Skin School: Signs your skin is stressed out and what to do about it

Breakouts, redness, extremely dry or dull, dehydrated skin…just a few of the symptoms you might experience when your skin is feeling frazzled. Here’s how to get your zen complexion back…

Neverending to-do lists. Trying (and failing) to put multiple children to bed at the same time. Paying £7 for a tub of Lurpak. Not to mention navigating a global pandemic. There are many reasons life can feel overwhelming, and just as stress can impact various aspects of our health and wellbeing, it can also take a toll on our skin.

What does stress do to our skin?

It’s all to do with how our bodies are hard-wired to react in times of stress. When we feel really stressed, our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode – essentially our brain detects danger and thinks that we either need to stay and fight the threat, or run away fast.

Our brain reacts by redirecting blood to our vital organs, which doesn’t include our skin (sadly we can’t blind a lion with the radiant glow of our complexion). Skin circulation is reduced, and we see a spike in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which lead to inflammation and cause or exacerbate a whole bunch of skin issues. 

All of this inflammation, and the impairment of the skin’s protective barrier means that we can experience everything from acne and rosacea flare-ups to dullness, dehydration, eczema, psoriasis and fine lines and wrinkles.

How to soothe stressed out skin

First of all, it’s important to tackle the problem from all angles – because even the most amazing skincare regime won’t do the job on its own (see our more holistic lifestyle tips further down). It’s also important to know that one size does not fit all when it comes to skincare. Stress can manifest on our skin in many different ways and a skincare regime should be personalised to reflect this. Below are just some of the recommendations we often give at KKL, but a thorough consultation is recommended for advice that’s tailored to you.

The skin stressor: Acne

Acne and oily skin are the most common side effects of stress. That’s because an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, activates the skin’s sebaceous gland, and the skin produces excess oil. Our normal skin shedding slows right down, and so cells start to accumulate, leading to a thickened and coarse skin surface. The combination of these factors causes a build-up of dead skin cells and sebum within the pore, and this plug or blockage is known as a comedone. The acne bacteria, P.acnes, which is naturally present on the skin and thrives in a compromised environment, builds up under the comedone causing inflammation, which leads to the formation of spots – or specifically, papules, pustules and cysts – and scarring.

The soothing solution:

It’s important that your skincare regime addresses each of the four contributing factors towards acne – excess oil production, sluggish cell turnover, acne bacteria (P.acnes) and inflammation.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid, are brilliant as they increase cell turnover and exfoliate the skin’s surface, as well as within the pore. They also have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. I recommend the ZO Skin Health Oil Control Pads, which contain 2% salicylic acid, amongst other ingredients, to reduce sebum and exfoliate dead skin cells whilst deep-cleansing congested pores.

Vitamin A derivatives – or retinoids – are also key as they stimulate cell turnover. Retinols prevent premature ageing and with acne being more common in our thirties and even in our forties, we are looking for multi-active products to treat both acne and support healthy ageing simultaneously. 

We also recommend a product like ZO’s Daily Power Defence, which prevents oxidation from external and internal aggressors, repairs DNA damage and helps to keep the barrier strong. 

ZO Skin Health’s Complexion Clearing Masque is also great as it helps to absorb oil and prevent clogged pores. It can be used for multiple days in a row when the skin is having a flare-up during periods of stress to help get inflammation and oil production under control, or it can be used as an overnight spot treatment.

For those with stubborn, more active or widespread acne, benzoyl peroxide is highly effective. We recommend a 10% concentration, such as ZO Skin Health Acne Control.

Alongside a comprehensive skincare regime, we also recommend regular Clinical Clarifying Facials, which offers a deep cleanse and include extraction. Having regular extractions with an expert to minimise blocked pores is important in helping to prevent breakouts – that’s because it’s impossible to have an active acne spot without having had a blocked pore first. If you experience breakouts after ovulation and before your period, then it’s very effective to have a facial just before this time each cycle.

Blue LED light therapy incorporated into your treatment will also help to control the p.acnes bacteria and inflammation in order to prevent breakouts. It targets the four contributing factors of acne to improve skin clarity, not only by helping to alleviate the visual symptoms such as inflammation and blemishes, but also by targeting the underlying cause to set you on a path to clearer, more radiant skin.

We also have some very advanced peels and over time we can build you up to having multiple peels layered on the skin within one session, allowing us to treat multiple concerns in one supercharged facial. These peels – particularly those containing salicylic acid at high concentrations – are very effective when it comes to improving acne breakouts, as well as fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

We use very prescriptive products to target all four contributing factors of acne – these help to not only treat, but prevent, future breakouts. They also help to improve the skin quality and improve acne scarring so the skin is glowing and radiant.

We also recommend Advanced Microneedling and Advanced Venus Viva Nano Fractional Radio Frequency if needed, once the skin has cleared, to tackle scarring through all the layers of the skin by smoothing and clarifying the surface and plumping and repairing the damaged texture from deep down below. Combining these treatments with a course of peels can help to improve both the skin’s texture and any discolouration. 

To find out more about what else might be causing your acne and how to treat it, check out our blog post.

The skin stressor: Rosacea

Whilst the exact cause of rosacea is largely unknown, there are a number of factors that are collectively believed to be possible culprits. Check out our blog post all about rosacea to understand more about these causes and how to treat your symptoms.

Although rosacea is largely genetic, one of the possible causes is sebaceous gland hyperactivity – or skin that overproduces oil and causes inflammation. Stress hormones are known to activate the sebaceous glands and trigger excess oil production, which exacerbates rosacea symptoms. In fact, stress is one of the main triggers we see in the clinic.

The soothing solution:

There are millions of products out there designed to soothe and calm the skin, but at Kate Kerr London, we believe in treating the root cause of rosacea for the best possible results and to prevent its normal progression. We recommend products containing active ingredients that are designed to stimulate and strengthen the skin, improve resilience, minimise the skin’s reaction to triggers and prevent the progression of rosacea. This type of skin condition is best treated by the experts as treatment needs to be very targeted and incorrect treatment can make the condition worse – it’s not a condition that you want to play around with as it’s progressive, and so fast and effective treatment is key. 

We provide our clients with a comprehensive skincare regime that’s tailored to their individual rosacea symptoms in order to actively manage the condition. We recommend papain, papaya and lactic acid for gentle exfoliation. We also encourage the use of salicylic acid, which helps to control oil production and has an anti-inflammatory action. Ingredients such as niacinamide help to repair the skin’s barrier, while antioxidants such as Vitamin A, C and E prevent oxidation and inflammation. Azelaic acid is great for preventing congestion and minimising inflammation, while retinol is key for helping to strengthen the skin – although building up slowly is key and it’s best to start with a lower dose.

You’ll need to avoid any products that are perfumed or alcohol-based (although some alcohols are fine; it’s best to seek professional advice). You also shouldn’t use any skincare products that contain ingredients like camphor, sodium lauryl sulphate or menthol as these can exacerbate rosacea flare-ups.

We recommend booking in for a Clinical Rosacea facial once per month, alongside an at-home skincare regime that is designed to strengthen the skin, repair the skin’s barrier and make it more resilient and resistant to triggers. Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatments can also be used to target broken capillaries and diffused redness. 

We also recommend Venus Viva Nano Fractional Radio Frequency treatments in order to encourage collagen production as providing more cushioning in the skin helps to blur any redness. Nano Fractional Radio Frequency helps to minimise pore size as pores can become enlarged with rosacea; it also dissolves the broken capillaries and improves redness. Our Advanced Skin Peels can also be tailored to have an anti-inflammatory action – we can combine LED light and skin peels to refine the skin texture, calm inflammation, reduce oil flow and minimise redness.

The skin stressor: Eczema or Psoriasis

Remember the body’s fight or flight response? Well, when the stress has passed, our body resets, reverting to what’s called ‘homeostasis’. But when our stress levels are left unchecked for too long, our body can become confused and believe the threat is ever-present, so the body goes into ‘allostasis’. In an allostatic state, the reactions caused by stress continue and make other bodily functions more difficult to properly regulate. All of that inflammation can cause and exacerbate eczema and psoriasis.

The soothing solution:

Focus on increasing hydration and replacing lost lipids (the compounds made up of oils and water, which dry skin is usually lacking in). If your skin is genetically dry, we recommend using a gentle cleanser in the form of a cream, lotion or gel – those containing lactic acid can be great for gently exfoliating away flaking skin, as well as enhancing hydration. It also prepares the skin to receive moisturisers. Dry skin is the only skin type that requires a moisturiser, but it needs to have the perfect ratio of lipids, proteins and water to ensure the skin’s protective barrier stays intact.

It’s a good idea to gently exfoliate the skin two to three times per week. In the mornings, apply an antioxidant serum, followed by a moisturiser to replace lost lipids, then SPF.

Start slowly with retinol and build up to find your skin’s tolerance. This is key for preventing premature ageing, and also helps to stimulate glycosaminoglycan (GAG) production to increase hydration. We also recommend using a hydrating sheet mask two to three times per week.

For those suffering with eczema, we recommend the use of gentle body washes and lipid-rich moisturisers. La Roche Posay’s body products are a great option – look for the products that contain an ‘AP’ in the title as these have anti-itch benefits.

The skin stressor: Dehydration

When we feel stressed, chances are we also aren’t sleeping or drinking enough. These factors combined can lead to an impaired barrier, which causes water to evaporate from the skin – also known as trans epidermal water loss or TEWL – and dehydration.

When your skin is lacking in water, you can experience a seemingly endless list of symptoms, from tightness, itchiness and dullness to darker under-eye circles, sunken eyes, shadows around the face, surface crepiness, fine lines and wrinkles. Your skin might also be oilier than usual, leading to breakouts. 

The soothing solution:

We believe in encouraging the skin to hydrate itself, as a well-functioning skin is a healthy skin. The use of retinoids, and certain peptides and growth factors within skincare, stimulate the skin’s fibroblasts to produce higher levels of hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is essential for dehydrated skin because it’s a humectant, which means it attracts and binds water within the skin providing much-needed hydration.

Hydration – not moisturisation – is key for dehydrated skin. You need products that will draw or put water back into the skin, which is why hyaluronic acid (as well as glycerin, urea and light, water-based products) are ideal. The difference between these products is that they will provide the hydration your skin needs without disrupting the skin’s natural moisturising processes.

When looking for a hyaluronic acid, not all types are created equal. Due to their water-attracting abilities, humectants can actually have a negative effect on the skin in dry weather. That’s because if there isn’t enough moisture in the atmosphere, humectants with high concentrations can actually draw moisture up from the dermis leading to deep dehydration. So it’s important to choose formulations that contain other ingredients to help counteract this. 

This is also why we don’t advise using hyaluronic acid as a stand-alone serum, as using it on its own can actually serve to pull moisture from the deeper layers of the skin if there isn’t enough in the upper layers. 

Maintaining a strong barrier function is key to preventing dehydration – we recommend exfoliating in order to enhance skin cell turnover and slough away dead skin cells. This exposes juicy new cells that are tightly glued together, giving you a strong protective barrier and a calm and smooth complexion. 

We also recommend drinking plenty of water – however, note that if you are over-using moisturisers the skin won’t be able to effectively hydrate itself and won’t be stimulated to draw water up from the body as it thinks it has enough.

To find out more about what causes dehydration and how to treat it, check out blog post.

It’s about self-care, too

Soothing stressed out skin goes beyond just skincare, it’s about self care, too. Make sure your diet includes plenty of protein, carbohydrates and good fats, as well as lots of antioxidant-rich leafy greens. It’s also a good idea to limit sugars and processed foods.

Try to drink two litres of water every day to reduce the effects of dehydration on the skin and body and prioritise an earlier night to allow the skin time to repair itself. 

Alongside regular exercise – whatever you enjoy that gets your heart rate up – try more mindful activities to switch off the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight or flight response and kickstart the parasympathetic system, which lowers our cortisol levels and calms us down. 

In fact, research shows that women who practise yoga three times a week have lower cortisol levels than women the same age who don’t. 

Making time to carve out little moments of self-care can make all the difference, whether it’s a relaxing bath, a little meditation, performing a DIY facial or spending just 15 minutes slowly and mindfully applying your skincare products. 

For Kate Kerr, the secret to minimising stress is lying on a shakti mat 3-4 times per week, having regular salt baths with equal parts epsom salt and dead sea salt, and performing the odd breathwork session. It’s about finding what works for you and carving out a little bit of time for it every day.

Seek professional advice

Treating stressed out skin can be complex as there are a myriad of factors that can influence what products you should be using and when. We all invest a lot in our skincare products, so we want to make sure they are going to work. 

At Kate Kerr London, we thoroughly analyse our clients’ skin to design a bespoke skincare regime, along with personalised facials and advanced treatments, in order to target your key concerns and actually transform your skin health, cell by cell. 

A healthy skin is one that is functioning optimally, ages well and doesn’t suffer with any skin conditions. If you’d like to find out more about what your skin needs to be healthy, strong and resilient, get in touch.

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