Why do zits often erupt just before an exam or big event? As the stress levels build up towards the big day, your complexion starts to freak out and break out. Is it a coincidence? It turns out that whatever we believed all along is true: stress does worsen acne. This is an especially important topic given that pretty much everyone around the world is stressed out by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
To shed light on this very common problem, we speak to Dr. Gabriel Wong, an aesthetic doctor in Singapore. He will explain how stress causes acne. Also, he will give some tips on managing stress acne and advice on when to seek professional help.
Has Stress Been Proven To Worsen Acne?
In the past, we had a hunch but were not 100% sure, but now we know the link, says Dr Gabriel Wong of SL Aesthetic Clinic. “Since the early 2000s, scientific studies have proven that stress does indeed worsens acne.”
In 2003, a Stanford University clinical study published in JAMA Dermatology concluded that medical students had acne outbreaks during high stress periods. These are typically periods nearing or during exams. In comparison, their acne fared better during periods with less stress, such as during term time.
Closer to home, another study conducted on secondary school students in Singapore in 2007 also showed a similar result. Acne worsened whenever the students experienced an increase in stress levels, such as during exams.
These studies serve to show that an acne flare-up during stressful periods is not merely a coincidence. “We should however remember that stress doesn’t actually cause acne. Stress merely makes acne worse, just like how it causes other chronic skin conditions such as Rosacea, Psoriasis and Eczema to worsen.” says Dr Gabriel Wong.
How Does Stress Worsen Acne?
Stress worsens acne in several ways.
For a start, hormones play a big role in how acne aggravates zits. “Your brain releases a surge of hormones such as corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol when you’re feeling stressed. These hormones bind to receptors found in our oil glands and send them into an overdrive.” says Dr Gabriel Wong. As a result, they release an excessive amount of sebum which clogs up your pore.
When our sebaceous glands are more prone to inflammation, blackheads and whiteheads are more likely to erupt into inflamed pimples. The impaired healing also allows slower clearance of acne marks and leads to higher risk of acne scarring.
Moreover, periods of stress often lead to poorer self-care. This can be when you throw your usual skincare routine out of the window, or when you binge on unhealthy food. Your pores tend to get clogged more easily when you don’t cleanse off your makeup well, increasing the risk of acne formation. In addition, stress bingeing on sugary desserts and junk food also does the same thing to your skin.
Last but not least, people tend to pick on their acne when they’re stressed. Not only does this introduce more bacteria to our stressed skin, it may potentially lead to scarring. “Acne excoriee is a condition where patients have an uncontrollable urge to pick aggressively at their acne. This unfortunately leaves deep wounds which have a high risk of scarring.” says Dr Gabriel Wong. To halt this vicious cycle of acne picking, we have to start treating the acne seriously.
What Can We Do To Reduce Stress Acne?
Dr Gabriel Wong recommends a multi-pronged approach to dealing with stress-induced acne. “Firstly, we need to try to lower the stress level. This is not always possible, but it’s worth a try.” Next, a good skincare routine goes a long way in keeping our skin blemish-free.
To lower stress levels, Dr Gabriel suggests meditation and exercises such as yoga or taichi. These have been proven to kill stress. Routines are also good as this often means a more regular sleep-wake cycle. If your study or work place is in a mess, doing a Marie Kondo is a good idea. Decluttering your work area will declutter your mind.
As for a stress-acne busting skincare routine, you should get your medical facials done regularly. Medical facials by trained aestheticians thoroughly extract blackheads and whiteheads and use other proven methods to clear up your skin. This can include a light Salicylic acid chemical peel to unclog your pores and LED light therapy to soothe your skin.
At home, these products are your best allies against stress-acne:
- A gentle, water-soluble cleanser. Use this twice a day and after your exercise.
- Leave-on BHA exfoliant. Use this at night when you sleep.
- Lightweight moisturizer. Use this at least once a day, as it will regulate your skin’s oil production.
- Broad-spectrum sunscreen. Use this daily, in the morning. This will reduce the formation of acne marks and slow down skin aging.
Finally, if you feel that the problem is still out of control, seek professional help from your friendly aesthetic doctor at SL Aesthetic Clinic. There are effective medications and even cortisone shots which greatly help with that pesky, ill-timed pimple. Don’t let the problem drag too long as scars once formed, are permanent.