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Why stress causes you to breakout — and how to get rid of stress acne fast

stress acne

Summary List Placement

Acne is caused by dirt, oil, and dead skin clogging your pores. So why do pimples always seem to form when you're stressed or anxious? 

Stress acne is a real phenomenon. Here's why it happens — and the best ways to prevent and treat your stress-related breakouts. 

Understanding stress acne

Stress doesn't cause acne directly, but there are many factors related to stress that help to build the perfect environment for breakouts. 

That's because acne doesn't start with your skin — it starts with your hormones. 

Related Article Module: 5 proven ways to lower cortisol naturally

For example, cortisol, a hormone released during stress, can increase the amount of oil your skin produces. That oil, called sebum, occurs naturally in small amounts in your skin. 

But when you produce too much, it can cause the perfect storm for acne by both clogging pores and creating a breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria to grow.

"I think the long and short of it is no, stress does not cause acne," says Mara Weinstein Velez, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "But a stressful state can predispose someone to an acne flare."

For example, a large-scale study published in 2015 found that adult women with stressful jobs were more likely to have acne than those with lower-stress jobs. Moreover, a 2017 study on 144 female medical students also found a strong correlation between stress levels and acne severity.

"Different people have different ways of managing their stress," Weinstein Velez says. "And in some, that would lead to poor diet, dehydration, lack of sleep — all of those things can affect your skin and your face."

How to prevent stress acne 

The best way to prevent stress acne is to maintain a regular skincare routine and make certain lifestyle changes, says Amanda Suggs, MD, a dermatologist at Duke Health. 

Here's what you should prioritize:

  • Limit foods that are high in sugar or carbohydrates. A 2016 study found these types of foods can worsen acne. As the American Academy of Dermatology explains, sugary or high-carb foods cause a spike in blood sugar, which causes inflammation in the body. The body increases sebum — or the oil on your skin — during this period, which can lead to acne. 
  • Exercise regularly. A 2018 study looking at Nigerian youth noted those who engaged in more frequent physical activity had less acne, positing that increased blood flow to the skin brought nutrients and oxygen to skin cells and thus reduced acne flare ups. 
  • Use effective anti-acne treatments. Suggs recommends salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to clean the skin. Those who are pregnant, nursing, or have sensitive skin should try a gentler glycolic acid wash to clear out pores. 
  • Wash your face twice a day. Wash your face once in the morning and again at night before bed with a gentle cleanser, Suggs says. Those with sensitive skin should opt for glycerin or ceramides, while oily-prone skin should stick with salicylic acid and retinol.  
  • Keep up your sleep routine. Sleep allows your skin to repair during the night. Lack of sleep can lead to drier, thinner skin that's more prone to acne. 
  • Consume caffeine in moderation. Even if you can't sleep well due to stress, avoid leaning too heavily on caffeinated beverages. Caffeine is a diuretic that can dehydrate your skin, making it more susceptible to acne if your skincare routine doesn't accommodate the extra dryness. 
  • Avoid dairy. Those under stress may turn to dairy-based treats like ice cream and chocolate. However, a large 2018 systematic review found that those who consumed dairy increased the likelihood of developing acne. 

How to treat stress acne 

Sometimes acne can form despite prevention techniques. If that's the case for you, continue washing your face twice a day, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and trying your best to prevent acne from forming. 

In addition, consider these methods to treat stress acne:

  • Deal with zits the right way. Some of the best home remedies for acne include cleansing the skin, steaming the affected area, using a suitable spot treatment, and slathering on antibiotic cream. 
  • Try a Vitamin A cream. Vitamin A creams clear out pores and have an added anti-aging benefit, Suggs says, but they should not be used by people who are pregnant or nursing. 
  • Don't pick at your skin. "As challenging as it may be, do not pick your acne," Suggs says. "I find that patients are more likely to pick during stressful times. Permanent scarring can result from picking."
  • Pop pimples correctly, if you must. If pimples are contributing to your stress, at least pop them while causing the least damage to your skin. Avoid deep-set nodules and cysts and instead, go for those white pustules that burst at the slightest pressure. 
  • Manage stress. The best way to treat stress acne is to fix it at its source. According to the University of California Santa Cruz, stress-reducing activities like deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation may stop subsequent acne flare-ups.

If your acne won't go away, Suggs recommends seeing your dermatologist to determine what prescription medicines are right for you. For example, a prescription oral antibiotic may help kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin. 

Insider's takeaway 

Stress contributes to acne, and acne can exacerbate your stress, Suggs says. 

"Sticking to a good skincare, diet, and sleep routine can decrease the frequency of stress breakouts," Suggs says. 

If you have acne-prone skin, Suggs says to use oil-free and non-comedogenic acne treatments since they clean your skin without clogging pores. And if you have acne that won't go away, she recommends talking to your dermatologist about what prescription medicines could work for you. 

6 ways to relieve stress naturally5 dermatologist-approved home remedies for acne, including putting crushed-up aspirin and green tea on your faceThe difference between whiteheads and blackheads, and how to effectively get rid of both, according to dermatologistsHow to exfoliate your face and body properly, according to a dermatologist

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