How to address stressed skin, according to a psychodermatologist

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Amelia Jean Jones

Your state of mind can directly affect the state of your skin, so face up to the January blues with the latest in anti-stress skincare.

You know how it goes: an exam, a break-up or a stressful week at work and that breakout or bad skin day inevitably follows. 

And while it would be near-impossible to banish stress from our lives completely, trying to manage it and the effects it has on our skin is far more realistic than attempting to stop or reverse time – which is why anti-stress skincare is being hailed as the new anti-ageing.

Statistics show that 85% of UK adults suffer from anxiety or stress so it’s no wonder that an increasing number of consumers are seeking products that manage the negative effects on skin. “Our modern lives are filled with more stress than ever before. 

When our minds and bodies become overwhelmed, signs of tension begin to appear everywhere – including our faces,” explains Anastasia Achilleos, renowned facialist and aesthetician at The Lanesborough Club & Spa in London.

As usual, Asia is at the forefront of the anti-stress trend with a massive 87% of Chinese women using their skincare routine as a way to relax. And with the UK women’s skincare spend set to rise by 15% to £1.36 billion by 2023, increasing numbers of us will be investing in maintaining our skin’s zen, too.

The emerging field of psychodermatology is proving that there is science behind the skin-brain connection. “It can be explained via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis,” says Dr Alia Ahmed, psychodermatologist at The Royal London Hospital. 

Put simply, the HPA axis is where the brain and its emotions overlap with the hormone system. “When the brain is stressed and releasing excess stress hormones [like cortisol] it triggers imbalances that can lead to inflammation, allergies and skin disease,” says Ahmed.

You might think that short-term stress – like sprinting for a bus – couldn’t possibly have the same impact as the long-term stress you suffer when going through a nasty break-up – it turns out that, actually, they both affect your skin in similar ways. 

“Acute stress can have short-term, immediate effects like flushing, itching and skin-picking,” says Ahmed. “Repeated or long-term stress on the other hand causes the body to consider high levels of stress hormones like cortisol as ‘normal’ which, over time, causes inflammation, a hampered skin immune-system and the skin’s protective barrier to break down.”

So if you’re feeling uneasy about the effects of angst on your face, read on to read our guide to your skin’s stress symptoms – and what you can do to put them at ease.

Dry, dull skin

If your skin’s feeling tighter than usual and fine lines appear more pronounced, high levels of anxiety could be depleting your skin’s natural moisture reserves by suppressing the production of hyaluronic acid (HA). 

“Studies show that glucocorticoids (chemicals released by the body when it’s stressed) can reduce the body’s natural production of glycosaminoglycans like HA,” explains Ahmed.

“This, in combination with impaired barrier function, can prevent the skin from retaining moisture.” The result? Dryness and dullness at best and, at worst, conditions like eczema can be exacerbated.

For a hit of moisture, try La Mer Treatment Lotion Hydrating Masks (£120 for six). They’re infused with a full 30ml of the brand’s fermented vitamin and sea mineral formula and hug the contours of the face, meaning the ingredients absorb more effectively. 

If you’re looking for something other than a sheet mask, The Light Salon ExpressLED Skin Health and Rejuvenation Facial, £35 for 20 minutes, is available at Harvey Nichols. 

It’s a non-invasive facial that uses yellow and near-infrared LED light energy to boost collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid while simultaneously lowering stress levels and boosting your mood.

La Mer Treatment Lotion Hydrating Masks

Stress skincare

The Light Salon ExpressLED Skin Health and Rejuvenation Facial

Stress skin

Loss of Volume

A decline in volume, sagging skin and deepening wrinkles are a troubling trifecta caused by the stress hormone cortisol breaking down collagen. “Collagen naturally breaks down over time, but the skin’s stress response causes a rise in glucocorticoids (GC), which slow its production and ramp up its breakdown,” explains Ahmed.

Look for treatments that boost blood flow to the skin, such as microdermabrasion or micro-needling. Both processes turbo-charge your body’s natural ability to produce collagen and elastin, which provides the youthful plumpness that stress can deplete. 

At home, try Swiss Clinic Skin Renewal Treatment, £89. A silver-plated face-roller creates tiny microchannels in the skin to allow the rejuvenating serum to be absorbed more effectively.

If DIY needling sounds a bit too painful, try adding a few pumps of Clinique Fresh Pressed Clinical Daily and Overnight Booster Duo, £30, to your regular moisturiser instead. There’s brightening vitamin C for day and collagen-boosting vitamin A (retinol) for evening. 

Encapsulated in double-walled and air-proof chambers to prevent the potent ingredients degrading, a study showed that it visibly reduced facial lines in four weeks.

Swiss Clinic Skin Renewal Treatment

Clinique Fresh Pressed Clinical Daily and Overnight Booster Duo

Skincare for stress


Stress is a key cause of sudden breakouts. Cortisol can stimulate pore-clogging oil production, as well as inflammatory acne. The cause can be traced to the microbiome, the bacterial ecosystem which lives in your gut. 

Studies show that stress can confuse the gut’s bacterial balance, allowing acne-related bacteria to flourish and worsen the effects you see in the mirror.

“Stress-related gut inflammation can also cause mucus levels in the gut to go from healthy to a level where unhealthy fungi – like candida – can flourish. On your face this shows up as blocked pores, increased oil production or general congestion,” explains facialist Marie Reynolds.

The Bamford De-Stress Massage, £90 for 55 minutes at Bamford Spas nationwide, is designed to calm the body and mind. Shiatsu, Meridian and Swedish massage techniques are combined to revitalise the body and help drain the toxins that stress can cause the body to hold onto. 

If you fancy a daily spa experience at home, Charlotte Tilbury Goddess Cleansing Ritual, £32.50, contains a vitamin C-infused oil cleanser to boost radiance and a purifying charcoal cleanse to draw out impurities for a spa-like clean feeling.

Bamford De-Stress Massage

Stress skin

Charlotte Tilbury Goddess Cleansing Ritual

Stress skin

Jaw Tension

Stress and anxiety can cause tension in the facial muscles which can, in time, actually change the shape of your face. “I can instantly tell if someone is stressed just by feeling their masseter muscle,” explains facialist Michaella Bolder. 

“The masseter muscle, which sits just above the jawline, should feel bouncy, but if someone is clenching their jaw (a common reaction to stress) this can cause the muscle to feel rigid and stiff. 

If you react to stress by clenching your jaw, this can, over an extended period, build up the masseter muscle making the back of the face appear wider and more square.” A clenched jaw can also cause tooth pain, achey shoulders and headaches.

To relax a tense muscle, use the knuckles on your index finger to knead it. Support your head with a pillow as you massage to avoid causing further strain in your neck and shoulders and use enough pressure so that the skin looks slightly pink when you’re done. 

Try adding a few drops of Decléor Aromessence Neroli Amara Hydrating Oil Serum, £48, to palms and inhaling for three deep breaths. Nourishing sweet orange and neroli essential oils will produce a feeling of calm.

Decléor Aromessence Neroli Amara Hydrating Oil Serum

Stress Skin


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Amelia Jean Jones

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