8 Ways Stress Affects Your Skin
by Ted Cooper

If you are under chronic stress, you can expect to see the following negative effects.

  1. Itchy, ugly rashes
    Your epidermal skin cells lie on top of each other and are packed tightly together, forming a strong barrier that blocks the penetration of bacteria and other pathogens. When you are under stress, however, this protective outermost layer of skin becomes impaired.

    In one study, researchers examined the skin of 27 students in three situations: just after returning from winter vacation (low stress), during final exams (high stress), and during spring break (low stress). Stress caused the outermost layer of skin to break up as skin cells shrank and the lipids between these cells evaporated. These tiny cracks make the skin more permeable, allowing harmful bacteria to infiltrate the deeper layers of skin. These bacteria produce a protein that activates the immune system, leading to eczema and psoriasis.

  2. More severe acne
    In one study, researchers at Stanford University examined the severity of acne in 22 college students during final exam week. Students who were more highly stressed by their exams had worse acne than calmer, less stressed students. In other research, relaxation therapies have been shown to reduce the severity and incidence of acne.

  3. More deadly skin cancers
    In studies on mice at Johns Hopkins University, chronic stress sped the formation of skin cancer when mice were exposed to ultraviolet light. In a different study completed at Yale University, people with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, were more likely to have gone through stressful life events during the years leading up to their diagnosis than people who did not have skin cancer.

  4. More severe dermatitis
    The stress hormone cortisol acts as a powerful steroid that shuts down one part of the immune system (making you more susceptible to colds and flu) but cranks up another, making you more susceptible to allergens. In a Japanese study of 26 patients with atopic dermatitis, patients experienced a reduction in their symptoms - even when they were exposed to the allergen that triggered them - for two hours after watching a funny movie. The laughter produced by the movie probably reduced levels of stress hormones.

  5. Cold sores
    Stress affects many different immune cells negatively, which causes flare-ups of immunity-related skin conditions such as cold sores (along with psoriasis, eczema, shingles, and viral warts).

  6. Frown lines
    Repeated frowning causes frown lines, and most people frown without knowing it. You can try to will yourself to smile, but if you are under chronic stress or have many negative thoughts and emotions, these forced smiles won't last. Indeed, a natural, long-lasting smile comes only from positive emotions that make you want to smile.

  7. Dryness
    Stress reduces the lipid barrier on the skin, allowing fluids to evaporate and leading to dryness.

  8. Dullness
    When the stress response kicks in chronically, skin cells take longer to reach the skin surface and flake off, allowing dead skin cells to build up and causing your skin to look dull.

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