Want Great Skin? Relax!
We've all been there
A co-worker waves hello, then shows a look of concern. "Are you feeling OK? You look really tired," she says. Or your friend asks, "Did you have shellfish? Your skin seems to be having some sort of reaction." There's no denying it: When your stress level skyrockets, it's usually written all over your face.
"Stress plays a huge role in how your skin looks and acts," says Amy Wechsler, MD, a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City. That's because it activates the production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn leads to inflammation."
Combine that with external stressors, such as UV rays and pollution, and it's no wonder most of us suffer skin woes. Don't fret: This tip-packed guide will calm you down and get you glowing.
Stress signal no. 1: Breakouts
Persistent pimples are often the result of high anxiety. Indeed, a study conducted at Stanford University Medical School showed that college students had more breakouts in the days surrounding exams than at other times. The reason? As tension mounts, cortisol levels spike, instigating oil production and inflammation and kick-starting the growth of P. acnes, the bacterium responsible for pimples. And while hormone-induced zits typically occur on the chin, stress-related flare-ups can show up anywhere. What's more, although stress pimples don't look much different from any other pimple, they tend to be more stubborn.
How to stop breakouts
Overtreatment can make acne worse, so stick to a simple routine: Wash twice a day with a mild cleanser laced with salicylic acid, which extracts dirt and oil that hide in pores. Then spot-treat with benzoyl peroxide, the most effective OTC zit healer. Try Zapzyt acne-treatment gel ($4; walmart.com). If your breakouts become more regular, consider using prescription retinoids and a gentle exfoliating wash, both of which help keep skin clear.
Stress signal no. 2: Redness and irritation
When you're under psychological stress, the skin's barrier function is impaired. "It's less able to protect itself," says Josie Howard, MD, a clinical instructor of psychiatry and dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. "Any insult to skin will have greater impact." And as most of us well know, when we're under lots of pressure, picking at scabs and pimples often follows, which can have a snowball effect. "Breaking the skin can result in the release of inflammatory chemicals called neuropeptides, which make things redder, angrier and more reactive," explains Richard Fried, MD, PhD, a dermatologist and clinical psychologist at Yardley Dermatology Associates, in Pennsylvania. "Even worse, chronic stress suppresses your immune system, so it takes these blemishes longer to heal."
How to stop redness and irritation
To derail redness and irritation, look for daily moisturizers with anti-inflammatories such as chamomile or allantoin. One to try: Kiehl's Skin Rescuer Stress-Minimizing daily hydrator ($40; kiehls.com); apply after cleansing. For stubborn acne scars, look to proven spot-faders like vitamin K and licorice root. Find them in Vita-K Professional for Acne Scars ($15; drugstore.com). You might also want to talk to your derm about laser treatments (such as Fraxel, pulsed dye and Q-switched), which can reduce redness, smooth elevation and minimize scars. And if picking is your problem, try this tip: "Give yourself permission to press very firmly on the spot, almost like you are squashing it away," advises Dr. Fried. "Creating an uncomfortable sensation will quell that need to pick. Then do something to distract yourself. Text a friend, read a book or make a cup of tea."
Stress signal no. 3: Dullness and dryness
Another unwanted effect of that nasty hormone cortisol: Your blood-sugar levels rise, which results in glycation. What's that, you ask? "Glycation is when excess sugar molecules bind to our collagen and elastin, making them more rigid and leaving our skin looking haggard. It also cuts down on circulation, literally starving the skin of nutrients it needs," says Elizabeth Martin, MD, a dermatologist in Hoover, Ala. That means that dead skin cells take longer to slough off, and your complexion looks flaky and dull as a result.
How to stop dullness and dryness
Encourage exfoliation of dead skin cells with products containing alpha-hydroxy acids derived from fruit. One smart choice is Origins Brighter by Nature High-Potency brightening peel with fruit acids ($40 for 40 pads; macys.com).
Stress signal no. 4: Pale or sallow skin
"You look like you're under the weather" is also code for "You're as washed-out as a corpse." While some people get beet red when stress has them riled up, others find that their blood vessels constrict, which drains any hint of color from their skin, says Karen Kim, MD, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. And as we age, a natural loss of skin radiance (often due to decreased hormones) coupled with stress can make skin even paler and less vibrant than usual.
How to brighten pale or sallow skin
To liven your looks, incorporate products with caffeine, ginseng and coffee-seed extract, all of which boost circulation and help restore your glow. A good product that contains all three: Estée Lauder Nutritious Vita-Mineral crème ($60; sephora.com). And remember to exercise. Not only will it pump blood to the skin so you look healthier and more alive, but it will also reduce the stress that caused the wanness in the first place.