For many of us, a quick news catch-up and glance at the number of unread emails on our phone have our stress levels climbing at 7:05 a.m. By the time we get through our commute and into work, our anxiety levels are only creeping higher and higher. So if the trials of modern life are taking their toll not only on your psyche but also on your skin, you’re not alone.
We checked in with dermatologists for their advice on how to get a handle on breakouts—so the stress can stop showing up on your face, at least.
Why does stress acne happen, anyway?
If you’ve ever experienced a breakout after a performance review or the night before a Bumble date, you can thank your trusty ol’ hormones for that.
“While stress does not directly cause acne, it can exacerbate it, and if you are already acne-prone, stress can make your acne worse,” says Michele Green, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. “Acne is an inflammatory disease that can be exacerbated by hormones released during stress, which increase inflammation.”
To break it down further, your skin basically goes into “defense mode” at the first sign of stress. Hormones, including cortisol and adrenal androgens, plus neuropeptides, are released to protect you. Unfortunately, this also triggers and inflames the sebaceous glands—yep, the oily ones, which can cause a flare-up of skin conditions (including acne) as a result.
Green says you can usually tell if you’re experiencing stress breakouts because they will be accompanied by redness, itching, and an increased number of blackheads and whiteheads. And even if your acne is usually under control, Green still sees them in patients who are going through an anxiety-filled time.
“I see a lot of stress breakouts,” she says. “In adult patients, if they are going through a difficult time at home or work, this can cause their once-controlled acne to flare.” And final exams tend to cause them in students.
The good news is that even though the underlying cause is because you’re stressed AF at work, the treatment is similar to that for other acne breakouts.
How to get rid of stress acne
Your first stop is your local drugstore: Pick up some topical spot treatments, says Robin Evans, M.D., a dermatologist in Connecticut. “Topical benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, which are both over-the-counter, can be directly applied as a spot treatment to individual lesions or over the general affected area if it doesn’t cause too much dryness or irritation for you.”
If you’re experiencing a painful stress cyst, she also recommends a holding a warm or cold compress over the area to reduce pain and redness.
Plain old ice can also do a surprising amount for stress acne—consider making ice cubes from green tea, which has been shown in some clinical trials to help reduce sebum production, for a double-whammy, super-cheap DIY treatment.
Other damage control options can include alpha hydroxy acid solution, such as beauty editor-favorite Paula’s Choice, and applying a hydrocolloid patch like Mighty Patch to especially tough spots.
Making sure you’re staying hydrated and consider switching to a low-glycemic diet, which can help too.
If this happens a lot, switch up your skin care routine.
Make sure you’re using a pH-balanced cleanser, like EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser, and a moisturizer that doesn’t clog your skin’s pores, like Cerave Ultra Light SPF 30 in the morning and Cerave PM at night. Applying one of the gentler vitamin C serums, like Mad Hippie, after you wash but before you apply your moisturizer is also a great idea for fighting acne (and can help with plenty of other skin concerns too).
And if this is a really regular occurrence, Green also recommends seeing your dermatologist for a more serious treatment regimen. “The sooner you act to get an appointment with your dermatologist, the better, because it will prevent or minimize acne scarring,” she says. “Your dermatologist can prescribe medication to control and regulate hormones.”
Your derm can also book you for treatments such as chemical peelsand microdermabrasion that can help clear up acne, and microneedling to help reduce acne-caused scars.
Stop stress acne before it starts by learning a few solid ways to manage stress.
While you can’t just stop engaging in stressful situations (unless you go off the grid and get a cabin in the woods somewhere, which… no), there’s no denying that stress is bad for your body. And while you may not be able to take time (or money) out for a full spa day, Evans says you should perform some self-care every once in a while—doctor’s orders.
“Find the method that works best for you, whether that’s yoga, meditation, a walk, a talk with a friend, a therapist, or modification of stressors in the workplace.” And when your schedule is too packed for any of that—remember that just taking a deep breathgoes a long way.