How Stress May Be Causing You to Break Out—& What to Do About It

How Stress May Be Causing You to Break Out—& What to Do About It

I haven’t had a breakout since early 2019—and then COVID-19 happened. I spent the beginning weeks of the pandemic furiously scrolling Twitter, seeing terrible news tweet after tweet, working myself into a panic. I’d wake up in the morning with a familiar pang of dread, only for the stress to continue to ratchet up throughout the day, ending with me (again!) scrolling Twitter and slowly losing my mind.

But it wasn’t just my mental state that was in shambles. My skin, my precious skin, also started to suffer. It started with a few little whiteheads around the bridge of my nose. A few dotted along the cheeks. A small cluster around my chin. I hadn’t had a breakout in ages and had been using the same exact products daily for a month. I hadn’t eaten any dairy (my worst breakout culprit) in forever. My monthly cycle wasn’t scheduled to start for over two weeks. I couldn’t figure it out—when all of a sudden a lightbulb went off in my head. It was stress!

I’ve long known that stress causes all sorts of health problems, but skin problems were a new thing for me. For a long time, doctors and researchers thought that the links between stress and acne were purely anecdotal, but there is now mounting evidence that shows maybe the two are linked after all.

Studies show that while stress may not directly cause acne, if you’re already experiencing a breakout or have acne-prone skin, then stress can make it worse.

Studies have shown that while stress may not directly cause acne, if you’re already experiencing a breakout or have acne-prone skin (raises hand), then stress can make it worse. In a 2003 study conducted at an American university, researchers found that students studying for their midterm or final exams suffered from acne flare-ups. They concluded that these flare-ups were directly related to the increase in stress these students were experiencing. While the hypothesis is that there is an increase in oil production when people are stressed, in another study conducted on high school students in Singapore, there was no increase in oil production while these students were experiencing psychological stress. So, even though there is no definitive answer on the “why” stress causes acne, we do know that there is a significant correlation between stress and breakouts.

If you’re experiencing breakouts related to these stressful times, know first that you aren’t alone. I’ve been dealing with this firsthand, and I want to share some ways I’m working on reducing my stress, while caring for my skin.


sound bath


Reduce stress by limiting your news intake

The first step to getting your stress breakout under control is reducing your stress. Instead of spending all day scrolling social media, which is a hotbed for stress and sadness, I’ve set limits on my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts so I can only look at them collectively for 90 minutes a day. That’s it. And I have to say, my stress levels have decreased dramatically.

Instead of scrolling, I spent my time playing soothing video games like Stardew Valley, completing home cleaning projects (Follow @gocleanco on Instagram, you’ll want to clean EVERYTHING), reading books, and doing NYT crossword puzzles.


stress breakouts
Unsplash/Lenin Estrada


Don’t pick at your skin—treat your skin

Resist the urge to pick at your skin as this can make your breakouts much, much worse. Instead, channel that energy into nurturing your skin. Focus on ingredients like centella (found in the Guerlain Super Aqua Serum), which is excellent for healing acne and irritated skin. Or think about doing a nourishing sheet mask like my favorite Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask, which is formulated with the brand’s signature balancing complex, designed to balance your skin and perfect for when you’re having a breakout and things are all out of whack.



Spot treat, don’t treat your whole face

One important tip I learned is to apply your anti-acne products only on the places you need it. When you apply your acne-fighting serums and toners all over, you can possibly dry out the rest of your skin, which increases oil production, which can then create what? More acne. Instead, think about spot treating only. The Origins Acne Blemish Treatment gel is a good option for this—simply saturate a Q-tip or cotton swab and apply to the spots that need it the most.


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