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Stress and your skin: Why too much cortisol can be damaging for your complexion

Stress and your skin: Why too much cortisol can be damaging for your complexion

Posted 11.04.2021

Our stress-levels have soared over the past year, and who can really blame us? The boundary between work and home has blurred, we have become ad-hoc teachers and the closest to a social life has been via zoom. Therefore, honouring Stress Awareness month has never been more important, so we thought we would delve into the effect stress can have on your skin and share some of our Founder, Janine Summers, stress-busting techniques.

What is stress?

Stress is your body's natural reaction to a perceived threat or pressure, whether it’s a looming deadline or being chased by a tiger, your body will react in a similar way known as the fight or flight response:

Once your brain has perceived a threat, your hypothalamus (your body’s hormone control centre) will set off an alarm system in your body that results in a surge of hormones being released into your system, including cortisol a.k.a the stress hormone. Cortisol helps prepare your body to ‘fight or flight’ and in order to do this it curbs and disrupts certain systems that aren’t necessary for ‘fight or flight’.

Once the threat has passed your body will start to relax as our stress-response system is pretty amazing in that it’s self-limiting. Unfortunately, in the whirlwind that is modern life, stressors can come at us from all directions and cause our stress-response system to remain activated for longer periods of time. This overexposure to cortisol can disrupt pretty much all of our body's major systems - including the skin.

Cortisol: The good, the bad and the ageing

Cortisol is more colloquially known as ‘the stress hormone’ and with good reason. But, it also plays an essential role in our daily diurnal rhythm: Our bodies release cortisol in the morning to stimulate wakefulness and help us stay alert. Levels of cortisol should then gradually reduce throughout the day as we wind-down and our body prepares for sleep. This small release of cortisol is part of our body’s daily sleep/wake cycle and essential for us to, well, wake up.

Cortisol starts to cause problems when we’ve got a constant level of it in our system and our body is in a maintained ‘high alert’ state. Because it is a catabolic hormone (meaning it breaks down tissue), this means if too much is released it can become destructive to collagen (our skin’s best friend). Collagen is a key building block of healthy skin, it strengthens and promotes elasticity and as we age our body’s production of this key protein declines resulting in lines and wrinkles. If collagen destruction wasn’t enough, cortisol triggers more activity in our sebaceous glands, causing our skin to produce more oil and subsequently blocking our pores resulting in spots and breakouts. All of this is before we get to the pro-inflammatory impact it has on our skin barrier that can result in irritation and redness. In short, cortisol isn’t a friend of your complexion.

Sometimes simply ‘de-stressing’ is easier said than done. So, if you’re skin is suffering because of stress Olivanna Founder, Janine Summers, always recommends focusing on getting those key parts of your skincare ritual right: “During a stressful time, I find it helpful to focus on what you can control, self care is important and, in particular, your skincare routine. A gentle but hydrating cleanser will help unclog pores and fight those stress spots without irritating the rest of your complexion. Secondly, a nutrient-rich hyaluronic moisturiser will not only deeply hydrate but it will help restore the skin’s barrier.”

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How can we combat stress?

As with most things in life, unfortunately there isn’t a magical cure for stress. There are some well-researched techniques we can all incorporate into our daily routines to help us manage stress and lower cortisol levels; Olivanna Founder, Janine Summers, shares some of her tried and tested stress-relief tips:

Make self care a priority

Setting aside time for yourself on a daily basis is so important. In the whirlwind of modern life we can often overlook ourselves and forget to take that time just for us. If we’ve learnt anything from lockdown and this past year it’s that stress can come at us from a myriad of directions and that we all deal with stress differently. Self-care can come in many forms be it going for a run to clear your mind, enjoying a long bath or even taking a little extra time with your skincare routine. Incorporating time for self care into your daily routine is a great way to combat stress.

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Nutrition Drink 


“Good nutrition is the foundation for good health; and over many years researching for Olivanna Wellness, I’ve picked up a few amazing stress-busting recommendations from nutritionists and dieticians. Incorporating several prebiotic and probiotic foods like kimchi and artichoke which may help regulate mood and combat stress, to sipping on a morning cup of Matcha: Matcha is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that that is said to have powerful stress-relieving properties.”


“Seeing my teenage daughters sit all day in front of screens whilst home-schooling, and the resulting lethargy and stress they felt after being sedentary for so long, really hit home with me how important daily movement is. I know that if I’m stressed, I definitely feel better after a pilates session or even a brisk walk. So, I instigated P.E classes for all of us, not only has it helped the whole family shake off any excess stress we’ve had a lot of fun doing it. To combat stress and help your body physically relax it doesn’t have to be an overly exerting form of exercise, even a slow yoga flow or some simple stretching can help you feel more centred.”

Dog Playing

Stress impacts us all in one way or another and is an unfortunate bi-product of the busy lifestyles we lead. We all know what it feels like to be stressed, but we’re not all aware of what that necessarily means for our bodies internally. We hope we’ve given you an insight into the role of cortisol and its impact on your skin, as well as some ways you can combat stress this Stress Awareness Month. If all else fails we recommend saving this picture of our Founder’s dog, to put a smile on your face.