This section doesn’t currently include any content. Add content to this section using the sidebar.

Does stress affect skin

Manage Subscription

Stress is a combination of natural psychological and physical reactions we have in response to certain stimuli, be they environmental or internal. It is the body’s reaction to a challenge, historically this would have been a ‘fight or flight’ reaction to survive.

Research has shown that stress is a major factor affecting the health of our skin and body as a whole. Many of us now live in a constant state of stress which is having a hugely adverse effect on our skin and health. It is difficult to see the effect stress has on our health as it can build up over time so often goes unnoticed.

How does stress affect our skin?

When the body is in a state of stress, stress hormones are released and blood is directed to our vital organs which can have a negative impact on our skin health.

Reduces skin hydration

Too much cortisol being released into the body reduces water retention within the skin and decreases skin hydration.

Collagen production is reduced

Reduced levels of dehydroepiandrosterone which have an anti-inflammatory affect and has shown to decrease collagen production.

Stress also reduces the levels of human growth hormone which is required for collagen production and tissue formation.

Skin receives less nutrients

Our skin cells require nutrients in order to carry out all their required functions effectively.

When we are under stress more blood is directed to our vital organs and our arteries are restricted which reduces the blood flow to the skin and the nutrients being delivered to it.

Increased free radical damage and oxidative stress

Free radicals are unstable molecules that steal electrons from other molecules including proteins, lipids and even DNA.

Free radicals are usually neutralised by antioxidants which keep them in check. If the body has too many free radicals our natural antioxidant pool can’t cope with the increased demand, upsetting the balance. This imbalance is known as oxidative stress and the consequence is cell damage.

Increased inflammation

Stress increases the levels of insulin in our body. Insulins' main job is fat and carbohydrate regulation clearing excess sugar from our blood. If this isn't maintained it can cause the levels of inflammation to increase.

Stress can also cause the skin's nerve endings to release higher amounts of neuropeptides which can create inflammation.

Increases the ageing process

Your epidermal skin cells lie on top of each other and are packed tightly together, forming a strong barrier that blocks the penetration of bacteria and other pathogens. When you are under stress, however, this protective outer layer is weakened.

Our skin epidermis becomes impaired

Your epidermal skin cells lie on top of each other and are packed tightly together, forming a strong barrier that blocks the penetration of bacteria and other pathogens. When you are under stress, however, this protective outermost layer of skin becomes impaired.

The effects of an impaired epidermis:

  • The skin barrier becomes more permeable allowing more irritants, allergens, and even germs to penetrate the skin and cause problems. Specifically, stress can make rosacea more red or acne lesions more inflamed and more persistent. It can worsen dermatitis, hives, fever blisters and psoriasis, too. Source
  • The skin's natural protective antibodies decreases dramatically, opening up opportunities for bacteria and germs to enter into the deeper layers of your skin. This can lead to breakouts and problematic skin.
  • Can increase rosacea Stress increases blood flow and may cause capillaries to expand. Stress also triggers flushing which can increase the symptoms of rosacea. And because stress weakens your immune system, flare-ups may last longer.

What is stress?

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, our ancestors were thankful for it. Faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, they developed what we now know as our fight or flight stress reaction, without which we wouldn’t have made it out of prehistoric times. It allowed them to make the split second decision to stick around and fight the animal or run away from the dangerous situation.

Although we modern day humans are unlikely to come face to face with a big cat or any other terrifying animals as we go about our daily lives, our fight or flight response is still important.

When we’re faced with a dangerous, or stressful situation, the body releases stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol causes a surge in blood sugar into the bloodstream so that the brain has a plentiful supply of this energy and drives energy away from non-essential systems such as the digestive system and cellular growth. This frees up more energy for the brain and muscles to fight or flight. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and energy availability.

If the danger is an approaching car as we crossed a road, or meeting someone new for the first time, then the stressor is short lived. Once the danger has passed, or we feel relaxed, cortisol and adrenaline levels drop and we return to normal.

But if stress is more long term, then we suffer the consequences of these hormones and heightened responses.

Short term stress is beneficial. It helps to keep us alert, energetic and productive. But chronic stress, which many of us suffer with, can lead to chronic health conditions such as heart disease. It can also lead us to make poor life choices such as choosing comfort food over healthier meals and drinking more alcohol than the safe recommended limits which in turn also lead to chronic diseases.

Stress manifests itself physically by causing heart palpitations, an increased breathing rate and sweating. Over time, it can lead to tense muscles, dizziness, headaches and disturbed sleep. More seriously, it can cause high blood pressure and chest pain.

What effect does stress have on our bodies?

When the body is in a state of stress, stress hormones are released causing the body to tense, blood sugar levels increase to fuel instant energy, the heart rate accelerates and blood pressure rises, all to become hyper alert.

Having this response to a situation used to make the difference to our ancestors as to whether they would live or die. It would be a short term experience and therefore would not impact their health. The difference in the modern day is that some of us live under constant stress which leads to health issues.

Raises levels of cortisol

Stress raises levels of cortisol, as a catabolic hormone so it breaks down tissue. At the right time and levels Cortisol is a helpful hormone to have, but if too much is released it becomes a negative as it starts to break important structures including collagen. Too much cortisol can cause increased fat accumulation, reduced water retention, increase in blood sugar levels, increased oil production, dry skin, and breakouts.

Increases adrenaline

Another major way that stress affects the skin is by affecting the complexion. When stressed, our bodies produce adrenaline, which is helpful if you’re out in the woods running from a predator, but, in daily life, it only can hurt.

The effects of too much adrenaline are as follow:

  • Blood flow to the skin is decreased, taking important nutrients (most importantly, oxygen) away from the skin. This allows for toxins to build up, a step that leads many types of skin to develop cellulite as well.
  • Glucose (sugar) is released into the blood to give you that burst of energy you need for 'fight-flight mode'. If your body doesn't use these sugars a process called glycation starts where the sugars are reabsorbed into the layers of surrounding tissues and skin.
  • Arteries are restricted which cuts the blood supply to the skin reducing it’s ability to receive the nourishment it needs. Source
  • The skin’s natural protective antibodies decreases, opening up opportunities for bacteria and germs to enter into the deeper layers of your skin.
  • Reduces our levels of Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) Stress reduces levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) which is a cousin of testosterone and oestrogen. DHEA has an anti-inflammatory effect and hows shown to increase collagen production when applied topically (Calvo et al. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2008.).
  • Reduces levels of the Human Growth Hormone Cortisol has been shown to decrease the level of The Human Growth Hormone (Saevendahl. Sci Signal. 2012) which has the following benefits: It is responsible for regulating growth, body temperature, sugar and fat metabolism. Working with collagen it maintains the skin's muscle composition. It plays an important role in tissue formation. 

Increased insulin levels

Whether caused by diet affecting the skin or chronic stress, high blood sugar levels inevitably lead to increased insulin production. Secreted in the beta cells of the pancreas (situated just under our ribs on the left), insulin is a major pronging hormone. Its main job is fat and carbohydrate regulation. At optimal levels, insulin is our friend, clearing excess sugar from our blood.

The effects of increased insulin levels:

  • Promotes inflammation and ageing.
  • Encourages weight gain: High insulin levels caused by chronic stress give the body the false impression that it has plenty of food which causes fat to stockpile, especially around our middle.
  • Increase in neuropeptides Stress can result in the skin’s nerve endings releasing higher levels of neuropeptides and this in turn can create inflammation and uncomfortable skin sensations, such as numbness, itching, sensitivity or tingling.
  • Accelerates the shortening of our cell telomeres If chromosomes encode our genetic information in the form of DNA, telomeres are the protective end parts of these chromosomes, there to maintain the integrity and stability of the genetic data. Every time a cell divides, our chromosomes naturally erode and shorten a little. It’s crucial that the genetic information in our chromosomes remains full in tact, in order to avoid genetic defects. Chronic stress can accelerate the shortening of our cells telomeres (Epel et al. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009) and therefore increase the speed of the ageing process.
  • Can affect our digestive system When stressed, the body’s digestive system can go a bit haywire because the blood is directed away from the digestive system and everything becomes a little acidic. Unbalanced digestion has been found to lead to problem skin such as dryness, oiliness, blemishes and dullness, or sometimes a combination of all of these issues. Problems such as eczema and dermatitis can occur, too.
  • Capillaries can expand The increased blood flow that occurs when you're under duress may cause capillaries to expand. Stress also triggers flushing known as rosacea, according to the National Rosacea Society. And because stress weakens your immune system, flare-ups may last longer. READ MORE ABOUT 

Research studies

Benson for beds

The Bensons for Beds study found that reducing sleep to 6 hours a night for 5 nights increased wrinkles, pores, brown spots and red areas. Read study here.

British Medical Journal

In the British Medical Journal study people were asked to rate photographs which contained pictures of people who were either sleep deprived or not. People who weren’t sleep deprived were considered to be healthier, more attractive. Read study here

Whether you are a morning or evening person depends on your genes

Do you jump out of bed first thing in the morning or are you more likely to come into bloom late in the night? Your answer, it turns out, will actually have a lot to do with your genetics. And this can have a big impact on your day-to-day productivity.

Researchers from The University of Leicester have completed a study which is adding weight to the increasingly popular attitude that the daily '9 to 5' may not be the most productive or efficient structure of working for all of us.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neurology, explains that the researchers have discovered nearly 80 genes associated with ‘morningness’ or ‘lateness’. The results are based on their analysis of fruit flies, who surprisingly have a very similar ‘genetic clock’ to us.

The research was focused on the timing of the fruit flies emerging from their pupal case, an event that is regulated by their natural internal clock (circadian clock). While most flies emerged during dawn (‘larks’), there were some rogue flies emerging later on (‘owls’). When they compared the genes of both sets of flies, it became apparent that there were nearly 80 genes that were expressing differently to trigger this behaviour.

What does this means for us humans? Well for those of us that are the ‘owls’, it indicates that trying to work the 9 to 5 schedule is going against our natural internal clock. Where possible, ‘owls’ should ideally be working later in the day, or at least prioritising important tasks to when their bodies are most naturally awake.

While the luxury of choosing our working hours might currently be limited to the few, as research in this field changes attitudes and advances in technology supports more work flexibility; it's likely there will be an increase in 'owls' working to a schedule that is more natural and productive for 'owls', and the businesses they work in.

Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

Follow Hannah using her profile below:
Eco & Beyond
For the Ageless