Stress and Acne: The Science of Breakouts caused by stress

Acne is a common skin condition that affects people of all ages, genders, and races. It can be frustrating and embarrassing, causing low self-esteem and affecting mental health. While there are many causes of acne such as genetics, hormonal changes, diet, and environmental factors; stress is an often overlooked factor that can significantly contribute to the development and exacerbation of acne.

Explanation of the connection between stress and acne

Stress is a natural response to various stimuli in our environment. When we experience stress, our bodies release cortisol into the bloodstream which triggers a cascade of reactions in our body’s systems.

In terms of skin health, stress can lead to increased inflammation and oil production which can then lead to clogged pores. These clogged pores then become an ideal breeding ground for bacteria leading to the formation of pimples.

Furthermore, when we are stressed our bodies release cortisol which can cause blood sugar levels to increase leading to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to increased production of sebum or oil on the skin’s surface resulting in more blocked pores.

Brief overview of the causes of acne

Acne occurs when hair follicles become clogged with dead skin cells and oil or sebum produced by glands under the skin’s surface. There are several different types of acne ranging from mild outbreaks characterized by whiteheads or blackheads through moderate outbreaks characterized by inflamed papules or pustules to severe outbreaks characterized by nodules deep beneath the skin’s surface.

The most common cause of acne is hormonal changes that occur during puberty leading to increased sebum production within hair follicles. Other contributing factors include genetics where individuals may have inherited a predisposition towards developing acne-prone skin or dietary factors such as consuming excessive amounts of dairy products or high-glycemic-index foods.

Thesis statement: Stress is a significant factor in the development and exacerbation of acne

While there is no single cause of acne, stress has been shown to be a significant contributor to both the development and exacerbation of acne. Stress can increase inflammation, oil production, and blood sugar levels leading to blocked pores, bacterial growth, and insulin resistance. This article will explore the science behind acne, how stress affects skin health and triggers or worsens acne, and the psychological connection between stress and skin health.

The Science behind Acne

Definition and types of acne

Acne is a common skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by the presence of pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts on the skin. Acne can appear on any part of the body, but it is most commonly found on the face, neck, chest, and back.

There are several different types of acne. The most common type is called acne vulgaris.

This type of acne is caused by excess oil production in the sebaceous glands. Other types of acne include hormonal acne (caused by changes in hormone levels), cystic acne (deep and painful pimples), and comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads).

Causes of Acne

Acne has several underlying causes that can contribute to its development. These include hormonal changes, genetics, diet, and environmental factors.

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal changes are a major contributor to the development of acne. During puberty, both boys and girls experience an increase in hormone levels which can lead to an overproduction of oil in the sebaceous glands.

This excess oil can clog pores and lead to breakouts. In addition to puberty, hormonal imbalances during pregnancy or menstruation may also cause flare-ups in some women.


Like many other conditions, genetics play a role in who develops acne. If one or both parents had severe cases of acne during their childhood or teenage years, there’s a higher chance their children will have it as well. Studies have also shown that certain genes may be related to increased inflammation within pores leading to more severe forms of acne.


While diet doesn’t directly cause acne breakouts like hormones do; certain foods can trigger or worsen acne-prone skin. A diet high in refined sugars, dairy, and processed foods has been linked to a higher incidence of acne breakouts.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as pollution and humidity can clog pores and make it difficult for the skin to breathe. Sweating during hot weather or exercise can also contribute to clogged pores that lead to breakouts.

The Role of Stress in Acne Development

Stress can have a significant impact on the development and exacerbation of acne. This is due to several factors, including how stress affects the body, and how stress triggers or worsens acne.

When a person experiences stress, their body releases a hormone called cortisol. Increased cortisol levels can lead to inflammation and an immune system response that ultimately contributes to acne breakouts.

How stress affects the body

Stress triggers the release of various hormones that can affect different bodily systems, including the skin. Cortisol is one such hormone that plays a significant role in the development of acne. When cortisol levels increase, it causes inflammation and an immune system response that contributes to acne breakouts.

Increased cortisol levels

Increased cortisol levels also contribute to increased sebum production, which can clog pores leading to acne breakouts. Sebum is an oily substance produced by our skin’s sebaceous glands that helps keep our skin moisturized. However, when too much sebum is produced, it mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria on our skin’s surface leading to clogged pores.


Inflammation caused by increased cortisol levels can also trigger or worsen existing acne breakouts. Inflammation leads to redness, swelling, and irritation of pimples making them more visible and painful.

Immune system response

The immune system also plays a critical role in regulating inflammation within the body. When under stress, our immune system’s function can be compromised causing more severe inflammatory responses leading to worse acne breakouts.

How stress triggers or worsens acne

Apart from physiological changes triggered by elevated cortisol levels caused by stressors such as work pressure or exams studies have shown psychological factors like anxiety disorders or depression may lead to acne in some individuals. Stress can also trigger hormonal changes that lead to increased sebum production, clogging of pores, and proliferation of bacteria on the skin’s surface leading to more severe acne breakouts.

Stress-induced hormonal changes

Stress triggers hormonal changes that impact sebum production and bacterial growth on the skin’s surface. During periods of stress, the body produces more androgens, a hormone that stimulates the sebaceous glands leading to increased sebum production. The excess oil produced mixes with dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria forming pimples.

Increase in Sebum Production

The increase in sebum production during periods of stress is an essential component contributing to acne development. Increased oil production makes it easier for bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes (P.acnes) to flourish on the skin’s surface where they feed on sebum exacerbating inflammation and pimples formation.

Clogging of pores

Another effect of high cortisol levels is an increase in keratinocyte proliferation which leads to more dead skin cells building up on our skin’s surface making it easier for these pores to become clogged by excess oil leading to acne breakouts.

Proliferation of bacteria on skin surface

Bacteria found naturally on our skins’ surface like P.acnes can contribute significantly when overgrown due to high cortisol levels caused by stressors resulting from lifestyle changes or mental well-being issues like anxiety or depression. The proliferation occurs because P.acnes feed off excess oils produced by the sebaceous glands which ultimately exacerbate inflammation causing painful inflammatory acne lesions.

While genetics plays a significant role in acne development; studies show stress is a crucial factor that touches different aspects such as physiological processes like increased cortisol levels responsible for aggravating underlying medical conditions or psychological factors like anxiety disorders or depression that may trigger acne in some people. Therefore, managing stress levels through stress management techniques like mindfulness, yoga, or regular exercise is crucial in preventing or reducing acne breakouts.

The Psychological Connection between Stress and Acne

How psychological factors affect skin health

While the physical impact of stress on the body is well-documented, the mental and emotional toll should not be underestimated. Psychological factors, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems can have a direct effect on skin health. When individuals experience stress or negative emotions, their bodies release cortisol – a hormone that triggers inflammation and exacerbates acne breakouts.

Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems can contribute to stress-related breakouts.

Stress-induced breakouts are often exacerbated by negative feelings towards one’s appearance. Those who struggle with acne may feel embarrassed or ashamed about their skin and avoid social situations as a result.

This only serves to exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation which in turn lead to increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol. The cycle continues with even more severe breakouts.

The impact of social media on self-image as a cause for

The rise of social media has led to increased pressure for individuals to project an idealized image of themselves online. While these platforms can be fun and engaging for some users, they can also cause significant harm when it comes to body image issues – particularly for those struggling with acne. Seeing countless images posted online featuring seemingly flawless complexions can lead one to believe that they are alone in their struggles with acne or worse – that they are somehow at fault for it.

Final Thoughts

While there are many external factors that contribute to the development and exacerbation of acne – such as diet or environmental pollution – it is clear that stress plays a significant role in this process as well. By understanding how psychological factors like anxiety or low self-esteem impact our skin health we can take steps towards mitigating these effects through mindfulness, self-care, and seeking support from friends and family when necessary. It’s important for those who struggle with acne to know that they are not alone in their struggles – and that there is hope for healing and a clear complexion through a combination of healthy habits, medical intervention, and self-compassion.