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It’s no wonder our skin looks more stressed than ever
by Karen Kwan
DEADLINES! BILLS DUE! OVERTIME!: HOW STRESS AFFECTS YOUR SKIN It’s no wonder our skin looks more stressed than ever Backstage photography, Anthea Simms
JUST TO BE CLEAR
It feels like you’re working your derriere off, but what do you have to show for it? An oil slick on your face that’s about as greasy as the fast food you’ve been eating at your desk. While a lot of the evidence on whether stress affects your skin is anecdotal, Dr. Benjamin Barankin of The Dermatology Centre in Toronto states, “It’s safe to say most dermatologists routinely observe patients whose skin conditions flare during times of stress.” And there’s no denying the giant zit that makes an appearance on your face when you’re more stressed out than ever. But here’s the surprising news: stress can also affect your skin’s texture and tone—and even cause premature wrinkles. We checked in with leading dermatologists for tips, tricks and treatments to help get your stressed-out skin back to its clean-and-clear glory days.
The doom-and-gloom headlines are keeping you up at night, and that’s throwing your skin’s oil production off kilter. Why? Stress causes the testosterone and cortisol in your system to rise, which can prompt your oil glands to overproduce, leaving your face glistening.
Save your skin: Many women have turned to the birth control pill to get their oil and acne under control. If you prefer something less drastic, try a mattifying moisturizer containing microparticles that bind and trap oil so your skin stays fresh all day. If you use a toner, lay off anything that’s heavy on alcohol, since that will further dry out your skin and encourage it to produce even more oil.
FLARE pick: Vichy Normaderm Pro Mat Ultra-Mattifying Moisturizer SPF 15, $30.
You spot a new wrinkle that’s not so fine. It could be that all the squinting and frowning is creating lines in your skin that are starting to settle in. The cells in your body constantly break down and rebuild, but when you’re stressed out, your system experiences an upsurge in a hormone called norepinephrine. This hormone increases the activity of an enzyme that triggers more cell breakdown and not as much rebuilding. The end result: those new frown lines and furrows in your upper forehead. (The ones in your lower face are due to volume loss unrelated to stress.)
Save your skin: Needle-fearing ladies will be disappointed to hear that both Dr. Barankin and Dr. Jason Rivers, a Vancouver-based dermatologist with Pacific Dermaesthetics, name Botox as one of their top choices for dealing with prominent wrinkles. (Bonus: Botox may also lift your mood, according to recent research at Cardiff University in Wales. Researchers found that recipients of Botox for frown lines reported much lower levels of depression, anxiety and irritability whencompared to the rest of the cosmetic treatment patients.) Steering clear of needles? Dr. Barankin suggests topical products with vitamin C, alphahydroxy acid or retinol, which has been shown to stimulate collagen production.
FLARE pick: Elizabeth Arden Intervene Stress Recovery Night Cream, $65.
DRY, IRRITATED SKIN
Perhaps you’re fretting about your job hunt? Your normally supple skin can suddenly turn dry, even red and itchy, thanks to stress throwing your immune system out of balance. This, in turn, affects your skin’s barrier function and its ability to retain moisture. “The intercellular cement that glues skin together weakens, and the skin cells’ tight waterproof seal is not as strong when you’re stressed,” says Dr. Val Treloar of Integrative Dermatology in Newton, Mass., who treats her dermatological patients using both conventional and alternative therapies (such as changing your workout routine, taking nutritional supplements or practicing meditation).
Save your skin:Use a moisturizer that contains ceramides, says Dr. Treloar. To soothe inflamed skin on your body, she recommends soaking in an Epsom-salt bath, then applying lotion with calming ingredients such as colloidal oatmeal while skin is still damp to lock in moisture. Use a humidifier in your bedroom if your home tends to be dry, and be gentle when washing your face (over-scrubbing will dry it out more). Since your skin’s lipid barrier is not functioning optimally, especially during winter months, you may be sensitive to products you don’t normally react to. Dr. Rivers suggests switching to fragrance-free products during stressful periods and taking an oral antihistamine,if needed, to relieve the itch.
FLARE pick: Cliniderm Soothing Lotion, $16.
WHEN YOUR PROBLEMS ARE MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
What to do when you’ve tried every recommendation from your dermatologist but nothing is working? Consider seeing a psychologist. “Thirty to 60 percent of people who use medical treatments for their skin have underlying emotional issues, and we know these issues can prevent even established drugs from working effectively,” says Ted Grossbart, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Psychodermatology examines the mind/body connection and how the skin reacts to emotional stressors (think of how your cheeks flush when you’re embarrassed, for instance). Grossbart, also a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Boston, works with his patients to look systematically at what is happening in their lives when skin problems occur, and when they get better and worse. Treatments may include psychotherapy, relaxation techniques, self-hypnosis and imaging. What can you expect? To put imaging into practice, for example, if hot, itchy skin is plaguing you, you might picture bathing in a tub of cool water. This technique, when part of a comprehensive program, can drop your body’s core temperature and stop the itch. So if you’re stuck in the vicious cycle—stress creates skin problems that only fuel more stress—psychodermatology may be a way to save both your skin and your sanity.
DID YOU SEE? Our top picks for relieving stressed skin are here.
“Deadlines! Bills Due! Overtime!” has been edited for FLARE.com; the complete story and where-to-buy appears in the September 2009 issue of FLARE.
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