When it comes to identifying the causes of our skin concerns, we typically blame such external factors as UV exposure, pollution and a poorly managed skincare routine. Are you experiencing dryness and flakiness? It must be the central heating. Are you breaking out? Thank that cake you had last night. Got dull complexion? Lack of sleep is to blame.
But there are times when lifestyle and diet are not the root of all evil. There is no denying that pollution is harmful to our skin, but neither should it be seen as the main culprit of dull skin that lost its natural radiance. Our mental state has as much to do with it.
Regular stress, recurring anxiety and burnout can all lead to acute chronic issues as well as early wrinkles. If even the most trusted products no longer seem to treat your skin concerns, it is definitely time to shift your focus from the contents of your makeup bag to the state of your mental health. More on this below.
Skin and cortisol
In talking about stress, a basic introduction to our biology is a must. Not all stress is equally harmful to our health. Short-term cortisol release refines our senses, increases clarity of thoughts and can even stimulate collagen production which aids in wound healing.
According to skincare chemist Laurent Nogueira, micro stress positively activates the cells but the same cannot be said of its long-term effects. Chronic stress provides a slow but steady release of cortisol into the bloodstream. It is this kind of influence that can manifest itself in fine lines and other early signs of ageing.
Chronic stress impacts our bodies in their entirety, influencing the heart and blood vessels, lowering our immunity and overwhelming our nervous system. When stress takes over our lives, dull complexion is actually the least of our worries, albeit the most visible one.
In a nutshell, cortisol and skin do not get along. Cortisol blocks the production of beneficial skin oils and lipids, which in turn has an adverse effect on our skin. The epidermal barrier is the first to suffer as the first line of defence against external allergens, pollution and other environmental factors. Take it down and our skin becomes more sensitive and experiences a whole range of issues.
1/ Transepidermal water loss
The role of our skin barrier is not just limited to protecting us from external influence. It is also a natural layer that traps moisture inside the epidermis. So, when things like cortisol disrupt its functioning, it can suffer from what is referred to as transepidermal water loss. Its symptoms include dull and lifeless skin, which no magic potion can rescue.
At the same time, cortisol stimulates hyperproduction of sebum, resulting in congested skin and breakouts, especially in oily and combination skin types. Our natural instinct is of course to remove this excess shine and this is where we set ourselves up for failure.
The trouble is that while our epidermis remains deprived of moisture, any harsh cleansing and exfoliating treatments will only exacerbate the problem by stripping the skin of its natural acid mantle. Whitney Bowe, dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, compares it to depriving fertile soil of its nutrients and then expecting a good harvest.
2/ Disrupted skin microbiome
In an ideal scenario, the skin’s microbiome (i.e. an ecosystem consisting of a trillion organisms) is self-sufficient in supporting its health. For instance, some microbes live off our skin’s sebum and dead cells, contributing to a natural process of cleansing and exfoliation. Others produce peptides and ceramides, which increase the skin’s elasticity and hydration.
Unfortunately, the circumstances that enable this well-oiled mechanism are often far from ideal. The adverse effects of the environmental factors on our skin call for additional support in the form of skincare. Having said that, exhaust fumes, poor diet and heigh levels of cortisol all have their say in this as well.
Cortisol is known to prompt the production of “bad” bacteria – such as Cutibacterium acnes associated with acne – and the suppression of “good” ones. The result is a less diverse microbiome and a compromised immune system.
3/ Free radicals
Chronic stress leads to a reduction in the natural activity of our internal antioxidants. Higher levels of cortisol alert the rest of the body, locking it into a survival mode, which is prioritised over all other processes. Understandably, fighting against free radicals is then the least of our worries.
So how does this manifest on our skin? According to Dr Bowe, when free radicals target our DNA, it leads to cancer; when they target elastin and collagen, it leads to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles; and when free radicals target lipids, it leads to dehydration, damage to the skin’s barrier and, ultimately, acne.
Tackling the root cause and treatment
As much as some manufacturers might try to convince you otherwise, even the most expensive serums containing hyaluronic acid, peptides and antioxidants are powerless in the face of cortisol. The best solution is to tackle the root cause and address the source of stress itself.
The good news is that, unlike skincare treatments, internal balance is affordable to anyone. It can take the form of a morning meditation or a regular grounding technique. The important thing is to let go of tension in the body and anxiety in the mind. The opportunities to do so are endless: be it breathwork, aromatherapy or a simple walk in nature. Let your favourite beauty rituals (calming masks, massages or spa treatments) come to your rescue.
But do not let yourself get too carried away with obsessive self-care. Dermatologists recommend removing products that contain harsh ingredients like retinol or salicylic acid at the first signs of encroaching stress. Leave-in treatments containing essential oils are also not advisable, given their ability to disrupt the skin’s barrier, cause irritation and even an allergic reaction.
Stay away from too much experimentation with new products until the dust has settled. Any drastic changes in your beauty routine at this time will only stress your skin’s barrier out even more. Your skin will thank you for products containing hydrolipids, ceramides or fatty acids, which help restore its acid mantle.
Our top picks
De-Stress Muscle Bath + Shower Oil
The first thing that comes to mind when it comes to stress-combating beauty rituals is a spa treatment, followed by aromatherapy. Aromatherapy Associates’s bath oil is a perfect pairing of the two. Its warming ginger oil and invigorating black pepper reduce muscle tension, while lavender and rosemary’s healing oils relieve fatigue and promote better sleep.
Masquerade Intense De-Stress Face Masque
This mask was especially developed to relax, restore and refresh the skin which has been exposed to cortisol. A true vitamin powerhouse for your face, featuring vitamin C, B, D and E as well as fatty acids and antioxidants, resulting in natural radiance and regeneration. A generous 100 ml bottle which can be sparingly used is an added bonus.
Ayuna Balm Volcanic Revitalizing Mask
Ayuna’s mask performs the important task of improving our skin’s protective function by using activated charcoal and volcanic glass. Not your usual skincare ingredients! This surprising combination is backed by their ability to draw out impurities, reduce sensitivity, deeply moisturise and noticeably tone tired skin.
Instant Kalmer Sea Aster and Schisandra Ceramide Serum
A tandem of sea aster and ceramides in this gentle serum by Pai fortifies the epidermal barrier and reduces inflammation. Its USP is that it can be suitable for all skin types, including hyper-sensitive ones and those prone to allergies and rosacea. And we all know that this is exactly the kind of skin most prone to the negative effects of stress.
Calm Sweet Calm
Stay calm and carry on is the motto we all know too well and one that seems to have inspired the creators of these Calm Sweet Calm gummies. Hum Nutrition offers a more effective and low-calory option than a box of chocolates that we might be tempted to binge on. The combination of cherry, ashwagandha (a renowned Ayurvedic adaptogen) and L-theanine increases our resilience to stress and tops up our body’s energy supplies.
Skin Recovery Blend
All products by this brand – founded by cosmetologist, aromatherapist and Oriental medicine practitioner Annie de Mamiel – aim to reduce the negative influence of stress physically, chemically and emotionally. This pressed serum calms the skin, takes away redness and irritation and protects it from stress. Its vivid blue tint, delicate scent and therapeutic qualities are brought about by blue cypress, German chamomile and yarrow. Moisture is delivered by a combination of babassu, tamanu and cupuaçu oils, and malachite delivers the serum’s antioxidative effect.
Vagus Nerve Oil
The aromatic scent of this oil was developed especially with the vagus nerve in mind. This nerve is incredibly important to the functioning of our parasympathetic nervous system, where it is responsible for reducing irritability, instilling calm and regulating stress levels. Are your stress levels tipping over the edge? Rub a couple of drops of this oil in between your palms, inhale the scent with a few deep breaths and massage it into your neck and ear lobes.