How Do Anxiety and Stress Affect the Skin? An Expert Weighs In
Psychotherapist and Disciple founder Charlotte Ferguson talks everything from “stressne” to “maskne.”
A common misconception of skincare is that it is purely for purposes of external appearance. What many don’t realize, however, is that the skin is in fact our body’s largest organ, meaning that it can be affected when we experience stress or anxiety.
The correlation between mental health and the skin may not be as apparent compared to other stress-related symptoms such as headaches, but there are plenty of scientific studies that prove the relationship between the two. Ultimately, almost anything that can stress you out – from poor sleep quality and to unhealthy diet – can result in skin conditions like acne.
Disciple‘s founder Charlotte Ferguson, who is also a certified psychotherapist, is a strong believer in taking care of one’s mental health to improve the skin. According to the expert, some of the most common side effects of demanding lifestyles range from acne and eczema to premature aging. Having experienced these effects herself after a period of intense working hours, Ferguson created Disciple, a beauty brand built on the ethos of inside-out wellness and skin healing.
Below, the skincare guru explains the mechanism behind our mental health’s impact on the skin, as well as common skincare concerns such as “stressne” and “maskne.” Continue reading for our conversation, including tips for improving stress-related symptoms.
How can stress and anxiety affect the skin?
This is something I spent a lot of time researching on and laid the foundations for launching Disciple. I looked into the impacts of excess cortisol, the stress hormone, on the body. It can make sebum thicker and clog pores, which can in turn leave your skin more prone to spots and breakouts. Cortisol also depletes collagen, which can cause the skin to lose elasticity and fine lines to appear.
Can you elaborate on this correlation?
When we experience stress or anxiety, our body releases cortisol. This is a natural hormone that helps the body deal with stress. In small doses, cortisol can serve as a great biological coping mechanism, but if our body is exposed to persistently high levels, it can start to negatively impact your skin. Stress and anxiety can cause chronic inflammation in the body, which causes cortisol spikes and encourages your sebaceous glands (oil glands) to produce more thick and sticky sebum. Dead skin then sticks to this oil and blocks your pores. This also stimulates the growth of “bad” bacteria, creating the perfect storm for spots and breakouts.
Can you share a memorable case you’ve come across, where the skin was severely impacted due to stress?
When I was under a huge amount of work and life pressure, I personally struggled with cystic acne and alopecia. This actually planted the seedlings for starting Disciple and beginning my research into the relationship between stress and our skin. I experienced many cases with patients where severe eczema or psoriasis flared up chronically due to emotional stress and anxiety. Through working therapeutically, we managed to reduce both stress and skin issues to the point of no longer needing prescription topicals.
This has been a hugely stressful time for a lot of people and it has certainly had an effect on our body and mind, which then affects the skin.
How do skin conditions caused by stress differ from those caused by other factors, such as face masks?
Since mask-wearing became mandatory, a lot of us have welcomed a collection of breakouts around our lower face and cheeks. The friction between material and our skin, combined with the pore-blocking sweat that forms under our face covering, provides the perfect environment for bacteria and inflammation to thrive. We formulated our Maskne Mist to treat the spots that form throughout the day whilst wearing a mask. We also wanted to create something that could be spritzed onto the mask. It’s loaded with anti-bacterial powerhouses like geranium and tea tree, which work to soothe inflammation while tackling bacteria.
Besides “stressne,” have you noticed any other common skin conditions ever since the pandemic broke out?
Absolutely. This has been a hugely stressful time for a lot of people and it has certainly had an effect on our body and mind, which then affects the skin. As well as acne, some people may experience dermatillomania, or skin picking, which can cause scarring and infection. Eczema, psoriasis and rosacea are a handful of other inflammatory conditions that can be triggered by stress, too.
De-stressing is not as easy as it sounds, especially given everything happening in the world today. What are some tips for tackling skin conditions caused by stress and anxiety?
Adopting a grounding skincare routine is hugely important for both your skin and wellbeing. Taking time out of your day to connect with yourself can be hugely therapeutic. The skin often becomes more sensitive when stressed, so look for skincare that’s simple and fragrance-free. You’re also more likely to feel sensitive to pain when feeling low as your immune system is lessened, so avoid painful extractions during stressful times as well.