Our skin is an intricate and astounding organ, protecting our bodies from harsh elements and pathogens every. single. moment. of every single day. And did you know that the everyday demands on our skin increase when we’re in a state of stress? If you are an empath or triggered by the violence that is rampant in our country, are a parent of a young child, fighting on the front lines to keep women’s rights protected, or living in support of a loved one with mental illness (as with me), you know stress. In this post, I’ll explain how stress, specifically psychological stress, affects your skin. I’ll also explore ways to protect and strengthen the skin’s barrier function with plant-based oils and antioxidants, and bring a little peace to your mind at the same time.
How the Skin Barrier Works
One of the skin’s main roles is to act as a barrier between our body and the rest of the world, keeping moisture in while protecting us from viruses, bacteria, and allergens. The skin barrier is in the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum, one of several layers of cells and sebum (a mixture of lipids, wax esters, fats, and fatty acids) that make up the epidermis.
What degrades the skin’s barrier function? Many of us know about the damaging effects of UV light, pollution, excessive exfoliation, and harsh chemicals. But did you know that psychological stress causes inflammation that damages the skin too?
How Stress Affects Your Skin Barrier
A stressed-out state of mind can lead to increased inflammation and a slower natural healing response. How?
- The sympathetic nervous system, which activates proinflammatory cytokines
- The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which activates the release of cortisol
The Sympathetic Nervous System and Cytokines
The sympathetic nervous system is the fight-or-flight state that’s activated when we encounter dangerous or stressful situations. Our heart rate increases as cortisol boosts our alertness and energy levels. Cortisol also activates T helper cells to produce cytokines.
How stress affects your skin through cytokines: Cytokines are signaling proteins that, among other functions, spur inflammation. While inflammation is a natural part of the body’s healing process, it can cause damage over time. As demonstrated in this 2001 study, psychological stress degrades skin barrier function.
When the skin barrier is compromised, it no longer functions effectively. At a certain point, the barrier can no longer keep water from evaporating, which can lead to an excessive loss of moisture. The skin becomes dehydrated, which exacerbates inflammation and can lead to various dermatological disorders. This is one reason dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, acne, rosacea, and allergic reactions tend to flare when we’re under stress.
Moreover, an immune system in a state of hypervigilance can lead to allergic reactions and itching, or flare ups with autoimmune skin conditions. These responses can further impair the skin’s ability to respond to environmental stressors, according to a 2018 study.
Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Cortisol
The hypothalamus has links to both the nervous system and pituitary gland. When we’re in a state of acute stress, the hypothalamus sends signals via the pituitary gland for the adrenals to release cortisol.
In short bursts, cortisol reduces inflammation. But if levels remain high for an extended period, dysfunctional regulation leads to inflammation. (For more on the HPA Axis and how to balance cortisol levels with plant-based preparations, check out Aromatherapy & the Stress Response Cycle.)
How stress affects your skin through cortisol: Cortisol is released into the skin through an enzyme in keratinocyte skin cells. This process disturbs keratinocyte proliferation, leading to delayed wound healing, which is why stress is a major factor in slowed healing of acne lesions, dull or thick skin, and a dehydrated or rough skin surface It also degrades fibroblasts, cells we love because they synthesize the collagen that gives our skin structure and a youthful appearance.
How to Protect and Strengthen Your Skin Barrier
If you skimmed through the scientific breakdown, we’ve finally reached the point of discussing the ways you can improve barrier function!
A great start to protecting and strengthening your skin barrier is to make sure you have healthy ways to process and release stress. Lifestyle practices like meditation and yoga can be helpful. In my NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Family-to-Family class, I also explored other aspects of self care that are very valuable, like expressing feelings, sharing your burdens, engaging in community, and seeking professional help.
Externally, you can improve your skin barrier function with lipid rich and anti-inflammatory skin care products. Here are four essential summer products I recommend to clients leading high-stress lives. Two of them actively nourish and support the skin barrier. The other two help prevent damage from stress.
Nourish and Support
Facial Recovery Oil from Eminence Organics
Healthy skin needs adequate linoleic acid to seal in moisture, according to Brian Goodwin, an international educator for Eminence Organics Skin Care. Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that’s plentiful in many of my favorite plant-based oils. Sesame oil contains up to 45% linoleic acid, and olive oil up to 17%. Olive and sesame oils have been shown, in third party studies, to increase hydration in the skin up to 53% in 28 days. And if you’re acne prone, rest assured that the healthy fats in the Facial Recovery Oil plus the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of tea tree and clary sage essential oils will most likely improve your condition.
Restorative Mind-Body Massage Oil from Stony Creek Aromatics
Clinical evidence shows that the barrier function can be improved by inhaling essential oils with a sedative effect. I formulated the Restorative Mind-Body blend with rose, sandalwood, and lavender to do just that. The essential oils are in a base of nourishing plant oils — jojoba, apricot kernel, almond, and avocado — that support the skin barrier on their own. This may actually have some positive effects on your internal state, too. Evidence suggests that inflammation exacerbated by stress can cause feelings of malaise. Keeping the skin healthy may also keep our brains happy, and could be the start of a positive cycle. Restorative Mind-Body Massage Oil can be applied to the full body, excluding the face, every day on damp skin after bathing to ease stress. When applied mindfully and with deep breaths, you are supporting your skin barrier function and overall wellness of body and mind.
Any kind of inflammation can disrupt the skin barrier, so our aim here is to protect against inflammation from oxidative stress and UV light. That way, our skin is less likely to sustain damage when psychological stress triggers inflammation, as explained above. In short, antioxidants and sun protection make our skin more resilient overall, which is why it’s doubly important to use them in the summer and in times of stress.
Citrus & Kale Potent C+E Serum from Eminence Organics
As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin C protects against oxidative stress that can diminish skin barrier function at the cellular level. Because of its unique formulation, the vitamin C in this blend stays active on your skin for up to three days. It contains vitamin C “salt” (sodium ascorbyl phosphate), a stable compound that converts to vitamin C on contact with the skin to deliver maximum antioxidant protection. And the C sourced from lemon and grapefruit (L-ascorbic acid) is stabilized with plant-derived ferulic acid to help retain the antioxidant properties. Finally, research suggests that topical vitamin C is most effective when combined with vitamin E, which this formula does with vitamin E derived from avocados.
Lilikoi Daily Defense Moisturizer SPF 40 from Eminence Organics
Finally, protect your hardworking skin from inflammation caused by UV damage with this all-natural, mineral-based sunscreen. It is made with cocoa seed extract and satsuma mandarin peel, with SPF 40 from zinc oxide. It also protects against blue light from screens, and is suitable for all skin types.
Our skin is always working to keep us in a state of balance, protecting us from pathogens, allergens, and exposure to the elements. As a vital part of our Earthly experience, it’s only natural that we’d want to show our skin plenty of love in return. No matter how stress affects your skin, you can increase your resilience to it with plant-based oils, antioxidants, and mineral-based sunscreen. You might even find that your new skin care rituals leave you more centered and less stressed — perhaps it’s the start of a whole new way of being.