Side profile of woman with acne on cheek | How are stress and acne connected?

How Are Stress and Acne Connected?

Stress is a given throughout our lives. Changing jobs, managing finances, and navigating relationships can all prove stressful — and our bodies and skin often feel the impact. 

If you’ve experienced increased acne breakouts during stressful times in your life, you’re not alone. Understanding how stress may influence your acne as well as how stress acne varies from traditional acne can help you get your skin back under control.

How Do Acne Breakouts Form?

Acne vulgaris forms when oil, bacteria, and other impurities clog the pores on your skin. People with more active sebaceous glands due to genetics may overproduce acne-causing oil, while others will experience increased oil production due to hormone fluctuations and androgen levels in the body.


Bacteria also plays an underlying role in acne breakouts. When bad bacteria overpopulate the skin microbiome and overwhelm the good bacteria that protect your skin, the imbalance can contribute to inflammatory skin conditions like acne.

Can You Get Acne From Stress?

Yes and no. Stress won’t cause acne, but it can trigger it. Why does stress trigger acne? Chronic stress can increase cortisol levels in the body. This spike in stress hormones signals to the sebaceous glands that they need to up their oil production. Increased oil clogs pores and creates breakouts. 

What Does Stress Acne Look Like?

Stress acne often looks a lot like acne vulgaris, the form of acne you likely envision when thinking of blemishes. It can include papules (small red bumps), pustules (pus-filled pimples), blackheads, and whiteheads. Stress acne often appears on the T-zone — the oiliest area of the face that’s comprised of the forehead, nose, and chin.


Hormonal acne, by contrast, tends to appear along the jawline and can often look like cystic acne. Of course, there are exceptions to these general guidelines, so consult your dermatologist if you want to differentiate between hormone-induced acne versus stress-induced acne.  


Can Stress Cause Cystic Acne?

Stress can certainly contribute to cystic acne. The excess oil production caused by spiked cortisol levels can factor into the development of acne cysts. However, stress acne most often appears as surface-level blemishes such as whiteheads, blackheads, papules, and pustules.

Cystic acne is often caused by hormonal fluctuations, especially when the breakouts occur on the chin or jawline. These are key signs that you may have a hormonal imbalance. Stress can worsen and trigger both acne caused by hormones and bacteria.

How to Control Stress Acne

Stress acne can be managed by implementing lifestyle changes, using topical treatments, or taking oral medications. Stress acne treatments include:

Managing Stress Levels

Managing your stress levels may reduce the severity and frequency of blemishes, but of course you can’t get rid of all the stress in your life. To manage cortisol levels even in the midst of stressful life circumstances, try:

    • Exercising: Working out can help to relax both your mind and body. Plus, exercise has been shown to boost your mood! Just be sure to pick a workout that fits with your current fitness level.
    • Journaling: Writing down your feelings can help release them from your body. If you feel a lot of pent-up stress, journal about what’s going on and how it makes you feel. Hopefully, when you’re done, you’ll feel lighter having left all those thoughts on the page.
    • Schedule downtime: Modern life can be both busy and stressful, but scheduling enough time in your day to make sure you’re not running late from task to task may help lower stress. Also, make sure you’re leaving room for activities that bring you joy, whether that be reading, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing a new hobby.
    • Meditation: Practicing mindfulness through meditation can help you reduce stress and find greater peace. Even just bringing awareness back to your body and breath for five minutes can have powerful stress-relieving effects. 
    • Talk it out: Talking about how you’re feeling with a trusted individual can help to release stress from your body. Whether it’s with a family member, friend, or therapist, talking about your feelings and struggles may be just what you need to lower cortisol levels.

Using Spot Treatment

Spot treatments are topical remedies that aim to minimize pimples. Spot treatment options for acne include retinoids, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide.

Each spot treatment functions differently: Retinoids increase cellular turnover. Salicylic acid exfoliates dead skin cells. Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria on the skin.

These spot treatments can be purchased in lower concentrations over the counter and at higher concentrations with a prescription. Possible side effects include skin irritation, dryness, and peeling skin. 
 

Considering Oral Medications

Oral antibiotics are one of the most common medications recommended to treat acne breakouts. These prescription pills are designed to kill bacteria and fight infections. While antibiotics do often effectively kill off bad bacteria, they also kill off the good bacteria in your body. They’re not selective in the bacteria they target. For that reason, antibiotics can be an effective short-term solution to jumpstart healing your blemishes, but they aren’t a long-term solution. 

Another common oral medication prescribed for breakouts are oral contraceptives, also known as hormonal birth control pills. Your primary healthcare provider or dermatologist may prescribe oral contraceptives if hormones are playing a role in your acne. Of course, birth control pills aren’t a viable option for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or hoping to get pregnant.

If you’ve tried several different acne treatment options with little or no success, your doctor or dermatologist may recommend isotretinoin, which is more commonly known as Accutane. The majority of people who choose Accutane as a treatment option will be acne-free after four to six months. However, possible side effects are serious. For that reason, isotretinoin is only recommended for severe acne cases. Side effects can range from mild chapped lips to severe joint pain and vision issues. Because of the effects isotretinoin can have on fetal development, you’ll be required to show a negative pregnancy test before treatment. You’ll also likely be required to use two forms of birth control during treatment.

Balancing Your Skin Microbiome

Your skin houses trillions of both good and bad bacteria that make up your skin microbiome. When the bacteria maintain an ideal balance, they work to protect your skin from foreign invaders and environmental threats. When bad bacteria overpopulate the good bacteria, the imbalance diminishes your skin’s ability to protect itself, which can contribute to inflammatory skin conditions like acne.


Gladskin’s Blemish Gel with Micreobalance® restores bacterial balance to acne-prone skin to reduce inflammation and improve the appearance of blemishes. The best part? It does it all without drying ingredients, unwanted irritation, or worrisome side effects.

Unclench Your Jaw and Breathe: We’ve Got You Covered

The last thing you need during times of stress are acne breakouts. They just cause more stress! By using spot treatment, considering oral or topical medications, and rebalancing your skin microbiome with the Gladskin Blemish Gel, you can reduce the severity and frequency of your blemishes. Just unclench your jaw and breathe. We’ve got you covered!