The Reason Your Skin and Scalp are Freaking Out

This year has been, to put it mildly, rough. (According to research by the Computational Story Lab of the University of Vermont, we’ve had multiple “saddest days” in 2020.) And the near-constant stress many people are experiencing for any number of terrible reasons is causing mental and physical symptoms of stress.

Because this is Allure, we were particularly interested in how stress can mess with your hair and skin. Once we started digging, we couldn’t stop — and decided to dedicate the eighth episode of The Science of Beauty podcast to the subject. To start the episode in a place of (relative) calm, our hosts Michelle Lee, editor in chief, and Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director, welcomed Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist and founder of The Breathing Class, who walked them through some mind-altering breathing exercises as they offered up their own struggles with stress. They then delved deeper into the hows and why of our bodies’ stress response with Amy Wechsler, one of the few doctors in the world who is board-certified in both dermatology and psychiatry. Here’s a breakdown of the highlights.

What, Exactly, Is Stress?

Chances are, as a living human being, you’re familiar with the emotional and physical tension that comes as a result of being stressed.

Adrenaline and cortisol are the main culprits for these unpleasant feelings. When you experience something stressful, your brain tells your adrenal glands to release both hormones, which then team up to give you one hell of a ride. Adrenaline is responsible for the tangible symptoms of stress — the shaky hands, the sweating, the racing heart – while cortisol releases sugar into the bloodstream, regulating blood pressure, and shutting down activity in nonessential systems (digestion, reproduction, immune response) so that blood can go to your brain and muscles. Adrenaline wears off quickly — within 15 minutes or so — but cortisol levels can remain elevated for hours, even once the stressful event has passed.

There are two types of stress: chronic and acute. Acute is the type of short-term stress you might feel when you’re coming up on an important deadline. “Stress for a few seconds is not bad,” Wechsler says. “Even for a few minutes it’s OK. It motivates people.” Chronic stress is long-term. The acute stress many people experienced when learning that their city was going into lockdown because of Covid-19 has now morphed into chronic stress after months of worrying about health care, job stability, child care, and a whole host of concerns. Wechsler notes that stress also makes people irritable, which can in turn make it harder for them to handle everyday activities, which make them feel even more stressed out… It’s easy to end up with a neverending stress snowball if you can’t make time to relax and take care of yourself..

This long-term stress means more opportunities for increased levels of cortisol to hang around in the bloodstream, which can have long-term physical and psychological side effects. “Cortisol is fine for a few seconds, even minutes, because it helps us survive,” Wechsler explains. “But when we’re chronically stressed — hours, days, weeks, months, even years — cortisol does so many bad things.”

Research has also found that stress shortens our telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes that affect how quickly our cells age. In studies, women who experienced a lot of stress had significantly shorter telomeres than women with low stress. Based on their telomeres alone, these women appeared to be as many as 17 years older than those in the low-stress group.

How Stress Affects Hair

While stress shows up almost immediately on your skin, it takes months to see its effects on your hair. That’s because our hair cycles through three phases: anagen, or growth; catagen, a transition phase; and telogen, which is when the hair sheds. Under normal conditions, Wechsler says we lose 80 to 100 hairs every day. But stress can trigger telogen effluvium, which can cause up to five times more strands to fall out every day. However, it still takes the normal amount of time for your hairs to enter that telogen phase, which is why you didn’t immediately start losing hair in clumps as soon as your child started remote kindergarten.

“If someone comes in and I think they’re having a telogen effluvium, I don’t ask them what’s been going on in their lives in the last couple weeks. I ask them what’s been happening in the last three to six months,” Wechsler says. “That’s how long it takes for the hairs to shift more into telogen and then fall out. Sometimes people don’t put two and two together because it’s not the most recent stressor.” The good news? This type of hair loss is temporary. “It usually lasts an average of six months and then the hair grows back,” she says.

How Stress Affects Skin

While they vary from person to person, the effects of stress can show up quickly on your skin. That rush of cortisol causes inflammation, which can trigger bumps, rashes, and stress acne. “Inflammation is not just a buzzword. It’s really the cause of so many illnesses and diseases,” Wechsler says. Research found a link between elevated stress and breakouts, “people were actually recruited to do pimple counts [on college campuses]. Students during exams had much higher pimple counts than during the rest of the semester,” Wechsler says.

Cortisol also increases transepidermal water loss (TEWL), which means your epidermis becomes a bit leakier than normal. When this happens, your skin’s barrier can lose more moisture and let in more potential irritants. Wechsler says that her stressed-out patients will often come in complaining that a product they’ve loved for years is suddenly giving them a rash — this is because the skin’s barrier has broken down. If you’re prone to eczema or psoriasis, this stress-induced leaking and inflammation can definitely cause them to flare-up.

But wait, there’s more! Cortisol also breaks down the amino acids in collagen, which you need to keep your skin plump. “People have that, ‘Oh my god, I aged overnight’ moment and it’s real,” Weschler confirms. “The good news is, you get a good night’s sleep, the stress goes away, and you look younger again.”

Are the Physical Effects of Stress Permanent?

Don’t worry: We’ll end on a fairly positive note. Even though we’re bombarded with all sorts of stress right now, a lot of the side effects we’ve mentioned will eventually go away. Wechsler says this reversal has been documented in people who’ve experienced the death of someone close to them. It usually takes about a year, but “all those stress effects do reverse when the person has a healthy grieving process. Once they start to move on with their lives, everything gets better. Their blood pressure goes down, their cholesterol goes down, their skin looks healthier, they’re sleeping better.”

How to Change Your Beauty Routine During a Stressful Time

Now that we know all the wild stuff stress can do to your hair and skin, let’s talk about ways you can adjust your routine to counteract some of those side effects. If you know you’re about to have a stressful period – if, for example, you’re one of the aforementioned college students in the middle of final exams — Wechsler has three words for you: less is more. She advises steering clear of fragrance and other potentially irritating ingredients, like topical retinoids or acids. Instead, focus on adding more moisture back into your skin with ingredients like glycerin, shea butter, and hyaluronic acid.

Also: Keep your showers short (10 minutes or less) and moisturize your entire body as soon as you get out. This is especially helpful if you get eczema flare-ups — for those, Wechsler specifically recommends using pure safflower oil as a moisturizer because it is rich in linoleic acid, a natural oil in our skin. Using a humidifier can also help get moisture back into the air, and subsequently your skin.

The scalp is also skin, which is why some people find that they experience more dandruff during stressful periods. If that sounds like you, Wechsler recommends an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo. “It really needs to sit on your scalp for about five minutes,” she says. “Three times a week is good.”

If you’re still feeling itchy and irritated after all of this, Wechsler says an antihistamine like Zyrtec or Claritin can help. Finally, you can try a topical prescription steroid so calm inflamed skin, but that’s something to speak to your dermatologist about.

Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief

Both guests on our episode agreed that practicing proper breathing techniques when you’re stressed can be massively beneficial. (Perhaps your Apple Watch is on to something with those notifications after all…) “When you learn to breathe better, you calm yourself down,” Vranich says. “That means your heart rate automatically comes down. Your blood pressure comes down. You put yourself in that lovely parasympathetic state which is rest and digest.”

Vranich’s work is centered around a concept she calls the Breathing IQ, which “looks at the flexibility of your thoracic cavity…to see if you really are taking a deep breath,” she explains.

Vranich says that the most optimal breaths start in your diaphragm, rather than in your chest. “Your diaphragm is an enormous muscle. Think about a personal sized pizza or a frisbee that’s all muscle,” she says. “On the inhale it tries to push your ribs open. On the exhale your body narrows; you’re deflating.” However, most of us don’t breathe that way. “We’ve changed the way we breathe to use our neck and our shoulders, which is part of the reason a lot of us have neck and shoulder pain,” Vranich explains.

To practice good breathing techniques, Vranich says to start by taking your hands and putting them on your belly, as if you were wearing a hoodie with a front pocket. On the inhale, tip your hips forward and push your belly into your hands. On the exhale, squeeze your abs like you’re doing a crunch, using your hands to help guide your belly button toward your spine. Once you’ve got that down, you can add a balloon to your practice: Inhale through your nose, then blow into the balloon on the exhale. This helps build even more strength in your exhale.

Other Ways to Reduce Stress and Its Effects

After you’ve sufficiently moisturized and gotten great at blowing up that balloon, there are other things you can do to lower your stress levels. Of course, what works will be different for everyone, so there will likely be some trial and error in the process of de-stressing. (For example, Wechsler says the supposedly-relaxing scent of lavender just makes her feel irritated; jasmine is her preferred wind-down scent of choice.)

One of the most important things Weschler recommends is getting enough sleep. “Cortisol is at its absolute lowest during sleep,” she says. Meanwhile, “molecules like oxytocin and growth hormones which heal the skin and are antiinflammatory” are high.

Wechsler also recommends getting outside, exercising, having sex, keeping up with your friends (either by seeing them safely in person or via a video call — Wechsler says a phone call or text won’t do as much good as seeing their face), and laughing as much as possible. On the note of the last point, Wechsler definitely doesn’t recommend reading the news on your phone before you hit the lights. Instead, try watching a comedy or reading a funny book.

Your ability to recover from stress definitely depends on how many stressors you’re experiencing at once and what your support system looks like. “I think you can take a lot [more stress] if you’re talking to people, and don’t feel isolated or lonely,” Wechsler says. ”Which is part of the whole pandemic problem. Loneliness is so much higher now.”

And while we’re all experiencing some level of uncertainty in this moment, Wechsler says that any little bit of control you can take back over your day is crucial. “Even something that sounds as simple as a skin-care routine,” she says. “Routines are important.”

The Bottom Line

Even if stress has caused your skin to look a little deflated or your hair to get a little thinner, there’s hope for recovery. And in the meantime, just try to get some sleep.

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