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How Stress Affects Your Skin

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The Violet Files

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At a time when the whole planet is on edge, a self-care regimen—complete with calming complexion therapies—can be more essential than ever.

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Just a few short months ago, few Americans could have predicted our current reality: much of the country ordered to stay at home, leaning on technology to stay connected and finding creative ways to keep busy. These are, to put it mildly, stressful and uncertain times. And yet, one of the most bizarre things about this experience is that some scraps of normalcy remain. At home, even among the distraction of Netflix and anxiety of breaking-news alerts, the mirror beckons. We peer into it, and we see how stress is already etching itself onto our face as the body’s fight-or-flight instinct makes itself visible.

From a biological perspective, this is no surprise. “The current state of the world is causing elevated levels of chronic stress in my patients,” says Dennis Gross, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan and the founder of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare. “This is showing up in skin as redness, dry patches, dullness, flare-ups, tired eyes, and fine lines and wrinkles.” As though there weren’t enough going on.

To understand the stress-skin connection, it helps to acknowledge that stress isn’t only mental, it’s physical. Whenever a client arrives for one of her famous facials, esthetician Georgia Louise almost immediately can gauge their level of calm—or, more commonly, lack thereof. “I can see it when they walk in,” she says. “When I put my hands on someone, I can feel their stress in seconds,” she says.

The internal cause is cortisol, colloquially known as the stress hormone. When stress flares, levels of cortisol rise, triggering a rise in inflammation, says Heather Rogers, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Doctor Rogers Restore. “Cortisol is also sort of a parent hormone that turns on a lot of different hormonal pathways, including androgens like testosterone.” High cortisol levels also weaken the skin’s barrier function and slows its regeneration process. Adding to the challenge, Dr. Gross says, is the fact that stress drives blood to vital organs, away from our skin. “This results in decreased circulation to the skin with less delivered oxygen, nutrients, and antioxidants leading to the breakdown of collagen,” he says. “All of skin’s problems appear worse.”

The converse is also true. Happy-go-lucky people tend to be “blessed” with skin to match. “When your body is able to manage stress and avoid spikes in cortisol and adrenaline, your skin will look better,” Dr. Gross says. “Unfortunately, stress today isn’t entirely avoidable and definitely not predictable.” But there are ways to manage—even possibly combat—its effects from taking hold. Here’s how:

Fortunately, there’s a silver lining to that cloud: Modifying your skin care regimen can help restore a sense of calm. (To your skin, anyway.) “During times of stress, your skin is sensitized and inflammation is up,” Louise says. “That’s when you need to take it a little easier.” That means swapping harsh, aggressive treatments (such as intensive peels or strong retinoids) for gentle, more nurturing options that encourage skin to heal. “When your skin isn’t in a happy state, it won’t respond well to products with more active ingredients,” she explains. “The key is to get your skin stabilized and healthy and then go back to your usual routine.” For clients in this situation, she recommends her own Hollywood EGF Serum to help calm and renew, along with a rich cream such as La Mer Crème de La Mer.

For his part, Dr. Gross has developed a collection of “stress-proof” skin care, formulated with a complex of ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties. “Focusing on improving lifestyle habits combined with a skin care routine that has niacinamide, superfoods, and adaptogens will be your best bet to combat stressed skin.” (The results speak for themselves: In a clinical trial, 96% of users of his Stress Rescue Super Serum saw “significant” improvement in skin texture within four weeks.) We would be remiss were we not to mention Lord Jones Royal Oil, a potent multi-purpose CBD oil. Applied topically, it’s like a comforting embrace for troubled, inflamed skin—and when taken orally, it gently steers the mind away from the frenetic hamster wheel of worry.

Rethinking your regimen will help reduce the visible effects of stress, but managing stress in the first place is paramount. Here, the usual tenets of healthy living once again apply. “First and foremost, you need to eat and get at least seven hours of sleep each night,” Dr. Rogers says. “Truly, sleep deprivation is worse than anything else you can do.” She also advises exercising regularly as well as limiting coffee after 12 noon, since caffeine elevates cortisol levels. We’re in the early stages of a global pandemic, so it’s normal to feel as though you’re on a stress roller coaster. This is where the therapist’s cliché comes in handy: You can’t always control events, but you can choose how to respond to them. “I can tell you to put away your phone or not to watch the news, but there will always be something to cause stress,” Dr. Rogers says. “You have to learn to protect yourself.” This is why self-care is more meaningful than ever. And with any luck, at least your complexion can become one less thing to worry about.