The sneakiest skin care chemical of all could be causing your breakouts
What is “clean beauty”? And for that matter, green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In this monthly column, clean beauty expert Jessica Yarbrough explores the ins and out of these buzzy claims, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all the most pressing questions surrounding these topics.
If you’re worried about chemicals messing with your complexion, forget about the phthalates and the sulfates. Stop obsessing over the parabens and the petrochemicals. I wouldn’t exactly recommend any of the above, but there’s one substance that does more collective damage than all of ‘em combined—and you won’t find it on a single clean beauty brand’s “Dirty List.” It’s not even one of the 1,300 cosmetic ingredients banned by the European Union. It’s 100 percent natural, actually, and you produce it all on your own.
What is this sneaky, sneaky chemical, you ask? It’s cortisol, aka the “stress hormone”—and it’s probably wreaking havoc on your skin right now.
First thing’s first: Yes, there are chemicals in your body…and they’re (gasp!) supposed to be there. Chemicals are not inherently bad, despite the fact that “chemical” has become a bit of a dirty word in the skin care space. (Brands tend to use it when they really mean “harsh chemicals” or “cancer-causing chemicals” or “endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” which are kind of important distinctions to make.) In reality, pretty much everything, ever, can be classified as a chemical: water, air, the sebum that comes out of your own pores.
OK, whew, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about that cortisol thing. “Cortisol is a hormone made in the adrenal glands and made during periods of stress,” Amy Wechsler, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist, tells HelloGiggles. “There’s a good and bad side to cortisol, depending on how much and how frequently your body releases it.”
Cortisol is best in short, infrequent bursts—like, say, if you’re about to be attacked by a bear. In cases like this, cortisol activates the “fight or flight” response to help you navigate dangerous situations. It also helps immune cells defend against infections.
But if your body releases cortisol too frequently—that is to say, if you’re super stressed-out or anxious—it can cause widespread inflammation and premature aging.
“Over hours, days, or weeks, cortisol breaks down collagen, damages skin barrier function, and causes inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis, Dr. Wechsler explains. “It can also disrupt the formation of new collagen, and sluggish collagen production makes the skin thinner and weaker.
With a weakened barrier, the skin has trouble holding onto moisture and is less equipped to defend against acne-causing bacteria. Blood vessels become more fragile, so circulation slows, and “without a good blood supply, oil glands slack off and skin becomes drier as well,” she adds. Cellular turnover happens less frequently, and lines become more visible.
In other words, “stress skin”—pimples, dry patches, dark circles—is a very real thing.
The good news: To get to this point, you’d need to constantly produce cortisol.
The bad news: There’s a very good chance you’re constantly producing cortisol.
“Our hyper-connectedness—thanks to social media—has drastically impacted our chronic stress,” says Amanda Huggins, a yoga teacher and anxiety coach (yes, that’s a thing, and you might need one). “A 15-second scroll of our Instagram feed can provide a potential landmine for comparison, self-doubt, and self-judgment.”
Modern life offers plenty of other stuff to stress about, too, aside from social media: extended work hours and side hustles, the political landscape, the environmental crisis, the list goes on. And since the human body hasn’t evolved to be able to differentiate between “attacked by a bear” stress and “jealous of an Instagram post” stress, your cortisol surges as if you were about to be eaten either way. On top of that, more and more people identify as clinically anxious or depressed—and both conditions come with elevated cortisol levels.
From a beauty perspective, this can create a bit of a vicious cycle: Stress causes skin issues, and (for many) skin issues cause stress. The more you stress about your stress breakouts, the more stress breakouts you get.
Sadly, “stress skin” can’t be soothed with a serum, a sheet mask, or really anything you put on your face.
Think about it: It’s caused by a series of chemical reactions inside the body. No topical product can change that. The secret to reducing stress skin lies in reducing stress itself—which, sure, requires more work than a slathering on some moisturizer, but has the added benefit of making you feel better (not just look “better”).
“There are seven healthy habits for healthy skin that I like to suggest because they are free, and forming them will support radiant physical beauty,” Dr. Wechsler says. (Did you hear that? “Free” and “radiant physical beauty” in the same sentence? It’s totally possible! According to a dermatologist!!!)
For starters, make sure you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. “Cortisol is at its lowest during sleep, and sleep is an anti-inflammatory state and when we heal,” Dr. Wechsler tells me. Put simply, “Sleep is free cosmetic medicine.” Without enough of it, cortisol doesn’t get a break, and you and your skin pay the price.
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She also recommends exercising (to “increase levels of beta-endorphins, improve your mood, and get your circulation going—all good things for your skin”), orgasming (“sex is one of the world’s best stress releasers, which means it doubles as a terrific skin treatment”), and eating lean protein (“cortisol’s message to our brain says we want to eat sugary, fatty foods, which will contribute to insulin swings and poor blood-sugar balance”).
Of course, you can’t talk about reducing stress without mentioning meditation—and Dr. Wechsler says it can be easier than you think.
“Find a comfortable, quiet spot to sit for 10 to 15 minutes every day, stop all your hustling and bustling…and simply be still,” she instructs. “Slowing down in this way, if you do it every day, helps create a sense of spaciousness in your life and gives your brain, your psyche, your whole being a break.” Besides feeling nice, meditation actually has a tangible, physical benefit: One 2017 study even showed it can “turn on” anti-inflammatory genes, potentially calming conditions like acne and rosacea.
If 15 minutes of daily meditation seems like a lot, the dermatologist has some quick-and-easy options, too, including gratitude journaling and deep breathing. “An easy way to raise your happiness quotient at home is to buy a beautiful journal and write down three things every night that went well that day and why,” she says. Studies show a consistent gratitude practice literally lowers anxiety and depression in the moment and long-term—and these soul-deep results carry over to your skin, Dr. Wechsler says.
Finally, the derm recommends deep breathing, since it “increases oxygen flow” and stimulates “production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which transports energy to your skin cells.” Yup, just breathing better can help your skin. Wild, right?
“Box breathing is my go-to technique for ‘spot treatment’ when I’m stressed out,” Huggins adds. Here’s how to do it: Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold empty for four seconds. “In your mind, you can visualize each side of the breath forming a side of a square,” the anxiety coach says. “The visual fixation helps our mind from wandering, and the pauses at the beginning and end of each breath allow for a truly cathartic release.” The best part? You can do this anywhere, any time, eyes open, eyes closed, whatever.
Are you feeling, uh, stressed out about all of the many, many stress management tools there are to try?
Don’t, says Huggins. “The practice of stress management is exactly that: a practice,” she says. “To shift every one of our stressors at once is going to feel like a massive undertaking, and will only add more stress.” And that’s not good for you or for your face.
Instead, “Ask yourself, ‘What is one small, easily-implementable next step that I can commit to practicing for the next two weeks?’”—the keyword being “small.”
It’s not so different from incorporating a new product into your skincare routine, actually: Add one thing at a time. Pay attention to the results. Decide if it’s earned a place in your daily regimen. As Huggins says, “You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can start creating shifts in your life.” And, incidentally, your skin.