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How does stress affect our skin?

Understanding and how to look after your stressed out skin

Nurse Fiona RizziNurse Practitioner
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How does stress affect our skin?
Written byNurse Fiona RizziNurse Practitioner
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Stress affects us all at some points in our lives and we can all react differently. We turned to Nurse Fiona Rizzi, for her insight on stress and it's affects on our skin. Fiona is a nurse practitioner and nutritionist who has been working in integrative and functional healthcare for over a decade. She has a deep passion for personalised medicine, encompassing physical, emotional & spiritual support.

Stress triggers our fight-or-flight response, also referred to as the HPA axis, consisting of the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands in our brain and the adrenal glands, which sit at the top of the kidneys. 

When you are exposed to stress (perceived or real) chemicals known as cortisol and adrenaline are released from your adrenal glands. These chemicals affect every cell in the body, including skin cells. Many emerging studies are showing that the HPA axis can have a major effect on your skin (1) as it regulates skin inflammation, protection and repair. However, there are many simple lifestyle tips you can introduce to help protect your body and skin from the effects of long-term exposure to stress. 

Understanding different types of stress

Acute Stress 

Acute stress is experienced as an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional or psychological. Examples include running late to an important appointment, traffic jams or public speaking. 

Symptoms of acute stress include a faster heartbeat, a feeling of contraction and a pitted feeling in the stomach also referred to as “butterflies.” This type of stress can happen multiple times a day and serves a purpose to protect us from the threat.  

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress differs from acute stress in that it is a lingering, pervasive feeling of being under pressure or overwhelmed. Symptoms of chronic stress can be fatigue, low-level anxiety, insomnia, inability to focus, irregular heartbeat, impaired digestion, or a constant feeling of unease. 

If you are experiencing these symptoms for longer than 4 weeks, we would advise seeing a healthcare practitioner for further testing and support. Living with chronic stress can impair your immune system, digestion, and reproduction and can also significantly affect your skin.

How does stress affect the skin?

Stress shuts down non-essential functions, such as skin repair, regeneration and hair growth so energy can be used to focus on the perceived threat in front of you. Chronic stress can affect the skin in a myriad of ways. 

  1. Reduced blood flow and delivery of nutrients to skin, hair and nails
  2. Depletion of hyaluronic acid, elastin and collagen leads to dull skin and accelerated skin ageing (3) 
  3. Shuts down the skin's immune system leading to vulnerability to topical infections 
  4. Affects the skin's epidermal barrier which plays a role in preventing moisture loss and is home to the skin microbiome that protects us from harmful microbes (4.) 
  5. Increased breakouts and blackheads due to cortisol affecting other hormones leading to excess oil production.
  6. Inflammation, red, irritated skin 

How do I know if my skin is being affected by stress?

If you are experiencing issues with your skin such as breakouts, dryness, redness or rashes that are not always normal for you, this may be a sign that your skin is being affected by stress. A good idea is to keep a journal to help determine whether your skin is affected by stress:

  • Do you find that you experience breakouts or increased redness and irritation during a stressful period at work or a busy time in your life where sleep, rest and diet are not a priority?
  • Do you find particular foods trigger inflammation, breakouts or dull skin? 

If all answers point to stress, there are many simple things you can introduce into your skincare routine and life to help support you during times of high stress. 

Skincare ingredients to help reduce the effects of skin stress 

  • Ceramides 

These are essential fats that make up 50% of your skin barrier. Ceramides are depleted by cortisol leading to inflammation, irritation and dryness. 

Opt for Cerave Hydrating Cleanser which contains 3 ceramides to deeply nourish the skin. Eucerin UreaRepair Plus can be applied on the body to areas affected by eczema or psoriasis 

  • Antioxidants

Invest in a high-quality antioxidant serum. During periods of high stress, delivery of nutrients to the skin is reduced making the skin more vulnerable to ageing and damage. Look for ingredients such as Vitamin C, E and phytonutrients quercetin and resveratrol. Paula’s Choice Ultra-light Super Antioxidant Serum is a great option to protect the skin against stress-induced free radicals, dull skin and ageing. 

  • Hyaluronic acid

Hydration is to combat the effects of stress on the skin. Introducing hyaluronic acid can help support the epidermal barrier reducing inflammation, redness and irritation. This can also give the skin a lovely glow. Medik8 Hydra B5 Liquid Rehydrating Serum can be a lifesaver during stressful times. 

  • Adaptogens

Adaptogens come to the rescue during periods of high stress. Look for ingredients such as reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, liquorice, guto kola and holy basil for combatting stressful skin. PSA Heroine Mandelic & LIcorice Superfood Glow Toner can be applied multiple times a day to hydrate the skin with the hero adaptogens liquorice and guto kola. 

Lifestyle tips for managing stress

Stress is an inevitable part of our daily lives. Skin symptoms can be your body’s way of asking you to take some self-care time or slow down to help with chronic stress, so here are 4 lifestyle types for managing stress:

Skincare routine/ritual

Many studies show that rituals or routines can help calm the HPA axis. Introducing a daily skincare ritual can have a profound impact at reducing the negative effects of stress.

  • Put on some calming music and spend 5 minutes nourishing the organ that does so much for you
  • Massage your favourite serum or cream into your skin paying attention to your temples, jaw and neck to help relax these muscles
  • Breathe deeply and let out a big sigh to help calm your system. 

Meditation to manage stress 

There are multiple studies demonstrating the positive effects of meditation on stress levels and skin health. One particular study showed a marked improvement in eczema, psoriasis and urticaria after introducing daily meditation for 12 weeks (5.) 

Set aside 10 minutes per day focusing on your breath or a candle. If you need help, apps such as @calm or @headspace can help guide you into a calmer state. 

Limit Blue light from screens (phone/iPad/laptops) 

Blue light emitted from screens increases the release of cortisol. Blue light is also capable of penetrating deep layers of the skin, producing free radicals and inflammation. Apply antioxidant serums during the day and limit exposure before bed to protect the skin. 

Explore and introduce Adaptogenic nutrients

Adaptogens are naturally occurring ingredients found in some foods and supplements that help support the stress HPA axis and reduce the harmful effects of stress. Adaptogens can be consumed as a tea, powder or supplement. Look for the below ingredients;

  • Reishi and Chaga mushrooms 
  • Valerian root
  • Chamomile 
  • Ashwagandha
  • Licorice
  • Holy basil 

If you would like to speak to a Renude aesthetician about looking after your skin during a stressful period or treating skin that is reacting to any form of stress take our skin health quiz at a time that suits you.


Nurse Fiona RizziNurse Practitioner
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