A glowing complexion and lush hair aren’t just skin-deep beauty bonuses: they reveal a lot about your stress levels, as well as the overall state of your health.
To really understand how stress impacts your skin and hair, we need to look at how new skin and hair cells are actually created.
Stress and Your Skin
TL;DR? Stress slows your skin’s cell renewal process, increases inflammation and free radicals, degrades collagen production, and throws your sebum levels off track.
Your skin is more than just a nifty waterproof covering: it’s an active part of your immune system. Packed with immune cells, your skin works to resist infection and responds swiftly to injury.
Your skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous layer.
Your epidermis (the part of your skin that we see) is a paper-thin top layer that turns over roughly every five weeks, as layers of cells rise upwards and exterior cells flake off.
This renewal process slows down as we age, and can be impacted by stress, diet, pollution, and hormonal imbalances. The epidermis is also vulnerable to free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage skin cells). Free radicals create oxidative stress and accelerate skin aging—and stress, of course, just increases the bad stuff.
The next layer of your skin is the dermis, a mesh-like network of tissue that keeps your skin taut, plump and smooth. The dermis is comprised mostly of collagen. Collagen decreases as we age, usually starting around the early 30s, but stress hormones can further reduce collagen production (cortisol, our primary stress hormone, has been called "the enemy of collagen”).
Think of it this way: when we’re under stress, our bodies produce more cortisol. Cortisol is considered an essential worker, key to our survival. Collagen production gets furloughed when we’re under stress, stalling skin and hair renewal. Stress causes the body to divert the resources that would normally go into oil production or hair growth elsewhere.
In addition to collagen, your dermis also contains sebaceous glands, which secrete sebum (your body’s own moisturizer). Sebum hydrates the skin and protects it against bacteria, sunlight, and yup, viruses. Too much sebum can lead to oily skin, causing acne or fungal infections that may cause dandruff. Too little sebum can cause dry, itchy, flaky or dull-looking skin.
Stressed-out skin may look dull, flaky, blotchy, red, oily, broken out or prematurely aged. It may feel itchy, bumpy, congested or inflamed.
Stress and Your Hair
TL;DR? Stress hormones can cause hair loss, force your hair follicles to go dormant, trigger dandruff, and result in weaker, thinner strands of hair.
Hair health is, of course, rooted in skin health (literally!) as all of your hair grows from follicles in your dermis.
Your hair's natural growth cycle has three stages:
- The anagen stage (when a strand of hair is actively growing)
- The catagen stage (a short transitional phase where growth has stopped and the hair is preparing to shed)
- The telogen stage (when the hair sheds and the follicle goes dormant, typically for around three months, before a new hair starts to sprout)
Everyone loses hair as part of this natural cycle (just ask your shower drain). Stress, however, disrupts the normal cycle and pushes large numbers of hair follicles into the dormant phase. You might not see it hair thinning or loss until months after the triggering event, which is why often new mothers experience major hair shedding after childbirth.
And as we know, stress can throw your sebum production out of whack, triggering flaking and itching of the scalp: a.k.a. dandruff.
Stress can disrupt hormones, which in some cases causes the hair follicles to shrink, reducing both the volume and length of your hair. Stress can also reduce circulation, and less blood flow to your scalp means undernourished hair follicles and thinner, weaker strands.
Reducing the Impact of Stress on Hair, Skin, and Health
Stress is often unavoidable (especially in 2020) but because it interferes with the actual processes your body has to do to make new skin and hair cells, it truly is hell on your skin and hair.
The good news? There are things you can do to support your stressed-out skin and hair that not only counter the destructive effects of burnout—they support the roots of your health.
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