The Stress-Acne Link

December 12, 2017 11 min read 0 Comments

The Stress-Acne Link

By Kali Kushner


Do you feel like you’re frequently stressed out and your skin suffers because of it? Well, you’re not alone. Many people notice that their skin breaks out when they’re under a lot of pressure.

It’s a rule of thumb: you stress out, you break out. You stress out because you're breaking out and, well, you get the picture. This is simply what you call as stress acne or stress pimples.

It turns into a vicious hard to beat, never-ending cycle. And what’s worse, the more you stress, the worse your breakouts become. Keeping a clear open mind is vital to radiant glowing skin. So, go ahead and say it with me, namaste. For the longest time, I believed that the acne stress link was nothing more than a myth, the boy was I wrong. But the question is, does stress really cause acne? And if it does, what are the steps to prevent this type of acne?



Stress is an organism's response to a stressor that helps them to perform well. What happens in stress is that when a person is placed in a stressful environment, its hypothalamus is triggered and releases a corticotropin releasing hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland to release ACTH. ACTH in returns stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

Cortisol is also called as the stress hormone. It regulates the changes that occur in the human body during stress. It controls blood sugar level and helps reduce inflammation. It also controls your blood pressure.

During stressful conditions, our heart pumps blood faster, and our blood vessels are contracted to cope with the stressful situation.

Recent studies show that our stress system is working in exactly the way in which it should work. So the question arises, where the problem lies? And the answer is, the problem lies in our mind. It lies in our perception of stress and in the way with which we deal with the stress.



First, let me start with two caveats:

Not everyone’s skin will be impacted by their stress all the time, but everyone is undoubtedly susceptible to stress-related breakouts from time to time. Some of us are just more prone than others.

Some of the explanations for stress acne may be better applied to people with chronic or intense stress (particularly people with comorbidities such as anxiety and/or depression). Conversely, acute stress is generally considered positive, as it can strengthen and assist the body in adaptation. It is when stress continues unchecked that it becomes problematic.

Stress has such a huge impact on your overall well-being, from your mood, immune system, and appetite, to even your skin! Stress is a huge factor when it comes to the development of acne. HUGE. It can be the determining factor between a few whiteheads or a face covered in cysts.I can not emphasize enough the importance of stress when it comes to our skin, it’s like a window to the soul!

Stress does a lot of things to our body and causes harm, one of them is causing the adrenal glands to release stress hormones called cortisol. It also produces more oil to clog up to our follicles, allowing more acne to form on our face or skin.

When all of these are added together, we end up suffering from these stress acne breakouts. What do we really know about the science behind the acne fueled madness? How does the pimple form? And what hormones cause skin to flare up? But you know what the good news is? There are solutions to your skin dilemma.

In this article, I want to talk all about how stress can be the fire that fuels the pimple and what you can do to manage it.  Take note that you’re not alone in your suffering as almost everyone had their fair share of these skin problems or condition. There’s a way out! 



Physical and physiological stress can have a negative effect on your skin (and overall health for that matter). Both types of stress are known to cause a release of cortisol, a stress hormone found naturally in our bodies.Usually, cortisol can be managed naturally but when under extreme amounts of stress for a prolonged period of time, cortisol can skyrocket further triggering breakouts.

Have you ever noticed a surge of breakouts around exams, moving houses, or preparing for a job interview- if so, cortisol may be to blame. High stress leads to high cortisol levels, creating a taxed immune system and excess inflammation. Acne is an inflammatory disease and stress causes widespread inflammation throughout your entire body so it only makes sense that stress can be to blame for acne flare-ups.

Many types of cells in the skin can be regulated by neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, which are chemicals released by the skin's nerve endings. Stress can result in the skin's nerve endings releasing an increased level of these chemicals. When this occurs, it can affect how and at what level our body responds to many important functions, such as sensation and control of blood flow, and can contribute to the symptoms of stress that we feel. In addition, the release of these chemicals can lead to  inflammation of the skin, which is a very important precursor in acne.

It’s interesting actually stress causes acne in three ways. One is that the brain AND the skin both create the same stress-related hormone (cortisol) that causes inflammation. The second way seems to be by interfering with the thyroid hormone. Low levels of thyroid hormones can leave the skin more susceptible to inflammation.

In fact, research has shown, through clinical experience and anecdotes, and more recently through a well-controlled study, that increased acne severity is significantly associated with stress levels.

Stress works to disrupt our skin’s stratum corneum (a protein/lipid barrier which creates a seal that maintains your skin’s hydration and protects it from microbial infection). Disrupting the skin’s barrier can lead to flaky, dry, susceptible skin, which delays the repair response.

The fact is that stress impacts our body in very many small, but immensely significant and negative ways. Research has shown us that our skin is not just a target of stress signals, but it also actively participates in the stress response. Given all of this, I think it’s safe to say that stress can most definitely affect our acne. I still wouldn’t say that stress is the main cause of acne.

Surprisingly medications that contain vitamin A, like Accutane or Retin A, raise thyroid hormone levels when they heal the skin. And finally, the third way stresses causes acne isby increasing testosterone and prolactin, two sex related hormones. When these hormones are balanced the skin is naturally clear but when they sky rocket, well, so do your pimples!



Dermatologist at Stanford University recruited students to study their skin during two periods of time, once during exam week and the other time during a relatively stress-free period. They also gave the students questions to fill out to measure their levels of stress. The results positively concluded that “changes in acne severity correlate highly with increasing stress.”

Another study done at a university in Singapore yielded the same results. However, they suspect that the main qualifying factor for acne production is not sebum alone. Acne severity differed between high and low-stress situations (being worse with higher stress and better with lowered stress), however, sebum quantity did not. Because of this, Acne severity associated with high stress is thought to be related to other factors unrelated to sebum quality.




Acne causes stress and stress cause acne! But fear not, there are plenty of ways to positively manage stress and turn it into good positive energy. It’s not uncommon to experience these small occasional bursts of anxiety; however, all we want is to minimize or lessen the stress in our lives as well as its impact on our body, most especially the dreaded acne.

Below are a few steps on how you can implement and minimize that stress and the acne that comes with it:










There are a variety of natural supplements and herbal remedies that anyone suffering from acne can use to treat it. Nutritional and herbal remedies for stress may be very effective tools to mitigate your stress acne.

One study showed that certain serum nutrient levels are low in people with depression and anxiety, which are also nutrients commonly lacking in people with acne, such as zinc and folic acid. Evidence has shown that some of these nutrients, namely zinc, may improve acne (see my post on  Supplements For Acne). In another study, people who took omega-3 supplements self-reported an improvement in both their overall wellbeing, and their acne. Supplements containing high doses of B vitamins are also often taken to help improve mood (see my post on Vitamin B6 For Acne Free Skin).

Wanna know what we found out? People with depression and anxiety as well as those people with acne commonly have low nutrients and these nutrients include the following: Zinc, Omega 3 and B6 which help improve their mood-related and acne symptoms.

Passionflower extracts, Kava, L-lysine and L-arginine, and magnesium-containing supplements all hold promise for treating the symptoms of anxiety, but more research is still needed.

Increasing your micronutrient intake can improve both your stress and acne and it may be important to consider how you can add these nutrients to your diet by means of whole foods and supplementation.

If you’re one of those who look forward to substituting supplements with herbal remedies, then here’s what you can try:

Herbal remedies such as passionflower extract, kava, L-lysine, L-arginine and magnesium-containing supplements promote effective treatment of anxiety symptoms as well as improve your stress acne.

Did these supplements not work well enough for you? You may also opt for other stress acne supplements. Supplements for stress acne can also include hormonal treatments, which may or may not be right for you.





Other than substituting those supplements from natural and herbal remedies, you may also vie for guided meditation.

Stress doesn’t really have to eat up your whole life or be a big deal to you by controlling your skin.

Our mind is a very powerful tool and it is manifested in what we think. We can’t really cure our acne but we can change the way we respond to stress, helping improve our stress acne.

And this works through guided meditation as well as other cognitive-behavioral tools as it breaks the cycle of stress and teaches us on how or where we focus our thoughts, beliefs and our attitudes which affect the way we feel and behave. Guided meditation also helps us reflect specifically on our acne and the way our thoughts and feelings show towards our skin.

You can implement stress-reducing ways at home when improving your acne through other helpful tools such as relaxing your muscles, meditating your mind as well as doing yoga as these activities help free your mind from any stress hormones like oxytocin. Through these, you can effectively manage your stress and benefit from it.  

Don’t blow off any of these techniques or methods unless you have tried it.






Stress can be our number one enemy by making our skin oilier and inflamed than it already is. Spot treat your acne at its site rather than at its source.

It usually takes time for an individual to tackle his or her stress acne at its stubborn state and all it takes is to have a new skincare routine.

What acne treatments can treat stress acne better than benzoyl peroxide (2.5%), salicylic acid and retinoids? They help reduce inflammation and oil production and they offer other skin benefits as well. They may all be useful and effective products in zapping the acne that your stress does cause.

If you only get sporadic pimples during crunch time, treating them with a Pumpkin Enzyme Masque or a tea tree oil spot treatment will do just as well.

If any of your current skincare routines is not working, switch them up by using those acne treatments with stronger concentration or different acne-fighting ingredient you can use to treat those stress acne.




Okay, this may sound like a no-brainer, but hey this helps! When you feel like you’re about to break down or lose your cool, try to take time off your work or strenuous activity and find something relaxing to do such as deep-breathing, meditating, exercising, reading a good book or perhaps listening to feel good music. In that way, you can reduce your stress levels. 






Keeping a poor diet can also cause or increase the levels of your stress hormones. Everyone may not believe this, but it is true. Change that diet from a high glycemic to a low one. When we talk about high glycemic diet, we are referring to foods like pasta, bread, pizza, etc.

First of all, what is the glycemic index? It is a chart or number which gives you an idea of how fast our body converts the carbs found in food into glucose. Here is a guide to determine if your diet is a high or low glycemic one: 55 or less = low (good) , 56-69 = medium , 70 or higher = high (bad). The glycemic index can be found in labels of packaged foods.

Also, avoid snacks that you know would be causing your skin to flare up (such as junk food) 





This has been mentioned every now and then in some posts about treating acne, particularly stress acne. Lack of sleep causes stress as well. Catch up on the 8-hour sleep and perhaps use Banish’s Pumpkin Enzyme Masque which can help treat and prevent blemishes as well as exfoliate those dead skin cells and reduce oil production.






This habit is one of the things we are most guilty of – touching our face. Often times we do this, especially when we get stressed out from work, school, or even extracurricular activities or picking out our skin to get rid of those existing pimples on our face, causing bacteria to spread further. 






I know, obvious, right? Some experts say that you can’t treat acne “with a Valium”, and I would agree for the most part. Acne is generally an underlying issue of its own, and so treating your acne as entirely stress-induced is only addressing part of the issue. However, that doesn’t mean that treating the mental health aspect isn’t important, too.

Seeing a mental health professional should never be ruled out. They can help to provide you with the tools and support you need to overcome your irrational anxieties so that you won’t ever have to worry about stress acne. You might still get stressed out from time to time, which is acute stress and totally normal. Remember, it’s the chronic stress you want to address. 

Many therapists use biofeedback tools such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and other cognitive-behavioral techniques that can be invaluable in improving your mental health. There are self-help tools out there on these techniques that you may find helpful.

Of course, fighting your stress acne doesn’t just stop to 3 steps as there are more ways on how you can combat those and be stress acne-free.

  • Run a long bubble bath
  • Go for a hike
  • Do yoga
  • Go for a long run
  • Build something!
  • Plant a garden
  • Bake a new dessert
  • Organize something (closet, living area, makeup,etc.)
  • Remove yourself from the stressful situation (if possible)
  • Put your phone in a basket for a few hours and focus on the task at hand
  • Create a painting
  • Go shopping! (you don’t have to buy anything sometimes just looking can be relaxing)
  • Dance it off



    Stress can be seriously detrimental to your overall health, and so learning to find stress coping strategies is imperative, not just for your skin, but for you.

    What are some of your favorite ways to deal with stress? Comment below and let me know!