How Stress Contributes To—and Perpetuates—Adult Acne

How Stress Contributes To—and Perpetuates—Adult Acne

It’s totally reasonable to assume that once you’ve moved past your teenage years, you’ve also closed the door on your acne years.

Totally reasonable, but unfortunately, untrue.

Adulthood, as it turns out, isn’t some magical turning point for your skin. Sure, you may get a few years of reprieve, but you may very likely find yourself once again standing in front of the bathroom mirror, examining some weird subcutaneous bulge, likely around your chin, thinking, “...the hell?”

You’re Not Alone, Adult Acne is Normal

Adult acne has become so common that a New York Times story on its rise reported that women who don’t experience a second bout of acne, especially around the chin and jawline, are actually the exception, not the rule. The American Academy of Dermatology has said adult cases are climbing, and Balm’s own survey of 750 women last year revealed that 59% of 35- to 50-year-olds in the U.S. are dealing with a second surge of spots. That number has likely gone up in the last year, if tweets about pandemic stress and isolation-related breakouts are any indication.

What Causes Adult Acne?

The underlying causes of adult acne are varied. They range from hormonal changes like pregnancy and perimenopause (fun fact: the swings in estrogen linked to perimenopause can start in your 30s and continue for a decade or more), lack of sleep, high-glycemic diets and environmental pollutants. But many doctors say that enemy No. 1 is good ol’ reliable stress. Hormones secreted by the endocrine system in response to stress, such as cortisol, are known to boost oil production in the skin glands.

Even pre-pandemic, a day stacked with work stress, kid stress, relationship stress and caregiving stress—plus zero time for yourself—was just known as “Tuesday.” So it’s no wonder our zits have come back for a victory lap.

How Does Stress Cause Acne?

“We are literally in a constant cycle—stress boosts cortisol, which boosts acne cases, which boosts depression rates,” says BalmLabs founder Sarah Waldock. “Yet the idea of expressing one’s anxiety over their acne has largely been viewed as superficial or shallow, which can be detrimental to one’s mental health, further exacerbating stress levels and thus the never-ending breakout cycle.”

Indeed, cortisol—the primary stress hormone—is the root of most cases of stress-induced adult acne. As noted in another article in the New York Times, the overproduction of cortisol depletes beneficial oils, weakens the skin barrier (allowing moisture to escape) and stimulates the overproduction of acne-causing sebum. Simply put: spikes in cortisol can wreak havoc on your skin.

Fight Back Your Stress Breakout

So, what can you do about stress-induced acne? Well, according to that New York Times piece, you could always cry about it. No, really! Crying is a great way to release stress and decrease cortisol levels. Not in the mood for a big cry session? Some other options include orgasms, yoga, meditation and spending time in the great outdoors. No matter how you choose to get those cortisol levels down, your skin will thank you.


Dermatologist Q+A: Why Does Stress Take a Toll on my Skin?