The Relationship Between My Mental Health And My Skin During The Pandemic

One writer shares her deeply personal experience with stress and depression and the impact it has had on her relationship with her skin during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Patient Perspective
Written by India Bottomley
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The Relationship Between My Mental Health And My Skin During The Pandemicfizkes/Shutterstock

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For so many of us, this last year has been particularly difficult on our mental and physical wellbeing, and it is important to remember that we are never alone. Here, one writer shares her deeply personal experience with stress and depression and the impact it has had on her relationship with her skin during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our mental health has been put to the test over the last year, and even people who haven’t suffered emotionally in the past have been finding things difficult recently. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are broad and vary widely from person to person, but many people will experience a sense of lethargy and lack of interest in things they normally take an interest in.

Like many people reading this, I have dealt with depression on-and-off since I was a teenager, and the uncertainty that the pandemic has thrown our way has certainly made my mental health tougher to manage. I wanted to share how dealing with the effects depression impacts my skin and explore how we can strip back skincare to the bare minimum when the world around us gets to be a bit much.

How Stress Affects the Skin

Depression, anxiety, and even stress can all affect your complexion, and everyone’s body reacts differently to these factors. People who have acne-prone skin, for example, may experience more breakouts, and stress can also trigger eczema flare ups. Studies have shown that stress can affect the way the skin’s barrier function regulates water retention, which means your skin may be drier and more sensitive. Since poor sleep is another common symptom of depression, you may find that both your eyes (think: dark circles) and skin looks more tired than usual.

In my case, I find that my skin tends to lose elasticity, which can be attributed to stress-induced changes in the skin’s proteins. When I’m feeling low, I forget about the nice glowy skin I carefully worked on, and my complexion tends to become dull and dehydrated.

Your skin may also change if, like me, your skincare routine falls to the wayside when you’re not feeling your best. As much as I love skincare — and I will happily indulge in a full-on Korean-inspired skincare routine when I’m feeling well — that routine gets swapped out for a quick cleanse in the shower when I’m not doing so great. Dramatically shifting your skincare routine in this way also impacts your skin, and it may lead previous issues to resurface.

Why Routines Can Feel Difficult

Depression affects neurotransmitters in your brain, and some of these control how motivated we feel. These neurotransmitters are responsible for a wide range of our daily habits — regulating everything from how we sleep to how easily we can recall information. Changes in levels of serotonin and dopamine can impact whether you feel like completing your usual tasks, including your skincare routine.

When you’re feeling depressed, the thought of having to do a whole number of steps before you hit the hay can feel overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times over the past few months I have stood in front of my skincare products and just not had the ability to come up with a routine, so I’ve given up and gone to bed. Likewise, if you’re struggling to sleep, getting up to apply products tends to feel pretty unappealing.

In other words, it’s normal to not feel like doing certain things when you’re struggling with depression or chronic stress. This being said, it’s a great idea to try to adapt your old habits, so they feel more manageable while you’re going through a difficult time. In this case, switching out your usual skincare routine for something pared down could be a good compromise.

Back to Basics

If you are someone who is used to taking care of your complexion with a multi-step skincare routine, you may be wondering how to strip it down. The two most important elements are cleansing and sun care. Wear sunscreen during daylight hours, wash it off at night, and you have, theoretically, given your skin the protection it needs. From there, you may consider applying a non-SPF moisturizer before bed to rehydrate the skin and counteract some of the stressors we discussed above.

I personally find that leaving my cleanser in the shower is a surefire way of making sure that I take the time to cleanse regularly. I also leave my sunscreen in the bathroom, so I put it on as part of my morning getting ready routine without going out of my way.

Finding products that work well for your skin and state of mind is key. This, of course, is always true, but it’s especially important when you’re stripping down your routine. Focus on ingredient combinations that can help you to achieve maximum results with minimum effort. In my experience, the actives and products below can target specific skin concerns:

For Acne-Prone Skin:

When it comes to treating and preventing acne, using cleansers with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and pyrithione zinc can all help combat breakouts. I like Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser, which helps keep the skin clean and clear without being overly drying. There is some debate as to whether chemical or physical sunscreens are best for acne-prone skin. I’ve always found La Roche-Posay Anthelios to be a lightweight, mattifying option.

For Oily Skin:

If you have oily skin, you’ll want to look for a cleanser that gently reduces excess sebum (read: oil) production without being too harsh or irritating. Certain types of clay can achieve this, like the kaolin clay and activated binchotan charcoal in the Dermalogica Dermal Clay Cleanser. In terms of sunscreen, something that combines sunscreen with antioxidant protection, such as Kiehl's Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+, can provide additional protection.

For Combination Skin:

It can be tough to find products that work well for combination skin because most ingredients either target dry or oily areas. Vitamin E and salicylic acid are actives that can cater to both concerns. You can try either chemical or mineral sunscreen — play around with formulas to find what works best. Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 is an ultra-lightweight option that combines moisturizing ingredients (meadowfoam seed, red algae, frankincense) with broad spectrum sun protection.

For Dry Skin:

Finding a hydrating cleanser with glycerin, squalane, or ceramides (like CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser) will help keep your skin nourished. Mineral sunscreens with moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid (HA) can offer sun protection and a moisture boost.

To Combat Aging:

If you’re looking to address uneven skin tone and/or texture, cleansers with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), bakuchiol, and niacinamide can all improve the appearance of the skin (try Dr. Zenovia Skincare Bakuchiol Hydrating Cleanser). There are many ‘anti-aging’ sunscreens on the market, which combine UV protection with other ingredients that help with fine lines, pigmentation, and more.

What About Skincare Gadgets?

The skincare device market is brimming with gadgets that offer technology previously only available in professional settings at home. My personal favorite is the Foreo UFO, which features thermotherapy (heating), cryotherapy (cooling), sonic pulsations, and LED light settings to enhance the efficacy of serums and face masks. For me, it’s been an absolute asset to keep up with masking and treatments despite really not feeling like it.

Seeking Help

A lot is going on right now, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times. If you’re struggling, know that you are not alone and there are resources available to help. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) to talk to a trained counselor in your area.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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INDIA BOTTOMLEYis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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