Stress acne looks like regular acne, but you may need to use different prevention and treatment strategies.

Stress is a natural part of life — coming from your job, family, finances, and more. But over time, unmanaged stress can affect more than just your mental well-being.

Stress affects your brain and other parts of the body. It can:

  • cause cognitive decline, affecting how your brain processes memories, decision making, and attention
  • impair your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to illness
  • lead to heart disease by affecting heart health
  • cause stomach and intestinal distress like stomach upset, ulcers, and chronic GI conditions

Stress can also affect your skin. Acne, for example, is a common skin condition that may be triggered or made worse by stress.

Acne is a chronic inflammatory skin disease affecting people of all ages. Research suggests almost 85% of people between ages 12 and 24 will develop some form of acne, especially females.

Having symptoms of acne later in life isn’t as typical, but it still happens in an estimated 20–40% of women.

Symptoms of acne include skin lesions, inflammation, and blemishes, primarily on the:

  • face
  • chest
  • back

Right now, it’s not exactly clear how stress causes acne, but several theories exist.

Stress causes oily skin

As a response to stress, the brain triggers the production of hormones which may cause your skin to overproduce sebum, an oily substance on the skin surface. This can block pores and trigger acne lesions.

Stress leads to skin damage

Stress can impair your immune response, including how the skin defends against the elements around you. For example, your skin prevents dangerous bacteria and viruses from entering your body.

Changes to your immune response may lead to skin inflammation.

When your stress levels are more manageable, your skin can repair itself much faster. Higher stress means a slower healing time, which can prolong breakouts.

Stress triggers acne-causing hormones

Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) causes acne lesions to develop. Chronic stress can trigger CRH production, which may lead to acne.

There are no differences in how a doctor diagnoses stress acne versus regular acne (aka acne vulgaris). Both types of acne share the same symptoms and range in severity.

Other causes of acne include:

The best way to prevent stress acne is to avoid stress — but since stress isn’t always avoidable, you can still manage the way it affects you.

To manage long-term stress and improve your well-being, consider:

  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine. Walking only 30 minutes a day can help reduce stress while keeping your immune system strong.
  • Using relaxation techniques. Wellness programs, apps, meditation, and muscle relaxation exercises can help keep stress levels low.
  • Prioritizing your sleep health. By maintaining a regular sleep schedule and improving bedtime habits, you can better manage stress and its effects on your body.
  • Avoiding or limiting caffeine. When you consume too much caffeine, it can lead to anxiety and increased stress.
  • Asking others for help and support. Leaning on others for support can help you better handle higher stress levels.

In addition to stress management, consider talking with a dermatologist about medications and other treatments available to treat acne. They may recommend:

  • cleansing your skin with gentle soap and water
  • topical ointments and creams such as retinoic acid or benzoyl peroxide
  • oral medications, including doxycycline, antibiotics, and oral contraceptives

They may also recommend avoiding unnecessary sun exposure and touching your skin.

When you have specific symptoms and wonder what they might mean, it’s a good idea to get an official diagnosis from a medical professional, especially if the symptoms are causing you mental or physical pain.

Acne can share symptoms with other conditions like dermatitis and rosacea, so a diagnosis can ensure you’re receiving the right treatment.

If long-lasting stress is affecting your health, you may want to let a doctor know. They may be able to figure out an underlying cause like a mental health condition that may benefit from further support.

Long-term stress can affect your physical and mental well-being. One way is by causing stress acne breakouts on your skin.

It’s not clear exactly why acne develops in response to stress, but experts suggest it may be because stress affects the immune system and also causes your brain to release chemicals that increase oil production.

Ignoring stress acne doesn’t make it go away. By practicing stress management strategies and getting treatment from a doctor like a dermatologist, you can manage your symptoms. You don’t have to hide your skin. Treatment can help.

If you need extra help managing your stress levels, you can check out our article on the top 10 free mental health apps available to help with stress.

If you think talking with someone might help, consider using Psych Central’s Find a Therapist resource.