If you’re dealing with zits for the first time since homeroom, or have noticed uncharacteristic dryness and flakes on your cheeks, don’t worry — it’s not the universe playing a really cruel trick on you. It might just be stress. Though it may seem all in your head, stress can throw everything from skin’s moisture levels to sebum production out of whack, leading to acne, dryness or dark spots that appear to come out of nowhere.
And these days, stress is at an all-time high. While stressors are an everyday part of our lives, in normal times it tends to be relatively manageable. A big work presentation? A toddler screaming over apple juice? You can handle that. But the pandemic and other national emergencies have compounded that with anxiety and fear, so much so that 45% of people polled in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey agreed that stress and worry over covid-19 had a negative impact on their mental health.
“Stress has a profound effect on our entire body, affecting many organ systems,” says Dr. Bradley Bloom, a dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. “Because the skin is the largest organ, it makes sense that chronic stress will present with skin findings.” Stress basically sparks chronic inflammation within the skin, which naturally leads to flares in inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne and rosacea.
If you’re dealing with more breakouts than usual, you’re experiencing one result of the domino effect triggered by stress — which is why they’re known as (surprise!) stress breakouts. “Stress triggers the release of hormones including cortisol, which can lead to an increase in oil production in the skin,” says Dr. Anne Chapas, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. “The uptick in oil production combined with accumulated dead skin cells could trap bacteria that results in breakouts.”
Less well-known is that stress — and the chronic inflammation it fuels — causes a ton of other unpleasant skin problems, too. “Chronic inflammation leads to premature aging and overproduction in melanin, causing hyperpigmentation,” says Chapas. So, while most wrinkles and dark spots can be attributed to sun exposure, some are indeed related to feeling frazzled. On top of that, “recent studies have even shown that the barrier function of the skin can be impaired by stress,” explains Bloom. With an impaired barrier function, your skin is more vulnerable to moisture loss — as well as potential irritants.
Not only does this nonstop worry affect your complexion, but it in turn causes other things that disrupt skin health, too — creating something of a pileup. “Stress can cause significant disruption in our sleep pattern as well as change our exercise and eating habits, all of which can manifest on our skin,” says Bloom. And if each new breakout stresses you out, you might get trapped in a very inconvenient cycle.
Stress-reducing measures like meditation, proper sleep hygiene, regular exercise and a healthy diet can certainly help. Still, “just because stress may have led to a flare-up of a skin condition doesn’t mean that simply removing the stress will correct the problem,” says Bloom.
Topical formulas can help you handle the consequences, from breakouts to dark spots and beyond — that way, you can handle it from the inside out and from the outside in. “Incorporating products into your routine that have antioxidants and skin-soothing ingredients can help to optimize skin health,” Chapas says. Here’s what makes the cut.
Kiehl’s Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum ($52; sephora.com)
Not only does this serum contain hyaluronic acid that is known to bolster the skin’s protective barrier, but it also has a plant complex designed to boost skin’s resilience (which takes a hit under chronic inflammation). That makes skin better able to handle changes in sleep patterns, diet and even temperature.
This is important now, as “the change in temperature and humidity levels that accompanies the transition of spring to summer adds fuel to that flare-up,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner.
Like a chill pill for your complexion, this serum relies on a combo of niacinamide (a skin-brightening antioxidant), willow bark (a natural source of salicylic acid) and acne-fighting zinc that is formulated to take on breakouts and larger-scale inflammation alike.
Tata Harper Water Lock Moisturizer ($68; sephora.com)
A skin barrier weakened by stress leaves you wide open for acne, dryness, aging and many other skin issues — think of it as a Pandora’s box for your skin. This weightless moisturizer offers a combination of hyaluronic acid for instant hydration and plant-derived peptides that can fortify the skin barrier.
InstaNatural Glycolic Acid Facial Peel ($21.97; amazon.com)