Does Stress Cause Acne?

Jul 14, 2020

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Does Stress Cause Acne?

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Acne is an inflammatory response that occurs when the hair follicles become plugged up with dead skin cells, bacteria, and oil. These clogged pores result in blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples that can surface on the face, back, and even the rest of the body. Though it’s more common in teenagers, many adults suffer from acne as well. It’s a struggle for anyone, whether it’s triggered by stress, hormones, or something from your diet. 

Depending on the severity of the acne, it can lead to negative effects on not only your physical appearance, but also your mental state as well. Things like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and decreased quality of life are often associated with those who develop severe cases of acne. Not only does acne cause emotional damage, it can create physical scarring that can cause long-term effects, especially if it’s not addressed early on. So, what causes acne and can stress be a major culprit? This guide will review the relationship between acne and stress so you can learn how to clear your complexion to reveal glowing, healthy skin.

So, Can Stress Cause Your Skin to Break Out?

The short answer is yes and no. Stress can’t directly cause breakouts, that’s not quite how it works. However, stress (especially chronic stress) is at the top of the list of acne triggers and can both contribute to new breakouts and make a current breakout even worse. While skincare for acne can help reduce your skin problem, sometimes the best medicine is to get your stress levels under control. Managing your stress can not only help reduce acne but also help you get rid of bags under your eyes and bring back healthy color to your face!

How stress contributes to both teenage and adult acne is thought to be related to a variety of factors. Hormones like cortisol and androgens that the endocrine system secretes as a stress response play a big role. When these hormones are swirling, they can kick the production of something called sebum into high gear. Sebum is the oily, protective substance that your skin produces as part of it’s immune system. Glands that are located near the hair follicles of the skin ramp up their sebum production. 

Additionally, there are bacteria that live in the skin of humans and these bacteria feed on the extra sebum that’s produced, which is what triggers the immune response. When white blood cells interact with this bacterium, there is an enzyme secreted that causes damage to the hair follicle wall, and ultimately leads to inflammation.

All of these factors combine as a catalyst to the development of acne. Not only does stress make acne worse, but it also slows down the healing process of wounds. 

Stress can cause pimples and breakouts to become more severe and take longer to clear up. Although acne is common among teenagers, adult acne is quite common as well, especially for those who produce more stress hormone in their body.

Adults are actually more prone to the buildup of dead skin cells that contributes to acne, because over time, the natural process of cell turnover slows down significantly.

Stress doesn’t just lead to acne, it causes aging as well. When you’re stressed, the protective barrier of your skin can be compromised and cause it to lose some of the ability it has to protect itself. If you’re experiencing signs of premature aging, fine lines, and wrinkles on top of unwanted acne, it may be time to reevaluate the stress levels in your life.  

Can Acute Stress Cause Acne Too?

Acute stress can also contribute to worsening acne. When under acute stress, the body has an increased nerve signaling response that prompts you to itch. That means if you’re under a lot of pressure, you might be prone to picking and scratching at any blemishes that arise on your face, causing even more inflammation and redness.

Combine that itch response with lifestyle factors such as poor sleep, a less than healthy diet, and little to no regular organic skincare routine, and it’s a recipe for stubborn acne that probably won’t clear up on it’s own. 

How Does Picking Your Face Make Acne Worse?

Picking at your face and squeezing pimples is a bad idea at any time, but worse if you suffer from severe acne or have sensitive skin. Popping pimples, scraping scabs, picking at bumps all make an unsightly problem look even worse, while at the same time triggering more inflammation and damage. Not only that, but when you pick, you spread bacteria and germs around, which can lead to further infections and acne problems. If you want clear skin, refrain from picking your pimples and leave the job to your dermatologist. 

How Does Eating Poorly Make Acne Worse?

Eating a diet high in inflammatory foods like empty carbs and excess sugar can lead to acne breakouts. If a food inflames your body, you can expect it to result in a skin problem as well. Inflammation can also be found in unexpected sources as well, such as a reaction egg whites, dairy, and even certain vegetables. 

Not to mention high-carb, high sugar foods spike your blood sugar. When that happens, your body makes more insulin, causing an increase in the production of skin oils and ultimately leading to clogged hair follicles. When evaluating your diet, it’s important to pay attention to how your body responds to particular foods. Just because something is okay for one person, doesn’t mean it is the same for another. Everyone is different. 

What Does Stress Acne Look Like?

You can’t really look at acne and tell whether it’s stress-related or triggered by another factor. All acne looks similar, regardless of the cause. The only thing you can tell by looking at your acne breakouts is what type of acne you might have, such as blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, papules, pustules, cysts, nodules, or some mixture thereof. 

You can also look and discern visually whether your acne is mild, moderate, or severe. Mild acne usually means you have less than 30 total lesions between blackheads, whiteheads, and bumps that are inflamed. Moderate acne usually means anywhere from 30-125 lesions in total, while severe acne often involves inflamed cysts and nodules that can leave behind scars. 

However, if you notice your face seems to be flaring up more than usual, or you seem to be itching more, it’s a good idea to evaluate what kind of stress you might be under that could be contributing to your flare-up.

How Do You Get Rid of Stress Acne?

You treat stress-related acne the same as any acne. Start with a regular, basic skincare routine and practice self-care to manage your stress levels. If you don’t reduce your stress, you will continue to have flare-ups as your body reacts to hormones as part of your natural stress response. Even low levels of chronic stress can compound over time, causing not just acne but other health concerns as well. So learning how to properly manage and release stress is paramount to healing acne and avoiding future flare ups. 

Some self-care ideas include:

  • DIY facial at home 
  • Steam face at home
  • Full body massage
  • Meditation or yoga
  • Reorganizing your living space
  • Limiting your screen time
  • Getting outside 
  • Only checking email once a day
  • Eating nutritious, whole foods
  • Exercising regularly
  • Taking vitamins and minerals that boost the immune and improve skin

If you don’t see much improvement from your self-care efforts and a regular beauty routine, you’ll have to consult your doctor for other solutions. Since over the counter products might not work as well, you might need to try something that is prescription-strength. Generally speaking, these products can only be obtained through a licensed dermatologist. 

Finding the right mix of products that work best for your face and acne can take some experimentation and in most cases, you will go through a worse before better phase as your skin purges buildup and impurities. But don’t give up and don’t neglect your diet and healing on the inside too, as a way to heal the outside. Cut out processed foods and sugar, increase your intake of whole foods, and properly hydrate your body. 

Also, be careful that you don’t over-cleanse your face. Sometimes in our zeal to try new products or to keep the face clean and bacteria-free, it can be tempting to wash frequently. However, this can have a negative effect because some products may strip the skin of natural oils that are needed for healthy skin. Of course you don’t want your face to feel greasy and gross, but it’s important that you don’t disturb it’s natural protective barrier. If you are looking for a new fash wash, our Gentle Gel Cleanser is an excellent product for everyday use. 


As you can see, asking “Does stress cause acne?” is a complicated question. It doesn’t cause it per se, but it definitely contributes to existing acne and makes your current battle that much harder. Learning to engage in self-care and learning to destress properly helps you set yourself up with the best chance of success at eliminating acne forever.