Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Acne Health Center

Font Size

Stress and Acne

By
WebMD Feature

It’s finals week and you’re tired, anxious, and stressed out about all those tests, including that daunting organic chemistry exam. Ever notice that your complexion seems to be stressing out right along with you, erupting in more pimples or acne cysts?

It’s probably not just your imagination, says Lisa A. Garner, MD, FAAD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "When you already have acne and you get into a stressful situation, that seems to be when your acne really flares up.”

Recommended Related to Acne

Acne Rosacea

Important It is possible that the main title of the report AcneRosacea is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.

Read the Acne Rosacea article > >

In other words, emotional stress won’t trigger a new case of acne, but it may worsen matters in someone who already has the skin disorder.

Stress and Acne: Is There a Connection?

For a long time, doctors have suspected that stress worsens acne, but evidence was mostly anecdotal. In the past decade, though, research has suggested that the doctors may be on the right track.

In 2003, a Stanford University study published in the Archives of Dermatology found that college students had acne flare-ups during exams, a period in which they reported more stress, compared to periods without testing. Acne severity correlated highly with increasing stress, the researchers concluded.

Still, scientists don’t know exactly how stress worsens acne. They do know that cells that produce sebum have receptors for stress hormones, according to Garner. Sebum is the oily substance that mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria to clog the hair follicles, leading to a pimple or acne cyst.

When a person with acne experiences a lot of stress, "somehow, they’re upregulated," Garner says of the sebum-producing cells. This means that more oil is produced to clog the hair follicles to allow more acne to form -- and give the stressed individual more to pick at.

But it’s only a clue, and the actual mechanism remains elusive. In a 2007 study of high school students in Singapore, researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine also found that acne worsened during exam times, compared to low-stress periods, such as summer break. The study was published in a Swedish medical journal, Acta Derm Venereol.

These researchers hypothesized that the increase in acne might be due to higher levels of sebum produced during stressful times. However, they found that psychological stress didn’t increase sebum production significantly in the teens, leading them to suggest that that acne linked to stress may involve other root causes.

When Stress Makes You Mess With Your Skin

Sometimes, stress and acne can interact in a harmful cycle. When some people are anxious or upset, they’re more likely to exacerbate their blemishes, Garner says. "Some people pick their skin when they’re stressed. If they have a pimple to pick, that’s where they’re going."

Today on WebMD

Girl with acne
See if you know how to control your acne.
happy woman with clear skin
Triggers and treatments for blackheads, whiteheads, and cystic acne.
 
Bride with acne
Dos and don’ts for hiding breakouts.
close-up of a young man soaping his face
Why adults get acne and how to treat it.
 
Doctors
Article
Boy cleaning acne face
Quiz
 
HPV Vaccine Future
Video
beauty cream
Article
 
Bride with acne
Slideshow
Woman applying mineral makeup
Slideshow
 
69x75_mineral_makeup.jpg
Video
Arrows pointing on teen girl blemish
Quiz
 

WebMD Special Sections