By Jenn Sinrich
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol are also known to contribute to the breakdown of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, and elastin, the protein that forms in the connective tissues, explains Blair Murphy-Rose, M.D., a dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. The result? Accelerating signs of skin aging like wrinkles and laxity. “Reducing stress levels will help to keep your skin healthier and more youthful,” she says. “While there are many factors contributing to the development of these skin conditions and to skin aging, like genetics, environmental exposures, lifestyle habits, etc., keeping physical and emotional stress under control can certainly help.”
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol are known to lead to flare-ups in inflammation, which can worsen skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, notes Murphy-Rose. One study published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica showed how high amounts of cortisol can significantly worsen eczema as a result of its impact on the immune system. “It is the immune system dysregulation that results from the cortisol that then triggers inflammatory responses in the skin that worsens psoriasis and eczema, among many other conditions,” she says. “Increased inflammation brings about redness, flakiness, and itching.”
Acne can start because of stress or can worsen in the setting of stress. “When someone is stressed it can trigger an increase in the stress hormone cortisol level, which can then contribute to increased sebum production and inflammation, which can subsequently contribute to worsening breakouts,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York.
In response to stress, your body releases higher levels of cortisol and this, in and of itself, can lead to oily and greasy skin, warns Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Among many functions, cortisol increases oil production from sebaceous glands which worsens acne,” she says. The good news is that decreasing your stress levels can help get your skin under control. In addition to decreasing emotional and physical stress as much as possible, Dr. Murphy-Rose suggests using an over-the-counter acne medication containing salicylic acid to dissolve oils trapped in pores.
External stressors, like cold weather or exposure to sunlight, aren’t the only factors that can impact the skin barrier, the outermost layer of skin that protects all the other layers. In fact, psychological stressors can also disrupt the skin barrier, leading to increased moisture loss as well as making the skin more susceptible to irritation and sensitivity notes, notes Dr. Garshick. “In these cases, it is especially important to help restore moisture by moisturizing the skin regularly, specifically opting for a cream or ointment when possible and minimizing anything that can strip the skin of its natural oils,” she says.
Yes, hair does qualify as a modified type of skin, as it grows from the scalp and, just as with the skin on your face, your hair is also impacted by both physical stress and psychological stress in a form of temporary hair loss known as telogen effluvium, explains Dr. Garshick. “This hair loss is a temporary shedding that occurs 2-3 months after a stressful event but tends to improve with time,” she says. “It is always good to speak with your dermatologist if you are experiencing hair changes to discuss potential treatment options.”
If you’ve ever felt particularly itchy during times of stress, it wasn’t just your imagination — there’s a real correlation. Some people actually experience hives — raised, puffy welts — when they are experiencing high levels of stress, per the American Institute of Stress. The classic scenario is someone experiencing a stressful situation either at work or at home and finding themselves distracted by an itchy feeling on their arm, legs, neck, or back of the scalp, explains Erum Ilyas, M.D., a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in King of Prussia. “People are often convinced there is something on their skin — a ‘creepy-crawly’ sensation is common and will pinpoint areas that they cannot help but want to dig or pick out of their skin,” she says.