Oh No, Are You “Stress Exfoliating”? Why We Overdo It On Bad Days

“Rather than peeling back the layers to explore what’s causing the feelings of stress, our inclination is to focus on what we see on the surface and go after it with vigor,” says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. “This creates a vicious cycle, though, because if we focus our attention on what we see rather than the factors responsible for them being there, we continue to experience the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. But when we are willing to sit with our feelings and really feel the sadness, grief, or discomfort that is underneath and accept ourselves anyway, we’re able to approach ourselves and our skin with compassion instead of judgment.”

Essentially, exfoliating our skin—and attempting to rid our face of any perceived imperfection—is a way for us to identify, control, and immediately “treat” an issue that we can see, right in front of our faces. “Most of us, myself included are hoping there is a quick fix, a magic lotion, potion, or pill to deal with the problem, but as I’ve learned, there is no such thing, and just using surface-level solutions won’t heal deeper-level issues,” says Barr. To us, in that moment, it’s much easier to prod at our own skin rather than deal with why we are stressed out to begin with. 

See, stress and skin are deeply connected—and the relationship between the two goes both ways: “Upward of 90% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related reasons, and skin issues are the No. 1 reason people visit their doctors. Translation: Stress and skin are intimately related. Our skin is the most visible organ we have and what shows up on it gives many clues to what’s happening beneath it. When we are stressed, our bodies release a cascade of inflammatory signals that can affect the integrity of the skin barrier, suppress the skin’s innate immune system, and shift the skin microbiome, making it more vulnerable to irritation, infection, and breakouts,” says Barr. “It’s a double-whammy, because the blemishes that appear on the skin as a result of stress can compound feelings of stress, shame, guilt, and overwhelm.”