When you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, a new breakout is the last thing you should need to worry about. Unfortunately, many of us struggle with stress acne from time to time, which only makes us stress even more. Don’t panic: But how do you treat it? And is there a way to prevent your pimples from popping up again?
Meet the Experts: Brendan Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology; Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology; Mona Gohara, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut; Peterson Pierre, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Pierre Skin Care Institute; Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
We tapped our skin experts to get to the bottom of stress acne and how to stop a new breakout in its tracks. Keep reading on to find out how to identify stress acne and how to fend it off when you’re feeling inundated with your daily tasks.
What is stress acne and what does it look like?
Stress acne refers to acne that occurs in the setting of stress, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. “It can look similar to other types of acne including papules, pustules, cystic breakouts and clogged pores.”
Stress acne can look identical to regular acne, but at a worse level. Oftentimes, people break out in the same locations as they normally do, but to a greater degree during stressful periods, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Does stress cause acne?
Acne can start as a result of stress or can worsen in the setting of stress, says Dr. Garshick.
Stress acne is acne that is precipitated by the body’s physiological response to stress, explains Brendan Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. “Stress can cause increased levels of cortisol, the body’s so-called stress hormone.” Elevations in cortisol can cause an increase in oil, or sebum, production, which is a well-established cause of acne, he explains.
Stress is known to have a harmful effect on the skin, interfering with wound healing, compromising the integrity of the skin barrier, and even leading to a worsening of conditions, like acne or psoriasis, adds Dr. Zeichner.
Other causes of acne
In addition to stress, many other things can trigger acne, says Peterson Pierre, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Pierre Skin Care Institute. Per Dr. Pierre, here are some possible causes behind your breakouts that aren’t stress-related:
Bacteria on the skin
Certain skin products, even those that are used to treat acne
Certain foods—greasy foods, high sugar, nuts, gluten, dairy
Certain medications—corticosteroids, testosterone, birth control, lithium, antidepressants
Certain nutritional supplements—vitamin B6/B12, iodine, whey
Cosmetics with comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients—lanolin, coconut oil, cocoa butter
Who gets stress acne?
Anyone can deal with acne when they are experiencing stress, but it may be more likely to occur in someone who already is susceptible to getting acne or breakouts, says Dr. Garshick.
Those who are genetically more inclined to get acne, or those experiencing a tremendous amount of out of the ordinary stress are typically more prone to stress acne, adds Mona Gohara, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.
How to treat stress acne
Stress acne is managed with the same treatments as acne not related to stress, says Dr. Garshick, “however, it can also help to find ways to alleviate stress when possible.” Additionally, getting more sleep can also help your acne to calm down, adds Dr. Gohara.
Stress acne can be treated with tried-and-true acne treatments that contain ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinols or retinoids, adds Dr. Camp. There are also a range of prescription medications that may help, says Dr. Pierre, including antibiotics (topical or oral), Spironolactone, and Accutane.
How long does stress acne last
Your stress acne will typically last as long as stress levels are high, says Dr. Pierre. “When stress levels decrease, acne can improve but doesn’t necessarily go away.”
The duration of a stress acne breakout can vary person-to-person, adds Dr. Camp. “A short-lived breakout may last only a few days, but can sometimes persist for weeks or months.”
How to prevent stress acne
Eliminating stress is easier said than done, says Dr. Camp. “Maintaining a healthy skin care routine that incorporates acne-fighting ingredients, and taking care of your overall health through regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a well-balanced diet can also help.”
In regards to stress, try to identify ways to reduce cortisol levels in your daily routine, suggests Dr. Gohara. “Some examples are yoga, meditation, fun with friends, and extra sleep,” she adds.
During times where you know there’s going to be a lot of stress, for example, if you’re on the deadline or during a testing period at school, make sure to step up your acne regimen, says Dr. Zeichner. Here is what he recommends for your skincare routine to help prevent a stress related acne flare:
Wash the face with the salicylic acid cleanser—salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that removes excess oil and dead cells from the surface of the skin
Apply a product that contains benzoyl peroxide to the entire area that tends to break out—benzoyl peroxide is an ingredient that lowers levels of acne-causing bacteria and reduces inflammation
When to see a doctor about stress acne
Don’t be discouraged and make yourself more stressed because of breakouts, says Dr. Gohara. “Identifying the cause of your acne is half the battle.”
If your stress acne is not responding to over-the-counter treatments or causing a negative impact on your quality of life, do not hesitate to see a board-certified dermatologist for evaluation and treatment, says Dr. Camp.
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