Your final exams are approaching and you’re fatigued, worried, and stressed out. Have you ever noticed that the intimidating stress starts affecting your complexion leading to eruption of pimples or acne cysts? You wonder what the exams have to do with acne? According to Lisa A. Garner, MD, FAAD, a clinical Professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, it’s perhaps not just your imagination. He says: “When you already have acne and you get into a stressful situation, that seems to be when your acne really flares up.” His perspective is: Emotional stress probably won’t trigger a new case of acne, but it possibly can worsen the condition in some one who already has skin disorder.
Stress And Acne: Are stress and acne related?
For a long time, dermatologists have suspected that stress can cause acne, However, evidence to support this theory was circumstantial only. In the past decade, however, many studies have shown that the dermatologists could be on the right track.
According to a study published by the Archives of Dermatology in 2003, the collage students had acne flare-up during exams. This was the period in which they were reported to be under more stress, compared to periods without examination. The research study concluded: “Acne severity is decidedly correlated with rising stress.”
Still, scientists don’t know exactly how stress worsens acne. According to Garner, it’s a known fact that cells produce sebum, an oily substance, which has receptors for stress hormones. This oily substance when mixed with dead skin cells and bacteria tends to clog the hair follicles, resulting into pimple or acne cyst.
Garner says, “When a person having acne is under a lot of stress, sebum producing cells are upregulated. This leads to more production of sebum, which in turn intensify clogging of the hair follicles and thus more acne are formed. The stressed individual tends to pick at them worsening the acne condition.
But this is only a circumstantial evidence, and the actual mechanism still remains a mystery. In 2007 researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine carried out a study on high school students in Singapore. This study was published in a Swedish medical journal, Acta Derm Venereol. This study found that acne worsened during exam times as compared to low stress periods like summer break.
Such studies theorized that the upsurge in acne probably could be because of rise in the levels of sebum produced during stressful times.
How Stress Worsens Your Acne?
(i) Generally, acne sufferer’s skin has clogged pores that you can’t even see. Stress triggers an inflammatory response in the body and can make the walls of these pores to crack. When this happens, the body responds with redness around the broken pore, and an influx of pus (a zit).
(ii) Moreover, when we have stress, our adrenal gland goes into overdrive. Androgens (male hormones), which this gland produces, upsurge. Elevated androgen levels can result into more acne. This is particularly true in case of women, who yield a much higher percentage of their androgens in the adrenal gland than men. This may be the reason why stress seems to affect women more than men when it comes to acne.
(iii) At times, stress and acne can interact in a detrimental vicious cycle. When some people are distraught and worried, they tend to pick at their pimple or acne causing them to exacerbate.
What Is Acne Excoriee?
Whereas some people squeeze a pimple once in a while, but I have seen some extreme cases in which the patients pick at their blemishes impulsively because they are self-conscious and distressed about their skin. Garner says, “Every little thing that shows up on a person’s skin – every small pimple – they pick it. They can’t make themselves stop.”
This condition is known as acne excoriee. Garner says, “Sometimes, they don’t have a pimple in existence. Instead they have scabs that can lead to scarring. Such patients can really turn even very mild acne into horrible scars.”
I try to persuade them to stop picking. If they don’t stop then they may need psychological help.
Caution: To prevent scarring, never pick at or squeeze your pimples.
Stress Acne Solutions And Treatment
What can be done to treat stress acne? A renowned dermatologist says: “Patients usually ask me – If I treat my stress, will my acne go away? My answer to them is No.” A reduction in stress really can’t treat acne.
For many people, acne is a chronic problem that doesn’t just go away after stress is over. It’s usually a lingering issue that needs proper acne treatment.
- Get A Good Night’s Sleep: Lack of sleep causes an upsurge in the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn worsens acne. Get enough sleep every day to keep your body’s stress levels down, and your skin will reciprocate with appreciation. (Read here for natural sleep remedies)
- Avoid Sugar In Your Diet: Sugars cause an inflammatory cycle in the body that can result into worsening of acne and stress pimples. Cutting back sugar intake reduces your body’s metabolic stress and can aid keep your skin clearer.
- Acne Skin Care: Avoid annoying your skin. Do not pick at pimples. Do not over wash or aggressively exfoliate. All of these habits will make a bad situation worse by enhancing skin irritation and inflammation. (Read here for acne prone skin care)
- Stress Acne Medication: Use a gentle moisturizer to help protect and calm the skin and apply over-the-counter acne products, which can include benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, antibiotics applied to the skin or taken orally by mouth, hormonal treatments, and in more difficult cases – isotretinoin (Accutane).
If your stress acne still persists after above remedies, you will need to visit your dermatologist. He will prescribe prescription topical or oral medications according to your specific type of skin and acne condition.