It would be the understatement of the century to say that we are all really stressed out right now. The news is an endless stream of pandemic-related panic, most of us haven’t left our homes in weeks, and tasks as simple as going to the grocery store or the pharmacy have become major, anxiety-provoking outings that require a mask and full-body rubdown with hand sanitizer. We’re living in an unprecedented time of fear and isolation, and doing the best we can to get through it. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, one frustrating side effect is that stress can present itself on skin. How that stress shows up, however, depends entirely on different skin conditions.
“Right now as a collective we’re all feeling a surge of stress from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on seemingly every aspect of our lives,” says board-certified dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD. “Biochemically, a rise in stress triggers a surge in adrenaline and cortisol, these are hormones that drive us into fight or flight mode and trigger inflammation in the body, which can result in several skin issues.” She adds that certain quarantine-related lifestyle factors, like lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, and limited access to certain foods can also contribute to skin being out of whack.
The way our bodies respond to all of this isn’t quite “one size fits all”. Stress affects different skin types in different ways. Here, dermatologists explain how four different skin types experience stressed-out skin. One thing to remember? We’re all in this together, so even if your skin is feeling less than stellar right now, don’t let it be another thing to stress you out.
1. Acne-prone skin
When we talk about stress skin conditions, acne tends to get most of the airtime. When you’re stressed out, your body produces more cortisol, which kicks the oil glands in your skin into high gear. “In response to stress, your brain increases levels of a hormone known as CRH, and the job of CRH is to rev up cortisol levels that prepare our bodies for the stressful environment,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. “At the same time, however, CRH also stimulates our oil glands, promoting breakouts.” Usually, these stress-induced breakouts show up on your T-zone, where oil glands are the most densely populated. To combat this, try an exfoliating cleanser, like MaeLove The Refresher Triple AHA Cleanser ($19). Dr. Robinson also suggests using a retinol, like Alastin Renewal Retinol ($55), which acts as an anti-inflammatory to “improve skin texture, reduce acne scars, and combat signs of aging, while hydrating skin,” she says.
2. Combination skin
If you skin is normally a mix of oily and dry, when you’re stressed out you’ll likely find that most of your skin gets oilier. While you may not experience breakouts, you’ll probably notice an increased amount of shine across your forehead and nose, which provides a stark contrast to the dryness happening on the rest of your face. When you’re dealing with two totally different skin types on a single complexion (particularly when the situation is exacerbated by stress), board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, suggests targeting the areas separately based on their specific needs. “You use lipstick on your lips and eye shadow on your eyes, so why can’t you use a heavier cream on the dryer parts of your skin, and a lighter lotion on the parts that produce more moisturizer?” she previously told Well+Good (though if you want to stick with a single product, pick a lighter lotion, she says).
3. Dry skin
Unlike skin that’s prone to being oily, dry-skinned folks have got a whole separate set of issues that might show up. The big one, according to board-certified dermatologist Kenneth Howe, MD, is redness and irritation. Research has found that high levels of stress can cause to a disruption in your skin barrier thanks to the hormonal fluctuations that it causes, which can result in atopic dermatitis—otherwise known as dry, flaky patches. Look for a lipid-rich moisturizer, like SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore ($128), SkinFix Barrier+ Triple Lipid-Peptide Cream ($55), or Cerave Moisturizing Cream ($15) to help restore the barrier and keep it functioning normally.
4. Sensitive skin
Another common stress skin condition? Inflammation, which can lead to reactions in sensitive skin like rashes, irritation, and eczema. If you’re prone to rosacea or psoriasis, it can trigger conditions to flare up, too. “To minimize the effects of stress, it is important to use gentle cleansers and moisturizers that will not compromise the integrity of the skin barrier and will improve skin hydration,” says Dr. Zeichner. Try the Dove Beauty Bar ($4), which you can use on your face and body, and follow up with a calming, sensitive skin-friendly moisturizer like Olay Calming Sensitive Skin Moisturizer ($11).