4 Ways Emotions Affect Your Skin
Lesson 1: The mind-skin connection is real.
There's no shortage of ways that emotions manifest themselves in physical symptoms—think butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous or a pounding heart when you're scared—but this effect is particularly strong when it comes to your skin. The relationship begins in the womb: "The skin and nervous system share a common embryonic origin, meaning the same cells form both the brain and the skin," explains Josie Howard, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist with expertise in psychodermatology. This creates an inextricable connection, which shows up in a multitude of ways you may not even notice (more on that later).
Lesson 2: Stress is the root of many skin evils.
Blame cortisol. This hormone is released any time you feel tense, triggering a fight-or-flight response that enables you to react quickly in life-threatening situations. While it's beneficial if you're being chased by a bear, it's not quite so helpful in daily life. Yet these hormonal shifts accompany every kind of stressful experience: a bad day at work, grief over the death of a loved one, prolonged anger over current events.
"Cortisol is meant to be pumped out for only a few seconds or a minute," explains New York City board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, MD. "When it's chronically elevated for days or weeks on end, it has all kinds of negative effects on the skin." Excess cortisol breaks down collagen, increases moisture loss, triggers inflammation, dilates blood vessels, slows cell turnover and increases sebum production, she says.
Translation: Say hello to wrinkles, dryness, irritation, redness, dullness and breakouts. When a skin ailment strikes, it's on display for the world to see, which is why skin issues have such an intense emotional impact, explains Howard: "As soon as we sense that people around us are judging our appearance, we feel stressed. It starts a vicious cycle."
Illustration: Astrid Torres
Lesson 3: Sleep will save you.
It's called beauty sleep for a reason. While you snooze at night, cortisol levels are at their lowest and growth hormones are at their highest, explains Wechsler. These nutritive molecules ensure your outer layer is functioning properly and maximizing its ability to repair itself, she adds. Feeling serene or upbeat has similar effects to getting a good night's sleep (this is why when you're happy, people say you're glowing). Your skin can also benefit from another bedroom activity that begins with s: "Sex not only lowers cortisol, it also increases both beta-endorphins and oxytocin, an anti-inflammatory molecule," Wechsler says, all of which work wonders for your skin.
Lesson 4: Don't treat one without the other.
Because the skin and the mind are so intertwined, psychodermatologists often recommend a two-pronged treatment approach. When it comes to products, the right formulations can be hugely beneficial: "There are a lot of things working against us, but a good skincare regimen is one thing we can control," Wechsler points out. The products below can help promote overall skin health and antiaging. But if you're dealing with a chronic condition, such as acne or eczema (both of which are exacerbated by stress), it might be time to incorporate anti-stress practices into your beauty routine. That means quick daily meditation sessions, regular exercise, a cup of tea—whatever helps you chill out.
"What makes someone feel relaxed is completely individual," Wechsler advises. "Find what's best for you." And just knowing that you and your doctor have come up with a plan offers its own kind of relief. "The treatment helps the skin, but the sense of control is, in and of itself, very healing, and decreases cortisol levels," says Howard. Both your mind and your skin will thank you.
Products for stressed skin:
To combat the effects of stress on your skin, use a twice-daily antioxidant serum paired with SPF in the morning and a retinoid at night. For extra-dry or irritated skin, try a barrier repair cream too.
E.L.F. Beauty Shield Vitamin C Pollution Prevention Serum, $16; Target.com. Vitamins C and E help shield skin against environmental aggressors.
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40, $32; Sephora.com. With a light texture that won't leave a whitish cast, this lotion is one you'll want to smear on.
Algenist Elevate Advanced Retinol Serum, $98; Algenist.com. Its active ingredient fights fine lines and improves skin tone and texture.
L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Cicacream, $18; drugstores, LorealParisUSA.com. Gotu kola extract helps reinforce the skin barrier for protection against irritants.