When you’re stressed, the last thing you want to worry about are blemishes and breakouts. But the truth is stress isn’t simply a psychological condition, it has a physical impact on your body, including your skin. While a little stress can actually be good for your skin—that fight-or-flight response can help boost collagen production—chronic stress is a different story. Prolonged stress can have negative effects on not only the appearance, but also the health of your skin. For Stress Awareness Month, we’re looking at some of the ways mental health impacts skin and how you can prevent lasting damage.

Stress triggers your body’s immune system. The skin is the body’s largest immune organ, so when you have a physical reaction to stress, you can see the results in your complexion. The immune response causes your skin to be more reactive, potentially triggering rashes, hives and redness. Stress also causes the sympathetic nervous system to release hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and prolactin. These in turn can have side effects, such as increased oil production, inflammation, decreased collagen production and itchiness. Prolonged stress can weaken the skin’s epidermal layer. This top layer locks in moisture and protects you from harmful allergens, pollutants and other irritants. When the epidermal layer is compromised, it can exacerbate chronic skin conditions and lead to slower wound healing.

The impact of stress on other parts of your body also can affect your skin. The bacteria in your gut microbiome can be unbalanced by stress, leading to internal inflammation. That internal inflammation can be seen externally in acne, redness and flare-ups of chronic conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. When you’re stressed, your body produces free radicals that destroy cells and cause oxidative damage. Depending on which cells free radicals target, they can lead to acne, fine lines, wrinkles, dehydration and even skin cancer.

Your skin has its own stress responses to environmental factors like sunlight and pollutants. For example, when exposed to ultraviolet light, your skin produces stress hormones to signal your brain, and that can perpetuate a cycle of psychological stress. When you’re feeling stressed, you also might neglect your skin care routine, including removing your makeup and washing your face. Not cleansing leads to clogged pores and acne, and the natural turnover of skin’s epidermal layer is diminished, leaving your skin looking duller.

how can you mitigate the impact of stress on skin?

  • Make sure you maintain your skin care routine, especially washing your face.
  • Protect your skin’s epidermal layer by avoiding ingredients like glycolic acid, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinol, which can dry and deplete it. Instead opt for products that include glycolipids, fatty acids and ceramides, which can help lock in moisture and prevent irritation.
  • A well balanced diet, exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices can help regulate stress hormones in the body and have positive effects on skin.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Even slight sleep deprivation can cause changes in mood, energy levels and cognition. While you sleep, your skin rebuilds collagen and repairs environmental damage thanks to increased blood flow. This results in fewer dark spots, wrinkles and other signs of aging.
  • Meditation and other relaxation has been shown to have a positive impact for people suffering psoriasis. More research is necessary to determine if they might also help with other skin conditions.

stress stats

  • According to the American Institute of Stress, Americans are among the most stressed people in the world with around 55% of citizens experiencing it, compared to the global average of 35%.
  • Montana is the least stressed state with a total stress score of 26.81, while Louisiana is the most stressed with 59.94.
  • The most stressed country is Greece with a reported stress level of 59%.
  • Work is a major source of stress: 94% of U.S. workers report feeling stressed at their jobs, and 63% feel ready to quit because of it.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, Washington University School of Medicine, American Institute of Stress