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How To Deal With Stress Acne

There’s no sugarcoating it: 2020 has been an incredibly stressful year. And guess what’s one of the first things to give away just how stressed we’ve been? Our skin. Yes, those pesky pimples that have been popping up aren’t a coincidence. Stress acne is very, very real and very, very common. The good news? Understanding the root cause of stress acne means we can treat it at its onset. Let’s dive in!

The cause of stress acne

In order to understand how to treat stress breakouts, it’s important to to understand the  cause of these bad-day blemishes. When our bodies are stressed the level of cortisol, aka our “fight or flight” hormone, begins to rise. As our cortisol spikes, our bodies begin to overproduce sebum (oil). Too much sebum = clogged pores. These clogged pores can lead to several different types of acne: large and highly sensitive red cysts, smaller patches of whiteheads, and/or blackheads.  

Lifestyle factors also play a part. Common behaviors like binging on sugary, comfort foods can worsen skin issues. A good rule to remember: what’s good for your general health is also good for your skin. When possible, try to swap cookies for healthier alternatives. But then again, cut yourself some slack. Remember, it’s all about moderation.

Treatment of stress acne

There’s actually a bevy of over-the-counter topical treatments that are effective at tackling acne. The main goal is to wash away dead skin cells to keep your pores clean and unclogged. Our favorite acne-fighting ingredients to keep on hand? Salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinols.  

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that’s known for its deep exfoliation and ability to keep the pores crystal clear. It’s also great for spot treating as it reduces and regulates sebum production.  

Another superstar acne-fighter is benzoyl peroxide. This antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredient combats pimples by killing the bacteria trapped underneath the skin. Similar to salicylic acid, it shrinks pimples by encouraging the shedding of dead skin cells and reducing oil build-up. Unlike salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide is best used for inflammatory acne, or cysts and red pimples that contain pus rather than blackheads or whiteheads. Painful cysts can also be treated with a warm compress to reduce pain and swelling. 

A Derm fav, retinoid, works to repair acne-damaged skin by accelerating skin cell turnover. This powerful ingredient works at the surface of the skin to unclog pores and smooth skin.

Stick to a routine

Consistency is key here. While breakouts are bound to happen every now and then, sticking to a tried and true skincare routine greatly reduces the chance of uninvited guests showing up on your face. What does a good routine look like? At its most basic, it means cleaning and moisturizing your skin every morning and evening – that includes removing your makeup no matter how tired you are. When it comes to choosing a cleanser, look for a low-PH cleanser that protects against acne without drying out your skin. For moisturizers, you’ll want something non-comedogenic and preferably oil-free that can balance and hydrate. And, as always, sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen!  

Ways to reduce stress

At the risk of sounding too obvious, a sure-fire way to defeat stress acne is to fight the problem at its source — the stress itself. Healthy stress-management techniques are a great way to both increase wellness in your daily life and improve the quality of your skin. Healthy habits to practice include: sleeping a full 8 hours per night, meditating or practicing yoga, exercising regularly to boost endorphins, and drinking plenty of water. 

Finding what specifically works best for you might take a little time, so give yourself permission to try different techniques. Not into intense workout sessions? Go for a long, leisurely walk. Have trouble meditating? Dance it out in your bedroom. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to stress reduction.

Treatment for acne scarring

So, the acne is gone but the battle scars remain. What can you do? Services such as radio-frequency microneedling and various laser treatments are great options for treating acne scars and leftover hyperpigmentation. Aesthetics advancements have some a long way in skin resurfacing. Consult with your local dermatologist to see what’s right for you. 


When we’re under stress, our bodies increase production of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol spikes can rev up sebum production, leading to a possible surge in acne. Look for products that contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinol to keep your pores clean and unclogged. For leftover acne scarring, radio-frequency micro needling and laser treatments are available. Lifestyle changes, like sleeping a full 8 hours per night, meditating or practicing yoga, exercising regularly to boost endorphins, and drinking plenty of water, can also help keep stress acne at bay.


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