ingredients and hence a lower risk of an allergic reaction.
Stress and skin #5: Dryness
Stressed skin has a very low lipid (protective) barrier, so fluids evaporate more easily.
In addition, cortisol also reduces the skin’s ability to retain water, leading to excessively dry skin.
That’s why even those of us with oily skin feel it getting drier during a stressful period.
Quick fix: Try a weekly moisture mask and layer a hydrating serum under your moisturiser.
Also, avoid using toners and cleansers that contain harsh ingredients such as Ammonium Laurenth Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate, which can further dehydrate and irritate the skin.
Stress and skin #6: Premature aging
During times of crisis, our body redirects the flow of blood to areas that are considered to be vital organs as a stress response — such as the lungs and heart. This leaves skin without essential blood and oxygen.
The result? Increased production of free radicals and tissue-damaging oxidants, which speed up wrinkles, fine lines and other signs of premature ageing.
All of which make you look older than your years. Not good, right?
Quick fix: Try some facial exercises and massage. These help release tension along with increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to muscles, tissue and skin, making the complexion look vibrant and healthier.
Stress and skin #7: Sagging
Furthermore, the high stress levels that lead to prolonged cortisol production also result in loss of collagen and elastin, resulting in slackness, sagging and loss of elasticity.
Quick fix: Consume foods that increase collagen production and benefit the skin. For example, soy products help block enzymes that break down and age the skin.
Also, try topical beauty products containing Vitamin C or hyaluronic acid.
Stress and skin #8: Sallowness
Besides the stress rashes, being in a stressful situation can also hurt the digestive system. This means essential nutrients are not digested properly, allowing build up of impurities.
As a result, besides the stress acne, skin also looks dull, lifeless and sallow.
Quick fix: A compromised digestive system means you need to go the extra step with a healthy diet and plenty of water.
Step up intake of leafy greens, fruit and high protein grains and lentils as well as healthy fats like those found in avocados and olive oil. Skipping meals is a complete no-no for stressed skin!
Stress and skin #9: Inflammation
Prolonged stress creates chronic inflammation, which leads to an uneven skin tone and texture, lack of radiance and hyperpigmentation. And those stress skin rashes that we spoke about earlier.
Quick fix: Sleep is anti-inflammatory — a time of healing, when cortisol levels are at their lowest. Getting enough nap-time will keep your body’s best coping skills at hand, which is an important factor in countering the effect of stress.
Stress and skin #10: Skin cancers
In a study at Yale University, it was found that people with melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — were more likely to have gone through stressful events during the years leading up to their diagnosis than people who did not have skin cancer.
Quick fix: Not all of us can actually avoid acute stress during some phases of our lives. What we can do? Remember to not skip the sunscreen — even if you are indoors. Rule of thumb is that if the natural light is bright enough to read, it’s bright enough to damage your skin.