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A quick news catch-up and a glance at the number of unread emails on your phone can be enough to spike your stress level before you even leave your bedroom in the morning. The commute into work and work itself are rarely going to de-stress you. And… wait, pimples too? Why is the universe doing this?
Well, it’s likely not the universe. It’s the stress. And if the trials of modern life are taking their toll not only on your psyche but also on your skin, you’re not alone.
We checked in with dermatologists for their advice on how to get a handle on breakouts. These tips won’t sort out your stress, but at least that stress might stop showing up on your face.
Your first stop is your local drugstore: Pick up some topical spot treatments, says Robin Evans, MD, a dermatologist in Connecticut.
“Topical benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid are options,” she says. “Both are available over the counter (OTC) and can be directly applied as a spot treatment to individual lesions or over the general affected area, as long as it doesn’t cause too much dryness or irritation for you.”
If you’re experiencing a painful stress cyst, Evans also recommends a holding a warm or cold compress over the area to reduce pain and redness. Plain old ice can also do a surprising amount for stress acne.
For a double-whammy, super-cheap DIY treatment, consider making ice cubes from green tea, which has been shown in some clinical trials to help reduce sebum production.
Another damage control option: an alpha hydroxy acid solution,
Michele Green, MD, a dermatologist in New York City, recommends seeing your dermatologist for a more serious treatment regimen if stress acne poses a regular problem for you.
“The sooner you act to get an appointment with your dermatologist, the better, because it will prevent or minimize acne scarring,” Green says. “Your dermatologist can prescribe medication to control and regulate hormones.”
They can also book you for a range of treatments that can help, including:
- chemical peels
Soleymani T, et al. (2018). A practical approach to chemical peels: A review of fundamentals and step-by-step algorithmic protocol for treatment. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6122508/
Kołodziejczak A, et al. (2019). The assessment of the effects of the combination of microdermabrasion and cavitation peeling in the therapy of seborrhoeic skin with visible symptoms of acne punctata. DOI: 10.1080/14764172.2018.1525751
- microneedling, which can help reduce acne scarring
El-Domyati M, et al. (2015). Microneedling therapy for atrophic acne scars: An objective evaluation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4509584/
These treatment, however, are better for the pigmentation and scarring that acne can produce than reducing acne itself. For directly treating stress acne, a dermatologist is more likely to prescribe:
- topical antibiotics and retinoids
- oral antibiotics and retinoids
- hormonal medications
Just knowing how many options are available to you should help you de-stress a little.
If you’ve ever experienced a breakout after a performance review or the night before a Bumble date, you can thank your trusty ol’ hormones for that.
To break it down further, your skin basically goes into “defense mode” at the first sign of stress. Your body releases hormones, including cortisol and adrenal androgens, to protect you, as well as neuropeptides.
These hormones hearken back to the old days when stress prepared us to escape from a mammoth or forage harder for food rather than to fret about which font to use in a PowerPoint presentation.
Unfortunately, this flurry of protective chemicals also triggers and inflames the sebaceous glands — yep, those oily ones that cause flare-ups of skin conditions (including acne).
“While stress does not directly cause acne, it can exacerbate it, and if you are already acne-prone, stress can make your acne worse,” says Green. “Acne is an inflammatory disease that can be exacerbated by hormones released during stress, which increase inflammation.”
Green says you can usually identify stress breakouts by looking for redness, itching, and an increased number of blackheads and whiteheads accompanying your regular pimples. She sees stress acne when people experience periods of high anxiety — even in patients whose acne is usually under control.
“I see a lot of stress breakouts,” she says. “In adult patients, if they are going through a difficult time at home or work, this can cause their once-controlled acne to flare.” And final exams tend to cause breakouts in students too.
The good news is, even if the underlying cause is that you’re stressed AF at work, the treatment is similar to the treatments for other acne breakouts.
Stress acne suuuucks, but staying on point with your routine skin care can reduce the risk of it popping up.
Make sure you’re using a pH-balanced cleanser,
Apply one of the gentler vitamin C serums, like Mad Hippie, after you cleanse but before you apply your moisturizer. This can help you with acne and a range of other skin concerns.
Make sure you stay hydrated, and consider switching to a low glycemic diet, which can help too.
While you can’t just stop engaging in stressful situations (unless you go off the grid and get a cabin in the woods somewhere, which comes with more than its fair share of stress), there’s no denying that stress is bad for your body.
And while you may not be able to take time (or money) out for a full spa day, Evans says you should dedicate some time to self-care every once in a while — doctor’s orders. So you go and you take that gosh-danged bubble bath.
Find the method that works best for you. You could try:
- a walk
- a talk with a friend
- a talk with a therapist
- acknowledging and dealing with stressors in the workplace
And if your schedule is too packed for any of that, remember that just taking a deep breath goes a long way.
Stress acne is a pain in the ass (and the face), and it won’t vanish overnight. It happens due to stress hormones circulating in your body, causing physical reactions — so, in short, doing what they’re meant to do.
Plenty of OTC and prescription medications and procedures are available to help you feel better and look clearer.
Remember that you can reduce these effects by managing your stress levels. Get relaxing today — you owe yourself that much, and you’ve earned it.