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12/18/2017 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2017

Everything You Need To Know About How Stress Affects Your Skin

Experts reveal the toll worry takes on your complexion—and some ways you can keep the damage in check during anxiety-ridden times.
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You heal more slowly.

A little stress can be good for your body, keeping you mentally sharp and focused. But too much can wear on your immune system, making you more susceptible to skin infections, like cold sores, says New York City dermatologist Sumayah Jamal, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. What’s more, excessive stress could make it take you longer to rebound. “Stress delays the skin’s healing process by impairing the barrier function, or protective outer layer,” says Josie Howard, MD, a San Francisco psychiatrist who specializes in psycho-dermatology. In fact, in a small study analyzing the skin of medical students during exams and then after vacation, researchers found that “wound healing was significantly delayed” during finals, says Howard.

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You have dry, red and flaky skin—and not just in winter.

A recent study found that high levels of anxiety could deplete your skin’s natural moisture reserves. “It can suppress hyaluronic acid production, which causes dryness and dullness,” says Jamal, not to mention that stress and anxiety can also exacerbate conditions like eczema. If you already have sensitive skin, “this increased water loss over time can also make your skin more prone to having a red, chapped appearance,” says Washington, D.C. dermatologist Noëlle S. Sherber, MD. Applying super-emollient creams with hyaluronic acid and ceramides can help offset the effects.

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Your DNA takes a hit.

Beyond affecting the skin’s surface, stress can also make an impact on a cellular level. It all has to do with telomeres, the protective “caps” found at each end of a chromosome that preserve DNA, says Howard. Over time, these telomeres naturally shorten, which can cause cellular damage and bring on the signs of aging (like wrinkles). Anxiety can speed up this process. “We see a strong correlation between shorter telomeres and psychological stress,” Howard says.

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Your face shape may change.

Cortisol, the hormone released in response to stress, is the natural enemy of collagen, breaking down the connective tissue that keeps your complexion taut and firm. But beyond damaging collagen, anxiety “can also cause us to hold certain facial expressions, such as furrowing the brow,” says Jamal. Eventually, “this can cause permanent wrinkling on the forehead and around the eyes.” And Sherber adds that, “jaw clenching can cause the masseter muscle to grow stronger, making your face look more square.”

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Your acne lingers around.

You aren’t imaging the breakouts that appear with stress. Cortisol can stimulate pore-clogging oil production as well as trigger inflammatory acne, which looks like deep tender bumps along the lower part of the face. Stress can actually make existing acne worse, too. The reason can be traced back to the microbiome, the internal ecosystem of bacteria, most of which is lives in your gut. “Stress is known to disrupt the microbiome, which can have far-ranging effects,” says Jamal. When this internal system is thrown off, acne-related bacteria may be more likely to flourish and worsen the effects you see in the mirror. Talk to your dermatologist about the best treatment options, which might involve using relaxation techniques as well trying decongesting salicylic acid and bacteria-killing benzoyl peroxide products.

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