Stress and the Skin Barrier – How A Job Demolished My Face in Weeks

Stress and the Skin Barrier

As the body’s largest organ, your skin has a lot of work to do. 24 hours a day it’s protecting you by keeping the bad out and the good in. Its outermost layer, the stratum corneum, consists of skin cells bound by lipids made from cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides. This barrier is essential for healthy skin to function properly.

There are lots of factors that can potentially disrupt the protective barrier: Harsh skincare products and over-washing, allergens, pollutants, changes in environmental humidity, and STRESS.

Several years ago, when I was 27, I accepted a new job offer. It wasn’t a job I was particularly excited about, but I was offered a decent salary and on a temporary basis it really didn’t sound too bad. I would be the Executive Assistant to the CEO at a company that I will keep anonymous.

I very quickly realized that I had made a mistake. My days began at 5:00 AM. My commute was nearly 2 hours each way with horrendous traffic. The company’s entire staff had extremely low morale, and the employee turnover rate was comically high. My boss was absolutely dreadful – cold, callous, and extremely difficult. The work itself was somehow both mind numbing and incredibly stress inducing.

The drives home were filled with tears of frustration. By the time I would call it a day at 8:00 or 9:00 PM I was too stressed to eat, too wound up to relax, and completely unable to fall asleep. All attempts of refueling and recharging were a lost cause.

It didn’t take long – After 3 or 4 weeks I began noticing some physical changes, first and foremost in my skin. It was incredibly irritated and in pain. It hurt to move my face. The air felt as though it was stinging it. My acne, which I’d always been able to keep under control with standard topicals, began to really flare.

I went to a dermatologist. Then another, and another. They only wanted to prescribe me harsh topicals, which my very sensitized skin was in no shape to handle. I had done my own research at this point and tried discussing the skin barrier with them. They did not want to address it.

Skipping over the eventual painful job exit (which included a difficult resignation and saying uncomfortable goodbyes with a face covered in white patches of prescription meds), I knew in my gut that spending my days this way couldn’t be good for my health if it was taking such a dramatic toll on my skin.

So, what does the science say? You can check out how it all works here, but in summary, through multiple pathways in the body, stress of both a psychological and physical nature disrupts the function of the skin barrier. Transepidermal water loss keeps it from maintaining adequate hydration levels, and it also becomes more permeable which lets unwanted irritants in. While for me it made my acne flare, these changes can also result in other skin conditions such as Atopic Dermatitis and Psoriasis.

If you feel like your skin barrier might be compromised, try taking the following steps to restore balance. It can take time, weeks or months, so patience is a must.

-Reduce major stressors where you can

-Give your skin a break from harsh topical products

-Hydrate inside and out

-Prioritize sleep and good nutrition

Your skin truly is an indicator of internal issues. I was frustrated with my skin for inconveniencing me, but it was trying to tell me something. I found it incredible that such a short experience could impact me physically in this way. Listen to your body. It’s trying to keep you from spending your days in misery. 🙂

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