Most Likely Yes, Since the Skin Appears to Be Sensitive to Stress
The Essential Info
Chronic stress results in the release of a cascade of chemicals in the body that may contribute to acne. Based on what we know about how these chemicals may lead to increased skin oil production and inflammation, it is likely that stress worsens acne.
Stress affects the entire body, but the skin is particularly sensitive to stress. If you feel stressed for a long period of time, it is wise to consider some lifestyle changes for the sake of your acne as well as your overall well-being. Exercising is the healthiest and most effective method of dealing with stress. Outdoor activities, meditation, and deep-breathing also are good techniques for reducing stress.
- The Body’s Response to Stress
- Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress
- The Science
- Does Stress Cause Acne or Does Acne Cause Stress?
Research has proposed that psychological stress may be a factor in acne. There is little direct scientific evidence indicating what effect stress has on acne. However, based on what we know about how stress affects the skin, it is reasonable to suspect that stress may contribute to increased skin oil production and more inflammation in the skin, both of which are known to lead to more acne. Stress may also slow wound healing, and since acne lesions are wounds, ongoing stress has the potential to reduce the body’s capacity to heal acne as it should.
The Body’s Response to Stress
The body’s stress response is a normal and healthy phenomenon that evolved to help us survive. When stress occurs, the body responds by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters as well as hormones that prepare the body to fight the perceived stress.
Neurotransmitters are molecules that enable communication between neurons (nervous system cells) and other neurons, between neurons and skin-cells, and between neurons and the immune system.
The body also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, the classic “fight or flight” hormone, in times of stress.
However, the stress response is meant to be activated only periodically, in response to real dangerous situations. In today’s world, however, the stress response can go into overdrive, leading to chronic stress. Chronic stress results in continuous activation of the stress response and this can negatively affect health, including skin health.
The skin is the body’s largest organ and has the ability to react to neurotransmitters and hormones. Since stress response involves neurotransmitters and hormones, the skin readily reacts to stress.1-3
Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress
Psychological stress can be:
- Acute – temporary
- Chronic – ongoing
Acute stress: Acute stress means once the stressor goes away, the body’s response calms down. Taking an exam is an example of acute stress: you are anxious before the exam, so your body mounts a stress response. Once the exam is over and you are no longer anxious about it, your body calms down. With acute stress, the body responds by releasing neurotransmitters and hormones that stimulate the body’s protective mechanisms.
Chronic stress: With chronic stress, the stress does not go away. An ongoing difficult job or school situation, or ongoing relationship issues are all examples of chronic stress. In these situations, the stressor remains for a long period of time and so does the body’s response to the stressor. The body continues to release stress-fighting chemicals, and the resulting continuous stimulation eventually overwhelms the body’s immune system and causes it to stop responding correctly, which can cause problems, such as an increase in skin oil production and inflammation. Acne is an inflammatory disease that is associated with increased skin oil levels, so anything which causes inflammation and/or increased skin oil production can theoretically aggravate acne.
It is still unclear exactly how stress affects acne, but based on what we know about the impact of stress on the skin’s immune system, we can infer that chronic stress may cause an adverse effect on acne.1 One study found that females in their 20s who experience more stress tend to suffer with worse acne when compared with females who are less stressed.2 Another study published in 2006 found that using relaxation techniques to reduce stress may also help reduce acne.3
Expand to read details of studies
Stress-related Neurotransmitters and Hormones Linked to Increased Skin Oil Production and Inflammation
Exactly which chemicals the body releases in response to stress may end up increasing sebum (skin oil) production, and thus worsening acne, remains a subject of study. For example, some neurotransmitters, such as substance P, may increase sebum production. Hormones released in response to stress, such as androgens (male hormones that are present in both males and females), corticotropin-releasing hormone, and α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone may also increase sebum production, and in turn aggravate acne.5
Neurotransmitters: Two studies have looked at the neutrotransmitter called substance P in acne sufferers. Both studies found evidence that people with acne tend to have more substance P near skin oil glands, which may lead to increased skin oil production, and potentially more acne. In other words, stress might cause an increase in substance P near skin oil glands, which may then lead to more skin oil and more acne. But the second study suggests that the process might work the other way around, too: maybe having acne causes stress, which may lead to an increase in substance P. In other words, although people with acne tend to have more substance P near skin oil glands, this does not necessarily mean that stress causes acne.5,6
Expand to read details of studies
Hormones: Androgens, corticotropin-releasing hormones, and α-melanocyte-stimulating hormones are important hormones that the body releases as part of the stress response. Research has found that people who have acne have higher levels of these hormones than people who do not have acne. Androgens and corticotropin-releasing hormones can result in increased sebum production, and α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone can result in skin inflammation.7,8
Conflicting Studies on Stress and Sebum Production
Some researchers propose that sebum might provide the link between stress and acne since most studies so far have shown that neurotransmitters released in response to stress affect sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands have receptors for neurotransmitters, and activation of these receptors leads to increased sebum production as well as inflammation. In other words, as suggested in one 2004 study, stress may trigger neurotransmitter release, which in turn may lead to more sebum and more acne.9
Expand to read details of study
In contrast, another study found no relationship between stress and sebum levels, despite agreeing that stress seems to be correlated with more severe acne.10
Expand to read details of study
In other words, while researchers agree that stress tends to go along with more acne, we do not know whether this is because stress increases sebum levels and therefore causes acne to worsen.
Does Stress Cause Acne or Does Acne Cause Stress?
According to a 2011 article in Gut Pathogens, “[a]cne vulgaris is a common dermatological disorder frequently associated with depression, anxiety and other psychological [issues]. The mental health impairment scores among acne patients are higher vs. a number of other chronic, non-psychiatric medical conditions, including epilepsy and diabetes.”4
From what we can tell, stress most likely does make acne worse. But, worrying about stress is of course counterproductive and will just cause more stress. The best bet is to exercise, get outside, and try meditation or deep breathing to handle your stress a bit better.
- Rodriguez-Vallecillo, E. & Woodbury-Farina, M. A. Dermatological manifestations of stress in normal and psychiatric populations. Psychiatr. Clin. North. Am. 37, 625 – 651 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25455069
- Zari, S. & Alrahmani, D. The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Clin. Cosmet. Investig. Dermatol. 10, 503-506 (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5722010/
- Fried, R. G. & Wechsler, A. Psychological problems in the acne patient. Dermatol. Ther. 19, 237 – 240 (2006). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17004999
- Bowe, W. P. & Logan, A. C. Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis – back to the future? Gut. Pathog. 3, 1 (2011). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21281494
- Chiu, A., Chon, S. Y. & Kimball, A. B. The response of skin disease to stress: changes in the severity of acne vulgaris as affected by examination stress. Arch. Dermatol. 139, 897 – 900 (2003). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12873885
- Toyoda, M., Nakamura, M., Makino, T., Kagoura, M. & Morohashi, M. Sebaceous glands in acne patients express high levels of neutral endopeptidase. Exp. Dermatol. 11, 241 – 247 (2002). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12102663
- Ganceviciene, R., Bohm, M., Fimmel, S. & Zouboulis, C. C. The role of neuropeptides in the multifactorial pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Dermatoendocrinol. 1, 170 – 176 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20436885
- Lotti, T., Bianchi, B., Ghersetich, I., Brazzini, B. & Hercogova, J. Can the brain inhibit inflammation generated in the skin? The lesson of α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Int. J. Dermatol. 41, 311 – 318 (2002). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-4632.2002.01408.x
- Zouboulis, C. C. & Bohm, M. Neuroendocrine regulation of sebocytes — a pathogenetic link between stress and acne. Exp. Dermatol. 13 Suppl 4, 31 – 35 (2004). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15507110
- Yosipovitch, G. et al. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta. Derm. Venereol. 87, 135 – 139 (2007). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17340019