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How stressed is your skin?

Posted Sep 23 2012 5:30am
Lately, despite the religious twice daily cleansing and moisturising, obsessive use of sunscreen, an hour at the gym, twice-weekly scrubs and facials, adequate beauty sleep and copious amounts of water, I have been noticing that my skin has never ever looked this terrible. It’s reached a point where strangers at the malls are asking me if I am sick and need help… not kidding!



Time to take myself to the dermatologist – who takes one look at my blotchy complexion, flaking chin, dark circles and the monstrous zit on my forehead and decides what I need is a “life questionnaire” rather than a session of blue light. And through gradual prodding and poking, we arrive at the root cause – stress. Because, being recently self-employed/unemployed (sometimes they feel like the same thing, don’t they?), I might have had more time to look after my complexion topically but the underlying emotional upheaval is literally killing my skin cells.

I have always known that stress is bad for your body, leading to a multitude of chronic ailments like high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, migraines, heart disease, obesity… yada yada yada! But honestly, it never bothered me because all that’s in the future. Skin problems, however, are in the here and now! Hence, this required some serious research during the course of which I found out that, given our increasingly crazy lifestyles, there is actually a new field of medicine called psychodermatology, which focuses on the mind-skin connection. Experts of psychodermatology treat skin problems that are caused or worsened by stress and this is what they say happens to our complexions when we are emotionally troubled:

1. Dullness: Stress triggers a hormone called cortisol, which slows down the skin cells, making them take longer to reach the surface and flake off. Hence, dead skin cells build up, causing your complexion to look dull and lifeless.

Quick fix: Drink more water and exfoliate regularly.

2. Sagging: Furthermore, prolonged cortisol production stimulates collagen and elastin loss in the skin, resulting in slackness, sagging and loss of elasticity.

Quick fix: Consume foods that increase collagen production and benefit skin. Soy products, such as soy milk, cheese and meat substitutes, contain genistein that helps block enzymes that break down and age the skin. Also, try topical products containing Vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) or hyaluronic acid (sometimes listed as sodium hyaluronate). Skip the retinoids though – they will further irritate stressed skin.

3. Dryness: Stress reduces the lipid (protective) barrier of the the skin, allowing fluids to evaporate more easily. In addition, cortisol also reduces the skin’s ability to retain water, leading to excessive dryness.

Quick fix: Try a weekly moisture mask, and apply a hydrating serum along with your moisturiser. Also, avoid using toners and cleansers that contain harsh ingredients such as Ammonium Laurenth Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate, which can dehydrate and irritate the skin.

4. Itchy, ugly rashes: Stress has a negative effect on the barrier function of the skin, while also inhibiting the skin’s ability to repair itself. Besides this, it also releases histamines into the bloodstream. The result? Flareups of immunity-related conditions such as hives, cold sores, psoriasis and eczema.

Quick fix: Try looking for soothing ingredients which contain avocado oil, almond oil, aloe vela, shea butter, sunflower oil and chamomile. Also, cut down on the variety of skincare products that you use – the fewer products you use, the lesser amount of ingredients they contain, and thus there is a lower risk of an allergic reaction.

5. Blemishes: Cortisol increases oil production from the sebaceous glands, which blocks the pores and results in breakouts.

Quick fix: Keep skin clear of surface dirt, oil and dead cells. Use oil-free products and wash your face gently with a soft cloth. Don’t scrub, as this can irritate acne and make it worse.

6. Skin infections: The epidermal skin cells lie on top of each other and are packed tightly together, forming a strong barrier that blocks the penetration of bacteria and other pathogens. When you are under stress, this protective outermost layer becomes more permeable, allowing harmful bacteria to infiltrate the deeper layers of skin.

Quick fix: Keep skin scrupulously clean with a mild soap. Use warm, not hot water, and pat your skin dry instead of rubbing; put moisturiser on immediately.

7. Premature ageing: During times of distress and anxiety, our body redirects the flow of blood to areas that are considered vital for reacting to the stress – such as lungs and heart – and in doing so, leaves our skin without essential blood and oxygen. This leads to impaired antioxidant enzymes, increased free radical production and tissue-damaging oxidants, all of which combine to make skin age prematurely, speeding up the onset of wrinkles, fine lines and so on.

Quick fix: Try some facial exercises and massage. These help release tension along with increasing oxygenated blood flow to your muscles, tissue and skin, which makes your complexion look vibrant and healthier.

8. Sallowness: Stress negatively impacts the body’s digestive system. This means essential nutrients are not effectively digested then absorbed, allowing impurities to accumulate. As a result the body is not able to eliminate the buildup of contaminants, leading to dull, lifeless, sallow skin that has an unhealthy palour.

Quick fix: Step up your intake of leafy greens, fruit and high protein grains and lentils as well as healthy fats like those found in avocados and olive oil while cutting down on caffeine. Skipping meals is a complete no-no!

9. Premature ageing: Prolonged stress creates chronic internal inflammation, which leads to accelerated ageing (lines and wrinkles), uneven tone and texture, lack of radiance and hyperpigmentation.

Quick fix: Sleep is anti-inflammatory – a time of heaing when cortisol levels are at their lowest. Getting enough will keep your body’s best coping skills at hand.

10. Skin cancers: In a study at Yale University, it was found that people with melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – were more likely to have gone through stressful life events during the years leading up to their diagnosis than people who did not have skin cancer.

Quick fix: Remember to not skip the sunscreen – even if you are indoors. Rule of thumb is that if the natural light is bright enough to read, it’s bright enough to damage your skin.

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