It never fails. You’re all hyped for a big event that’s coming up - and what do you know - you’ve got yourself a new little friend or two. One nestled against your top lip, which might look like a freckle if it didn’t have a whitehead. And, the other in the middle of your forehead, conspicuous as a flashing red sign saying, “look at me!” They’re not very good friends, though, because they always seem to pop up unannounced, when it’s most inconvenient for you. They don’t add value to your life, but instead they drain you emotionally – and sometimes they even end up scarring you physically! I don’t know about you, but I’m done with these friends called stress acne.
First, let me start with two caveats:
Not everyone’s skin will be impacted by their stress all the time, but everyone is undoubtedly susceptible to stress-related breakouts from time to time. Some of us are just more prone than others.
Some of the explanations for stress acne may be better applied to people with chronic or intense stress (particularly people with comorbidities such as anxiety and/or depression). Conversely, acute stress is generally considered positive, as it can strengthen and assist the body in adaptation. It is when stress continues unchecked that it becomes problematic.
Is Stress Acne a Real Thing?
We all know what stress is – if you have acne, you’re probably well-acquainted with it. We are, after all, social animals, and we are sensitive to the reactions and words of others, and how we feel we will be perceived by them. For many people, especially those already dealing with comorbidities like anxiety and depression, acne is a debilitating disfigurement that can completely alter our self-concept. One third of New Zealand adolescents with problem acne had thoughts of suicide; one quarter were severely depressed. We are more concerned with our appearances now, than perhaps ever before. So, if something like acne can have such drastic ramifications on our mental health, isn’t it also possible that our mental health can have drastic ramifications for our skin?
An extensive review in 2014 deduced that there are various pathways through which our body’s response to stress could impact our skin. Not only this, but stress is a well-known aggressor for many other conditions, such as asthma, and even other skin conditions, like rosacea and psoriasis,. It would be naïve to think that stress couldn’t also impact our acne.
In fact, research has shown, through clinical experience and anecdotes, and more recently through a well-controlled study, that increased acne severity is significantly associated with stress levels.
Stress works to disrupt our skin’s stratum corneum (a protein/lipid barrier which creates a seal that maintains your skin’s hydration and protects it from microbial infection). Disrupting the skin’s barrier can lead to flaky, dry, susceptible skin, which delays the repair response,,.
The fact is that stress impacts our body in a very many small, but immensely significant and negative ways. Research has shown us that our skin is not just a target of stress signals, but it also actively participates in the stress response. Given all of this, I think it’s safe to say that stress can most definitely affect our acne. I still wouldn’t say that stress is a main cause of acne.
What Can I Do About Stress Acne?
Unfortunately, we don’t (yet!) have topical products that can prevent or treat stress-induced or exacerbated skin conditions. But thankfully there are some steps that we can take to reduce our stress acne.
Supplements for Stress Acne
Nutritional and herbal remedies for stress may be very effective tools to mitigate your stress acne.
One study showed that certain serum nutrient levels are low in people with depression and anxiety, which are also nutrients commonly lacking in people with acne, such as zinc and folic acid. Evidence has shown that some of these nutrients, namely zinc, may improve acne (see my post on Supplements For Acne). In another study, people who took omega-3 supplements self-reported an improvement in both their overall wellbeing, and their acne. Supplements containing high doses of B vitamins are also often taken to help improve mood (see my post on Vitamin B6 For Acne Free Skin).
Passionflower extracts, kava, L-lysine and L-arginine, and magnesium-containing supplements all hold promise for treating the symptoms of anxiety, but more research is still needed.
It is important to bear in mind that it is possible that the benefits from some of these remedies may be due, at least in part, to the placebo effect. This highlights the need for better controlled studies in the area.
Supplements for stress acne can also include hormonal treatments, which may or may not be right for you.
I know, obvious, right? Some experts say that you can’t treat acne “with a Valium”, and I would agree for the most part. Acne is generally an underlying issue of its own, and so treating your acne as entirely stress-induced is only addressing part of the issue. However, that doesn’t mean that treating the mental health aspect isn’t important, too.
Seeing a mental health professional should never be ruled out. They can help to provide you with the tools and support you need to overcome your irrational anxieties so that you won’t ever have to worry about stress acne. You might still get stressed out from time to time, which is acute stress and totally normal. Remember, it’s the chronic stress you want to address.
Many therapists use biofeedback tools such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and other cognitive behavioural techniques that can be invaluable in improving your mental health. There are self-help tools out there on these techniques that you may find helpful.
Skin Care Products for Stress Acne
Like any acne, stress acne may need a good skin care arsenal, complete with topical products. Acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide 2.5%, salicylic acid, or retinoids may all be useful and effective products in zapping the acne that your stress does cause. If you only get sporadic pimples during crunch time, treating them with a Pumpkin Enzyme Masque or a tea tree oil spot treatment will do just as well.