Coping with Stress and Treating Acne

By Cynthia H. Cameron, NP

Everyone is cooped up at home listening to dire news reports with limited access to many of the activities that help us reduce stress. There are no organized sports for teenagers, no going to the movies with friends, nor trips to the gym. Anxiety is a normal reaction to the conditions we’re all facing. All that stress takes a toll on our bodies, and the effects on our skin are readily visible.

The Relationship Between Stress and Acne

Both teenagers and adults can experience flares of acne as a result of stress. Research shows that in response to negative emotions, our bodies produce more hormones called androgens. These androgens stimulate oil glands and inflammatory cytokines which set the immune system into overdrive and trigger acne flare-ups.

Stress can also lead to repetitive behaviors such as skin picking or touching your face (which we need to avoid to reduce the risk of covid-19 infection). Squeezing pimples and skin picking can lead to infections and scarring which may worsen depression and anxiety.

Many people avoid socializing (even on Zoom!) when their acne flares, leading to further isolation. Studies show  that treating acne can boost mood and self-esteem.

Treating Acne through Telehealth

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen an increase in severe acne in my telemedicine visits. The good news is that virtually everyone who is conscientious about using the medications and treatments we prescribe sees improvement after a relatively short period of time.

During my visit with a patient, which is performed on a secure HIPAA compliant platform, I take a complete health history, identify possible triggers and inquire about a patient’s diet. In doing so, I am better able to identify and recommend possible dietary changes that may help address the worsening of the patient’s acne. Patients who keep a food diary or record their food intake are often able to identify what foods tend to trigger breakouts.

Diet and Acne

There is also data to suggest that following a low-glycemic diet may reduce acne. Low-glycemic foods include most fresh vegetables, some fresh fruits, beans, and steel-cut oats. Check out these 8 principles of low-glycemic eating. It can also be helpful to minimize intake of sugar and processed carbohydrates and to consider discontinuation of whey protein supplements; milk (but not necessarily all dairy) can exacerbate acne in some individuals.

Tips for Treating Acne Breakouts

In addition to prescription medications that may be applied to the skin or sometimes taken orally, I recommend the following:

  • Wash your face twice a day and after sweating.
  • Use your fingertips to apply cleanser as washcloths and mesh sponges can irritate the skin.
  • Shampoo regularly. If your hair is oily, shampoo daily. Medicated shampoos can help too.
  • Don’t pop, pick or squeeze your acne, which can cause scars.
  • Don’t “spot treat” with your acne medicine. Apply a thin layer to the entire area in order to prevent new blemishes.
  • Use sunscreen that is designed for acne and labeled non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic.
  • If you have acne on the back, avoid using anything that rubs against your back, such as a backpack.
  • Bring all of your skin and hair care products to your televisit so we can review what might aggravate your acne.

Coping with Stress for our Health

When we are stressed, our self-care often takes a back seat. Our diet, sleep quality and quantity, and skin care regimen all play a role in our mental and physical health, including our skin.

During this difficult time, consider the following coping mechanisms:

Nobody needs to live with severe acne nor suffer from permanent scarring. With a combination of evidence-based dermatologic treatment, proper skin care and a healthy lifestyle, you can achieve clearer skin—even in the midst of a pandemic.

Click here to learn more about our telehealth platform and to request an appointment.