Stress and Acne: Does Being Frazzled Cause Breakouts?

It’s stressful having acne, but does being under stress cause acne? Many adults and teenagers who break out have read or heard that stress makes acne worse or can even trigger breakouts on normally clear skin. But, can you actually get acne from stress?

The truth is — and we’re not trying to stress you further — YES, there’s a connection between all types of stress and acne. BUT, stress doesn’t cause acne for everyone. (Do any of us know anyone who isn’t stressed about something?)

Here’s the science behind stress and acne: Researchers have theorised that a substance in the body known as cortisol (a steroid hormone that everyone produces in excess when stressed) can combine with androgens, a male hormone that everyone has, triggering factors within the skin that can set the stage for acne breakouts.

However, research on whether or not the interaction between cortisol and androgens causes excessive oil production and, in turn, triggers acne has shown conflicting results. What seems certain is that stress releases inflammatory substances in the skin that can make acne worse. This often leads to an increase in red, swollen breakouts and clusters of clogged pores or white bumps.

Both short-term stress brought about by activities like planning your wedding, and chronic, ongoing stress make acne more severe, and it tends to be one of the most common skin problems. Chronic stress is far worse; in this state, your skin becomes less able to recoup from acne, so when breakouts occur, they last longer and are more likely to leave post-acne marks.

What Does Stress Acne Look Like?

Generally speaking, stress acne tends to look just like "regular" acne. Simply put, it is hard to tell the difference between what is referred to as "stress-related acne" and any other types of acne. Yes, stress can make acne appear worse, but only if you already have acne-prone skin. Some people report that their pimples brought about by stress tend to feel itchy, or have more of a clustered appearance, but that's more about one’s personal experience than what research has shown to be true. No matter what your acne looks like, what you really need to know is how to treat it.

What Helps Control Stress Acne

Aside from managing your stress better, you treat stress acne the same way as any other type of acne. Over-the-counter acne skincare products such as those that contain benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid (BHA) are the gold standard. Using those products as part of a gentle skincare routine that acts as a pimple redness reducer and mitigates the risk of clogged pores is always the first step.

If following a consistent skincare routine isn’t doing enough to control your acne, the next step is to talk to your physician (even better, a dermatologist) about prescription anti-acne treatment options to complement your skincare routine. There is no quick-fix way to get rid of acne or acne scars. The goal is to find the right balance of effective, gentle products or acne treatments that work best for your acne—and that will take some experimenting. 

 Learn more about the types of acne and solutions here

Shop Paula’s Choice research backed skincare to tackle acne breakouts.

References for this information:

Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica, July 2017, pages 1133–1141
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, January 2017, pages 37–46
Archives of Dermatological Research, October 2014, pages 683–688
Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets, June 2014, pages 177–190
Acta-dermato Venerologica, Volume 87, Issue 2, 2007, pages 135–139
Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, January 2005, pages 6–9
Archives of Dermatology, July 2003, pages 897–900

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