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How stress can impact the skin, according to a Harley Street doctor.

how stress affects the skin

Stress doesn’t just affect our mental and emotional wellbeing, it also has an impact on our physical health and appearance.

When your body feels overwhelmed, it releases a flood of hormones such as ‘cortisol’, which can disrupt various processes affecting your skin’s structure.

Understanding the ways stress impacts the skin helps develop effective methods to keep skin healthy and stress under control. That’s why we spoke to Harley Street Skin Doctor and GP, Dr Kaywaan Khan at Hannah London, who shares 7 ways stress can influence the skin, along with his practical advice on how to address these concerns.

  1. Acne

Whilst acne can be caused by hormonal fluctuations, diet, medications and genetics, frequent breakouts on your skin might also be sign that you are too stressed. When stress levels are high, the body releases the hormone called ‘cortisol’ which leads to an increase in oil production on your face and back. This excess sebum (oil) mixes with dead skin cells, clogging pores and creating the perfect environment for P.acnes bacteria to thrive. This bacteria feeds off the sebum and triggers inflammation, causing swollen and red pimples. As well as this, underlying chronic stress is often the cause of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which can cause individuals to neglect their everyday routines, including skincare. If your stress levels interfere with daily tasks, I would advise consulting with your GP who can offer you management solutions, such as referral to a counsellor or medication. During this time, I would try to simplify your skincare routine to a gentle cleanser, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid spot treatment, lightweight moisturiser and SPF30+.  Book in for a skin consultation with your dermatologist who can help advise the most effective products for your simplified skincare routine. If your acne is severe or doesn’t respond to OTC treatments, a dermatologist can offer further guidance and prescription medicine. 

  1. Eczema and psoriasis flare ups

Stress can exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. The body’s stress response triggers the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can disrupt the skin’s barrier function. Once the skin barrier is compromised, this also impacts the skin’s ability to protect against irritants and allergens which can cause further flare ups. For people with eczema or psoriasis, symptoms can include itchiness, redness, flaky or dry skin patches. Stress-related scratching can also exacerbate these symptoms, leading to more inflammation and potential skin damage. It’s not always possible to avoid feeling stressed, worried, or anxious but you can avoid other triggers that worsen your eczema, such as certain fabrics, fragranced products, or pet dander. Ensure the skincare products you are using are hypoallergenic and suitable for sensitive skin, moisturising regularly to help rebuild a healthy skin barrier and prevent moisture loss.

  1. Wrinkles and fine lines

The stress hormone ‘cortisol’ can also weaken the skin’s supportive structure by causing the breakdown of collagen and elastin. Collagen and elastin are essential proteins, as they provide elasticity and structural support to keep the skin looking youthful. Without enough collagen and elastin, the skin loses its firmness, and the ageing process accelerates. This can lead to wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin. Additionally, stress-induced facial expressions, such as furrowing the brow or squinting, can contribute to the development of dynamic wrinkles over time. If premature ageing is the concern, I would recommend preventative Botox treatment to avoid wrinkles and fine lines becoming deeply etched into the skin.  The idea behind preventative Botox is to temporarily relax the muscles responsible for causing dynamic wrinkles, thereby preventing them from forming or becoming more pronounced over time. It’s essential to consult with a qualified and experienced healthcare provider, before undergoing any cosmetic procedure. Whilst preventative Botox will help delay the onset of dynamic wrinkles, it is not a solution for underlying stress which may need to be managed through talking therapies or stress-relieving techniques at home. I recommend speaking to your GP for the best management solutions.

  1. Dark circles 

Stress and lack of sleep often go hand in hand. When stressed, the body may experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to a poor night’s rest. Lack of sleep can cause blood vessels under the thin skin around the eyes to dilate, resulting in dark circles. The bluish or purplish colour comes from the blood vessels showing through the thin skin in this area. As well as this, fluid retention caused by the dilated blood vessels can make the under-eye area appear puffy and swollen. It’s essential to create a relaxing environment to unwind from daily stressors and ensure a good night’s rest. Try to limit daytime naps and stick to a sleep schedule of eight hours per night. Avoid caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and large meals 2-4 hours before bedtime, as these can cause an energy spike that leads to disrupted sleep. If you’re struggling with insomnia, speak to your GP or sleep specialist who can provide guidance. 

  1. Dull skin

Cell turnover is when old or damaged skin cells are shed and replaced by new, healthy ones. This natural process is essential for maintaining a bright and youthful complexion. Stress can disrupt the skin’s natural renewal process, leading to a build-up of dead skin cells on the surface. This can cause less light to be reflected onto the surface of your skin, causing a duller complexion. To get rid of dead skin cells, it is important to exfoliate 2-4 times per week to keep the skin feeling smooth and looking bright. For a stress-relieving and skin boosting treatment, I would recommend the HydraFacial, as it softly exfoliates the dead skin cells off the surface of your skin, extracts blackheads and soothes congested skin. It is a deeply cleansing and hydrating treatment that gives the skin back its glow, whilst providing some much-needed relaxation for the individual. 

  1. Dry skin

Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt the synthesis of ceramides, fatty acids, and other lipids that form the skin’s protective barrier. This can compromise the skin’s ability to retain moisture, resulting in dryness, flakiness, and rough texture. This can worsen pre-existing skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, or cause dry skin to develop in people who don’t normally experience dryness. Prevention is always easier than cure, so be sure to moisturise daily with a fragrance-free option rich in ceramides. Dehydration can also worsen stress, as it causes your body to release more cortisol, so aim to drink 8 glasses of water per day, so you stay hydrated from the inside out. To rejuvenate and deeply nourish your skin, try a skin booster treatment which stimulates collagen and restores the skins glow. Skin Booster is becoming one of our most popular treatments at Hannah London, as two sessions a year are only required to see visible results. 

  1. Hair loss

The scalp is an often-overlooked part of the skin. Chronic stress can disrupt the hair growth cycle, which has three phases: anagen (growth), catagen (transition), and telogen (resting). Stress can push more hair follicles into the telogen phase prematurely, shortening the growth phase and leading to increased hair shedding and thinning. Hair loss can become noticeable, particularly at the scalp. Scalp massages are a great way to combat stress-related hair loss as they help improve circulation to hair follicles, stimulating healthier hair growth. As well as this, scalp massages can help alleviate tension, including migraines or headache pain that may be associated with stress. Through gentle manipulation of the scalp, these massages provide a soothing sensation that triggers the body’s natural relaxation response. 

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