Medical Review By: Dr. John Minni
Pimples have a way of showing up at the worst possible time. Days or hours before a wedding, a reunion, a hot date, or a big presentation at work, a big fat blemish (or two, or three) appears, giving you yet another reason to feel stressed.
But does stress actually cause acne? Not exactly.
“There are several causes of acne, but stress isn’t one of them,” said John Minni, DO, a board-certified dermatologist at Water’s Edge Dermatology. “If you already have acne, however, stress can make it more severe.”
The stress-acne connection
Genetics and fluctuating levels of androgen hormones during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause are two main factors that set the stage for acne. Taking certain medications, such as birth control pills, lithium, and corticosteroids, can also make people susceptible to acne.
Stress won’t give you acne if you’re not already predisposed to it, but it can make acne worse by causing levels of certain hormones to temporarily increase.
“When your fight-or-flight response is activated, the body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and androgens,” Dr. Minni explained. “These hormones increase your skin’s oil production, which can exacerbate acne.”
Stress, anxiety, and fear might also worsen acne by triggering the production of cytokines, tiny proteins that stoke inflammation, including inflammation of the area around sebaceous glands, the glands that produce oil.
Stress-related disruptions in healthy habits play a role, too. “When you’re anxious, you may not sleep or eat as well as you normally do, which can worsen acne,” Dr. Minni said.
Some people turn to smoking, which is linked to an increase in blemishes. Others pick at their skin when they’re stressed, which can make blemishes more irritated and inflamed.
How to prevent stress-related acne breakouts
You can’t avoid stress altogether, but if you’re prone to acne, you can take steps to limit the effects stress has on your skin.
Develop a stress-relief habit
Dr. Minni encourages patients to embrace practices that relieve stress, whether it’s regular exercise or relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing, all of which can lower cortisol levels.
Follow an acne diet plan
There is no acne diet per se. But research suggests there are some foods that cause acne, or at least foods that make breakouts more likely in certain people. And they are some of the same foods we tend to “stress eat.”
“When people are stressed, they tend to eat more processed and sugary foods, which can increase inflammation and oil production,” said Dr. Minni. Studies suggest that swapping high-glycemic foods (think white bread, white rice, cookies and soda) for low-glycemic ones (think fruits, vegetables, beans and whole-cut oats) can make acne less severe.
Pre-plan for an important event
Finally, if you have an important event coming up and you’re determined to avoid stress-related acne flares, talk to your dermatologist.
“Certain treatments can be used temporarily to head off stress acne that doesn’t require any downtime, such as anti-inflammatory medications, gentle facials, and light therapy,” said Dr. Minni.
“For an event such as a wedding or the prom, where your appearance is particularly important, your dermatologist may recommend something stronger, such as low-dose steroids, to help you look your best.”
Contact Our Acne Dermatologists at Water’s Edge Dermatology
Article Written By: Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.