Stress and Your Skin

This content originally appeared on The Oz Blog.

By Elizabeth Hale, MD

I am a dermatologist who specializes in skin cancer and cosmetic treatments to help rejuvenate the skin. I offer my patients a variety of laser procedures and injectable treatments on a daily basis, all with the intention of making people look younger and better.

While these treatments can provide meaningful results, I sometimes wonder whether a more cost-effective approach would be investing in our own well being.

A woman recently came in to my office requesting an expensive procedure that she hoped would tighten the loose skin on her arms. She had been obsessing about it, constantly asking her husband if her arms looked unattractive, and she was willing to do any procedure I recommended, no matter how expensive or painful. Her husband hesitantly agreed that her loose skin was making her look old, which made her fixate even further. I told this woman that while the treatment she was seeking works well to tighten mild laxity on the neck and jawline, in my experience, it would have limited effect in tightening the loose skin on her arms that was bothering her. I assumed she would request a second opinion and find a doctor willing to do the procedure she wanted, but instead she appreciated my honesty, and wanted to hear more. I told her she would be better off focusing less on her sagging arms, and more on her overall great shape. I suggested she’d be better off spending her time (and money) investing in her marriage, going out to a nice dinner, taking a vacation, etc. I assured her that her husband would appreciate her positive attitude and decreased obsession with her mild imperfections. He did.

A healthy attitude and well-being can have such a positive effect on the skin. The skin is really a window into our overall health. Think of the simple examples: When someone is anemic, their skin is often pale and drawn. Someone with liver disease may develop jaundice, a characteristic yellowing of the skin. I can even tell when patients eat a lot of carrots, squash or tomatoes if their palms and soles display the characteristic orangish hue of carotenemia. I can often detect a smoker at a distance by the sallow complexion and lines around their mouth, or the wrinkled skin, well before smelling the residue on their clothing.

When people are stressed, they may break out more, long after the acne-filled teenage years. Stress of any kind can raise the level of circulating cortisol in our body. High levels of cortisol stimulate oil production and can lead to acne flare ups and decrease our skin’s ability to repair itself. Others under stress scratch their skin obsessively, often developing patches of thickened areas on their skin, resembling tree bark. Common conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea can all flare at times of stress. There is a condition called telogen effluvium where one’s hair begins to fall out in clumps, in a predictable pattern, several months after major physiological or psychological stress.

Here are my recommendations for some easy things to keep your stress levels low and to help you look and feel your best:


Get your eight hours every night This is when the body recharges. Apply an anti-oxidant-rich cream to fight those free radicals, which build up throughout the day. Sleep deprivation may increase cortisol levels and inflammation in the skin, wreaking havoc on your complexion.



Exercise has such a positive effect on the skin. By increasing blood flow to the skin, it keeps our complexion rosy by delivering oxygen and nutrients while helping to clear away toxins and pollutants that our skin absorbs from the atmosphere. Personally, exercise is my therapy. It helps me relax and enables me to focus on what’s important in my life. I believe daily exercise does more for my skin than any skin product or lotion in my medicine cabinet. Feeling less stressed reveals a better complexion.


Find a dermatologist you can trust for overall skin health and body checks.

Find someone who is honest and looks natural themselves. You wouldn’t go to a dentist with bad teeth. You want someone who will tell you what procedure or lotion is worth investing in, and what might be a waste of time and money.