Does stress affect the skin?

 In Health, Lifestyle, Skincare

So first of all, do you think stress affects the skin?

In case you’re still pondering, let me give you the answer.  Or better yet, let me show you a picture.

You can see here from before and after Tony Blair’s time in office, how the highly stressful pressures have aged his skin

Still wondering about the answer to my question?  The picture above shows Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister, on the left at his first address after being appointed, and on the right shortly after his resignation.  Now yes, natural ageing and other things come into play, but in such a highly stressful role, his skin has definitely bore the brunt.

No matter what you do, I think even if you lived in a shoebox under the stairs, you’d still have some part of stress in your life.  It’s a natural part of our lives and we actually need it to function.  If we weren’t stressed about the fact we had no food in our cupboards and hadn’t been to the supermarket, then we wouldn’t have anything to eat and eventually we would starve.  The problem with stress is like everything – when we get too much of it, our entire body’s equilibrium is thrown off and things begin to suffer.  In this case, it’s our skin.

When we are stressed, our bodies release the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  These engage our “fight or flight” system, and enable us to run away from that tiger in the wild.  When we have, our body naturally gets rid of these hormones and we go about our normal business.  Problem is, there’s no tiger and we’re not in the wild anymore, and when we have chronic long-term stress, these hormones are always flowing around in our bloodstream.  All types of stress require energy for your body to handle, and it affects every element and every cell in your body.  With every nutrient available however, the skin is always at the back of the queue. 

A tired, stressed skin is robbed of nutrients as our digestion is impaired, which means our bodies are not extracting the nutrients from our food as well as they should be.  Add to that the fact the skin gets last dibs, there’s even less nutrients to feed your skin cells.  It typically looks lifeless, pale and sallow with poor healing.  You know the skin I mean – it lacks that glow we long for and makes us look about 20 years older than we are!  When we are stressed our bodies create inflammation and things start breaking down, opening the door for skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, acne, psoriasis, rashes and premature ageing, all of which have been linked to stress.

Stress can worsen existing acne and cause breakouts in even the most flawless skin, due to the production of the androgen hormones.  This surge in hormones can trigger an increase in the your skin’s natural oils, which can aggravate a pre-existing acne and acne rosacea skin.  Eating a high sugar diet or even a heavily loaded carbohydrate diet increases insulin levels in the blood, which triggers more androgen production, leading to more blocked pores and more breakouts.

During times of stress, our skin also has a reduced immunity due to the fatigue our body is under, and a reduced resistance to infection.  Stress suppresses our immune system, so that it is harder to fight off any attack from bacteria, whether that is a common cold or a simple breakout.  Remember that spot you had months ago, that’s still a mark on your skin?  Yep, that’s going to take up to 40% longer to heal because your body is having to use all its energies to just keep you going.  In case you haven’t realised, your skin is at the back of the priority list!  

Stress more often than not goes hand in hand with lack of sleep, which in itself causes us many far reaching issues within the body.  On the skin it causes dark, puffy areas around the eyes (a giveaway of a stressed and sleep deprived skin!), due to the now sluggish circulation, which leads to the blood under this fine skin coming to somewhat of a standstill and becoming very visible.  Besides the obvious of trying to get more sleep (“you mean you don’t think I actually enjoy being awake at 5am having had 30 minutes of sleep, Helen?!”), lymphatic drainage techniques when you’re applying your eye product will help get this blood moving again – simply start from the inner corner of your eye working outwards, moving your ring finger along your orbital bone (eye socket) with small pressures, a bit like an on/off pumping action.  Plumping this skin will also help to reduce the appearance, and Vitamins A and C are great at compacting and plumping your skin, a bit like making a disorganised group of soldiers scrambling for supplies into orderly groups, each with a full set of armour.  

The lack of sleep that comes with chronic stress inevitably causes the biggie most of us are concerned with… premature ageing!  Because our bodies don’t have the time to recuperate and regenerate, the collagen in our skin (one of the constituents that makes our skin plump and firm) doesn’t form properly.  In fact, it’s been found that there are enzymes in our skin that during stress actually attack our collagen and make it break down… yikes!  Our skin gets lazy and doesn’t naturally exfoliate as quickly (hello dull, tired skin and breakouts!) as it can’t make new cells very quickly.  It’s also unable to deal with all of the free radicals (pollution, smoking, sunlight etc) it’s exposed to that cause ageing.  This is where your dietary and skincare antioxidants are essential to mop up free radicals and stop them destroying your skin cells.

Because everything in our bodies is moving at a much slower pace and its taking more effort to do, we get a sluggish circulation all over our body.  This means our skin is not getting the nutrients, water and oxygen it desperately needs.  It also means toxins can’t be removed as efficiently, so they build up in the skin and worsen conditions such as acne and celluliteSkin becomes dehydrated as its natural moisture levels are reduced.  Because the collagen and elastin hasn’t been formed properly, along with the increase of cortisol and insulin, inflammation follows and lines and wrinkles form.  The rise in adrenaline and cortisol (those lovely stress hormones, in case you’d forgotten) also puts our skin on high alert, and overstimulates our sensory nerve endings, leading to an overreactive, irritated and possibly inflamed skin, aggravating rosacea and any other reactive skin condition.  When we consider how tense and irritable we get as people when we’re stressed, this is how all our little sensory nerve endings are – anxiously poised for what it thinks are a barrage of incoming threats.  As we get older, our bodies find it harder to cope with the effects of cortisol, and it isn’t removed as quickly, so the effects last even longer.

So now that you’ve read this blog, I’m going to come back to my original question – do you think stress affects the skin?  If you’re not saying yes, scroll back up to the top and re-read!

In the second part of this blog, I’ll be covering some realistic ways to help combat and reduce the stress in your life, and ultimately the impact this has on your skin. You can read all about this here!

If you’ve enjoyed the blog, please do leave me a comment below (I love to hear your feedback!), give it a share if you know someone who would really benefit from reading it, and as always, let me know if there’s something else you’d like to hear!

Until next time, take care!

Helen x


Gilchrest, B. A. & Krutmann, J. (2006). Skin aging. Germany: Springer Science.

Holford, P (2001). Solve your skin problems. London: Piatkus Books.

James, A (2017). Love your skin. London: Kyle Books.

Lee, S. (2018). Put your best face forward. New York: Harper Collins.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Lucie

    Such a great blog Helen! I will definitely do some lymphatic drainage tonight when I put on my eye cream! Thanks for the tip!

    • Helen

      Thanks for the lovely feedback Lucie – so glad you found it useful! Amazing – remember to not overuse too, literally the tiniest of peas for your eye area so the fragile, thin skin isn’t overloaded with product 🙂

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