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A woman wearing abaya and touching her neck to represent the stress and your skin

Stress and your skin

Written by
Chloë James

If one thing’s inevitable in life, it’s stress. However much you try to avoid it, there’s only so much yoga, scented candles, and meditation can achieve before the trials and tribulations of daily life take their toll.

Even if stress was strictly emotional, it would be tough. But, as plenty of us know only too well, stress can manifest itself in strange ways. Sleepless nights, headaches, and even stomach pains are all common symptoms. And one of the most frustrating of all? The impact stress takes on your skin.

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What does stress do to my skin?

It would probably be quicker to say what stress doesn’t do to your skin. Stress, just like any strong emotion, is wrapped up with your hormones. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol. This is what makes you feel on edge – and what upsets your skin so much.


Cortisol has a hand in plenty of bodily functions, including sebum production. Higher cortisol levels mean more oil – and too much oil can clog pores, triggering acne. So, while stress itself doesn’t directly cause acne, it plays a significant role.

Weak skin barrier

Your skin barrier is (unsurprisingly) there to protect your skin from anything that might cause it harm. It needs just three things to function properly: oil, water, and the microbiome. However, these three things also happen to be some of the first affected by stress and its cortisol roller coaster.

Once your barrier is impaired, the main difference is that your skin struggles to retain moisture. Water loss can leave skin looking dry or rough, as well as negating your usual glow. Basically, your skin starts to look as stressed as you feel.

Skin flare-ups

No amount of stress can give you a skin disorder. What it can do is trigger existing conditions, with some patients only discovering they suffer from the likes of eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis during a particularly trying time in their life.

Again, this all comes back to the stress-induced surge in oils. All that oil kicks your skin’s inflammatory response into high gear, leading to a flare-up at the worst possible moment.

Collagen breakdown

Cortisol might exaggerate oil levels, but it also drives down collagen and elastin (AKA the things your skin wants). Lower levels of these proteins lead to drier, thinner-looking skin that doesn’t bounce back the way it once did.

And that’s not all. Chronic stress can also create insulin resistance, leading to higher blood sugar levels. The impact extends way beyond just skin – however, when we’re talking fine lines and wrinkles, a process named glycation occurs which can damage even more collagen.

Stress can also generate more free radicals, which are fine in moderation, but will attack collagen and elastin supplies in excess.

How do I avoid stressing out my skin?

In an ideal world, we’d just chill out. Things like regular exercise, meditation, or taking a break from your electronics can all make a positive difference.

But sometimes slowing down just isn’t an option. If you’re looking after a young family, struggling with work pressure, planning a wedding, or doing anything else where you have no choice but to simply get through it, there’s only so much you can do to alleviate the problem.

And the most frustrating twist of fate? When it comes to your skin, any visible side effects of stress can make you feel even more stressed. But it’s not a total lost cause. If you can’t control your environment, you can control your skin routine. With some care and attention, you can support your complexion through a rough period and emerge from the other side feeling and looking fresh.

What can I do to help?


Stay hydrated

Water isn’t the ultimate cure-all, but it comes pretty close. Drinking enough water (which most people agree is between two and three litres a day) keeps skin hydrated and working to the best of its ability. It’s a crucial step if you’re worried about your skin barrier – and it’s even been linked to lower stress levels.

Cut down on caffeine

Coffee may seem like a saving grace on days where you’re just trying to power through, but your skin definitely doesn’t agree. Too much caffeine can send cortisol levels skyrocketing. If you’re already stressed, this isn’t the most helpful thing in the world. To avoid exaggerating any skin concerns, try to keep your intake as low as possible.

Try lymphatic drainage massage

“Lymphatic drainage” sounds much more complicated than it actually is. The theory is that gentle massage will prevent the build-up of lymph fluid, reducing swelling and improving circulation. People do it for a long list of reasons – some more proven than others – but ultimately, it’s a relaxing way to destress (and temporarily depuff) your face.

Skincare and treatments

Go gentle

If you’re stressed on the inside, the last thing you need is to stress your skin from the outside. Ditch anything that leaves your skin feeling tight, itchy, or sensitive as it is too aggressive. Instead, look for products that feel nourishing or hydrating. These usually contain ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerine, or ceramides, and will go a long way in preserving the strength of your skin barrier.

For a more intensive dose of hydration, try treatments with high concentrations of hyaluronic acid such as Profhilo or filler. This will help your skin cling to moisture – looking and feeling healthier than before.

Browse clinics offering filler and Profhilo.

Boost collagen

A dull, lifeless complexion usually stems from a lack of collagen. It’s not as simple as directly topping up the levels in your skin – in fact, most skincare that promises to do this is selling something it can’t achieve.

Instead, you can opt for treatments that activate your skin’s healing response, increasing collagen production, and generally helping it to recover faster from damage. Options include mesotherapy or RF microneedling. If your skin is struggling from anything like rosacea or psoriasis, you may also want to try LED light therapy to help tackle the issues on a cellular level.

Browse clinics offering mesotherapy and RF microneedling.

Embrace antioxidants

The free radicals generated by stress are annoying, but not unbeatable. Introducing your skin to more antioxidants – such as vitamin C, niacinamide, vitamin E, or retinol – can combat and minimise the damage they create in your skin.

Keep pores clean and clear

If acne is your primary concern when it comes to stress, your best friend is anything that unclogs pores. HydraFacials use multiple steps to do everything from exfoliating to nourishing your skin – providing a total reset in stressful times. Another option is a laser facial, which reduces your stress-heightened sebum production to reduce your risk of clogging pores in the first place.

Indulge yourself

A little TLC works wonders when you’re stressed, and the same goes for your skin. Facials can be as relaxing as they are hydrating or exfoliating. In fact, taking the time out for any treatment – or carving out part of your evening to complete your skincare routine – can be endlessly valuable when you’re trying to destress. Just remember to go easy on yourself and your skin.

Browse clinics offering facials.

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