Hormones. Sugar. Dirty cell phones. Among a growing laundry list of factors that can contribute to acne or skin condition flare ups, stress is one of the biggest (and the worst, imo) culprits. It’s virtually impossible to avoid as a human being. Stress is a natural response that invokes a fight-or-flight response , aka the response that kicks in during times of survival. But what happens when we’re chronically stressed? What does it do to your body, and more specifically, to your skin? Chronic stress doesn’t just affect your mental health, it can affect your entire body. According to the American Psychological Association, that includes your musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems (thanks, bio 101). And when it comes to skin, chronic stress can easily take a toll by wearing down your skin’s antimicrobial barrier. And who’s the nasty little perpetrator to blame? The stress hormone cortisol.
So, what the f*ck is cortisol?
Produced by the adrenal glands of your kidneys, cortisol is a stress hormone. It can be likened to your body’s natural “built-in alarm system,” aka the thing that signaled our primal ancestors to know when to run away from dinosaurs or to stay and fight. You can also think of cortisol as that one friend who’s tolerable in doses. You know, the one that you can hang with a couple times per month, but anymore than that, they would just drive you bat sh*t crazy. It’s kind of the same with cortisol: stress here and there to help motivate you or protect you from situations is obviously critical. But when you’re in a constant state of heightened stress, your body will begin to produce more cortisol, which can, in turn, actually do you harm. Among potential side effects are anxiety, depression, concentration problems and weight gain [1
]. And, unfortunately for us, skin isn’t immune to cortisol’s unwanted effects, either.
Why is cortisol so bad for skin?
Skin is composed of five essential barriers: UV
, mechanical, antimicrobial, antioxidant, permeability, which help to regulate your body temperature and, essentially, protect you from harmful environmental factors (think pollution, bacteria, harmful UV rays,
]. When met with high amounts of cortisol, your skin’s natural protective barriers
can be weakened, which makes it becomes increasingly more difficult for your skin to retain moisture. Once your skin barrier
is weakened, environmental stressors and irritants can more easily penetrate the skin, and thus, cause inflammation. And if you’re already suffering from pre-existing skin conditions, like psoriasis or eczema, your risk for flare ups becomes higher [2
]. And as if chronically high levels of cortisol couldn’t be any more of a buzzkill, stress and cortisol can also have seriously harmful effects on our body’s tissue. But what does that mean? It can lead to skin atrophy (basically, your skin losing its suppleness) and can hinder how your body heals its own wounds [4
]. What’s worse? Skin exposed to cortisol can also result in a decrease in collagen production. And since collagen is what we can thank for our skin’s fortitude and resilience, you can equate cortisol with the hormone that has the power to speed up premature skin aging [5
How can I avoid stress and its unwelcome side effects?
Let’s be real: stress is the worst and it’s def unavoidable. But if it starts to become chronic and is affecting your quality of life, it’s probably time to get serious about mental health. IMO, life is all about balance (and trust me, I think we’re all trying to master it), so finding time to destress (hello, #selfcare
) and do things for your own sole benefit may be one of the answers to managing stress. So bring on the Netflix marathons, sheet masks galore and don’t feel guilty for saying no sometimes. Because you never know, your skin might be thanking you for later. Interested in learning more about the powerhouse ingredient that can help to stimulate your skin’s collagen production? Read our guide to skin-firming peptides.
BY KIMBERLY ARNOLD