Stress and Acne: Does Being Frazzled Cause Breakouts?

Stress and Acne: Does Being Frazzled Cause Breakouts?

It’s stressful having acne, but does being under stress cause acne? Many adults and teens who break out have read or heard that stress makes acne worse or can even trigger breakouts on normally clear skin. But, can you actually get acne from stress?

The truth is—and we’re not trying to stress you further—YES, there’s a connection between all types of stress and acne. BUT, stress doesn’t cause acne for everyone. (Do any of us know anyone who isn’t stressed about something?)

Here’s the science behind stress and acne: Researchers have theorized that a substance in the body known as cortisol (a steroid hormone everyone has that’s produced in excess when you’re stressed) can combine with androgens (male hormones everyone has), triggering factors within skin that can set the stage for breakouts.

Research into whether or not the interaction between cortisol and androgens causes increased oil production and, therefore, triggers acne has shown conflicting results. What seems certain is that stress releases inflammatory substances in skin that can make acne worse. This often leads to an increase in red, swollen breakouts and clusters of clogged pores or white bumps.

Both short-term stress (like planning your wedding) and chronic, ongoing stress make acne more severe, and it tends to be an issue that’s especially prevalent in women. Chronic stress is far worse; in this state, your skin becomes less able to recover from acne, so when breakouts occur, they last longer and are more likely to leave post-acne marks.

What Does Stress Acne Look Like?

Generally speaking, stress acne tends to look just like "regular" acne; you can't tell the difference between what is referred to as "stress-related acne" and any other kind of acne. Yes, stress can make acne appear worse, but only if you already have acne-prone skin. Some people report that their stress acne tends to feel itchy, or has more of a clustered appearance, but that's more about personal experience than what research has shown to be true. No matter what your acne looks like, what you really need to know is how to treat it.

What Helps Control Stress Acne

Aside from managing your stress better, you treat stress acne the same way as any other type of acne. Over-the-counter products containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are the gold standard. Using those products as part of a gentle skin care routine that helps minimize redness and doesn’t clog pores is always the first step.

If following a consistent skin care routine isn’t doing enough to control your acne, the next step is to talk to your physician (even better, a dermatologist) about prescription anti-acne options to complement your skin care routine. The goal is to find the right balance of effective, gentle products that works best for your acne—and that will take some experimenting.

Learn more about acne.

References for this information:
Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica, July 2017, pages 1133–1141
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, January 2017, pages 37–46
Archives of Dermatological Research, October 2014, pages 683–688
Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets, June 2014, pages 177–190
Acta-dermato Venerologica, Volume 87, Issue 2, 2007, pages 135–139
Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, January 2005, pages 6–9
Archives of Dermatology, July 2003, pages 897–900


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!