Stress and Acne: Does Being Frazzled Cause Bumps and Breakouts?

Stress and Acne: Does Being Frazzled Cause Bumps and Breakouts?

It’s stressful having acne, but does being under stress cause acne? Many adults and teens who break out have read or heard that stress makes acne worse or can even trigger breakouts on normally clear skin. But, to repeat: Can you get acne just 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 everyone has that’s produced in excess when you’re stressed) can combine with androgens (male hormones everyone has), triggering factors within skin that can set the stage for breakouts.

Research into whether or not the interaction between cortisol and androgens causes increased oil production and, therefore, triggers acne has shown conflicting results. What seems certain is that stress releases inflammatory substances in 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 (like planning your wedding) and chronic, ongoing stress make acne more severe, and it tends to be an issue that’s especially prevalent in women. Chronic stress is far worse; in this state, your skin becomes less able to recover 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 “angrier” and redder than regular acne. It also tends to be clustered rather than spotty. For many women, stress acne shows up as raised red bumps, white bumps, and clogged pores along the jawline and lower cheeks, almost in a “surgical masque” pattern.

For other women, stress acne shows up randomly all over the face, often occurring at the same time you get breakouts from your monthly cycle or those that occur as your cycle winds down with age.

Worth noting: Stress acne can also feel itchy and rash-like, while “regular” acne rarely does.

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 products containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are the gold standard. Using those products as part of a gentle skincare routine that helps minimise redness and doesn’t clog 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 options to complement your skincare routine. The goal is to find the right balance of effective, gentle products that works best for your acne—and that will take some experimenting.

How to Reduce Stress

Many of us engage in daily activities that raise our stress levels and, unlike getting caught in a traffic jam, some of these things are within our control! Here’s what you can do to minimise stress and become better at handling daily stresses:

  • Manage your time on email. The constant pings of new email messages keep your body in stress mode. Set specific times during your workday to check and reply to emails (be sure to inform your co-workers), and then close the program to focus on other tasks.
  • Turn off all non-essential alerts on your phone. This near-constant distraction triggers “FOMO” (fear of missing out) stress. Believe us, you won’t miss anything major. Let your family know that if it’s an emergency they should call you, not text or chat message you.
  • Try meditation. It’s easy to learn, can be done practically anywhere, and only takes a few minutes to recharge, refocus, and feel surprisingly calm and more capable.
  • Use a portion of your lunch hour to get outside and take a brisk walk. Exercise of any kind helps your mind and body release the negative effects of stress.
  • Plan for healthy workday snacks. Resist the urge to hit the vending machine for a candy bar or high-caffeine energy drink by stocking your work area with fresh veggies, in-season fruit, unsweetened nuts or seeds, and other healthy, unprocessed foods that provide energy without the sugar rush (and inevitable crash).
  • Look at nature. If your work space doesn’t have a window or a nice view, pull up beautiful photos of nature on your computer or tablet. Research has shown that spending a few minutes staring at such images (choose whatever appeals to you) is a powerful way to de-stress.
  • Be nice to someone you care about. Healthy human relationships and acts of kindness and compassion are the best remedies for stress, for you and those you love.

If these tactics don’t seem to do enough, consider speaking to a therapist who specialises in stress management. Professional therapists are well-versed in ways to help you better manage your time, cope, and prioritise, and the results—including better-looking skin—are worth it!

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


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!