There are plenty of expensive, high-tech ways to look a little younger and more energetic, from retinol to botox to all the means of hair retention, including very convincing hair transplants. But these measures don’t all have to be expensive. You can benefit exponentially from a daily SPF application, adequate hydration, or even a good night’s sleep. And right there at the top of the things you can do to prolong your youthfulness and improve your general appearance is to minimize the overall quantity of stress in your life.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done, of course. But while you can’t immediately halt a global pandemic or unilaterally improve your morale at work, those aren’t the only stressors affecting your skin, hair, and all of your bodily processes. There are many types of everyday stress, says NYC board-certified dermatologist Dr. Michele Green. The biggest culprits she notes include navigating traffic (like being stuck in it), everyday logistics (from events to grocery shopping), environmental pollution (like smoke and car exhaust), a lack of sleep. There are little ways to decrease stress and that can make a big impact on your life—including, yes, the superficial stuff.
Read on for all the ways these and other stressors can impact your appearance. And by the way: We’re not spelling this out to add to the stress in your life—it’s more to get the message across that feeling stressed out is hard on the body, and it’s worth taking as seriously as any other health condition. For her part, Dr. Green suggests fighting stress by getting a full night’s sleep and treating yourself, whether that means a massage, a luxe bath, a night off, a vacation, a facial, or just raising your heart rate and clearing your head with a long walk or run.
How Stress Affects Your Appearance
1. Stress accelerates fine lines and wrinkles
Cortisol, the stress hormone, can break down the collagen and elastin in your skin. Since these are what keeps skin resilient and firm, the stress effectively leads to more permanent wrinkling and fine lines.
2. Stress encourages hyperpigmentation—and gray hairs
One day, you might have the realization that hyperpigmentation has come for you. It increases exponentially with age, sun exposure, and—you guessed it—stress. In terms of hair, the stress can cause melanocytes in the hair follicle to lose color and go gray. And in terms of skin, the opposite effect can happen: You can get ever-enduring patches of darkened or rough skin.
3. Stress causes acne
There’s a reason a stressful moment, day, or week is frequently followed by a breakout or 7: The cortisol spike in your body also increases your skin’s oil production, which greatly increases the odds of a blocked pore (or 7).
4. Stress weakens skin’s resilience and wound repair
In tandem with the first negative impact on skin (the fine lines and wrinkles of it all), compromised resilience also leads to the damaging of skin’s protective barrier functions, says Green. “As such, skin is more susceptible to damage by free radicals, allergens, and other environmental factors as a result of experiencing stress,” she adds. Not to mention, it takes a significant hit on moisture retention and thus…
5. Stress dries out the skin
You might need to step up your hyaluronic acid and moisturizer applications if you’re overly stressed, since the skin will have a harder time retaining moisture. One of its core functions is to trap moisture inside the skin, and without this ability, you’re more prone to dry, rough patches of skin, and many of the aforementioned side effects (like fine lines and wrinkles).
6. Stress increases hair fall
As many of us realized during the early days of the pandemic (and onward), simple stressors like that virus can cause the body to experience telogen effluvium, or “shock loss”, wherein an excessive amount of hair follicles enter their resting phase prematurely. This causes them to shed in higher numbers, which can be alarming as you stand over the sink and notice four or five strands in the sink at a time. Yes, it typically regrows within a couple months, but Green notes that the hair can appear visibility thinned out for the interim. And, if you’re already prone to loss (like through standard male-pattern baldness), then it could hasten more permanent loss too, should the follicle be too weakened to regrow the hairs again. Lastly, notes Green, “It is common for patients under stress to experience a type of hair loss called alopecia areata, during which the immune system attacks the hair follicles on the scalp. This is typically impermanent, however, and those follicles should soon regrow the hairs after stress has subsided.
7. Stress leads to weaker strands
“With increased or consistent stress, hair becomes more susceptible to breakage,” Green says. This is due to a decrease in blood flow and nutrient delivery to the follicles, which yields slower and weaker growth at the root—and which only aggravates lasting hair loss, too.
8. Stress invites puffy under eyes and dark circles
Whether the cortisol in your body is messing with water retention or skin resilience, or both, the result can be looser skin around the eyes and a dropping of the fat deposits that are typically nested up above the area. Usually it’s nothing a cold compress, cool shower, or midday nap can’t fix, but it gets harder to remedy as the problem grows persistent. Ditto for dark circles, which can be prevented with proper rest, blood flow, and nutrient delivery to this otherwise thin and susceptible area of skin.
9. Stress dulls skin
More stress leads to lessened blood flow, which leads to fewer nutrients and oxygen delivery to the skin. And one more effect of all this is duller, less luminous skin. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you know it when you see it: Skin looks blotchy, less bright, and maybe even uniformly discolored. (Not a bad time to turn up the Vitamin C in your skincare.)
10. Stress triggers dandruff
As mentioned, stress can lead to an increase in oil production all over the skin (including on the scalp), and can slow cellular turnover. This is a perfect recipe for having old, dead skin cells long past their prime, in an environment rife for fungal outbreak. This, of course, can lead to flaking.