Does Stress Actually Cause Acne?

I’ve heard from countless people, especially women, that stress can give you pimples. I usually trust women with cosmetic advice, but this one I’m not so sure about it. I don’t understand the science behind it, and it seems like some old wives’ tale to me. But as I have seen tiny traces of pimples appear on my own face, correlated with increasing stress levels, I began to wonder if it indeed were true. Assuming the alternative hypothesis is correct–that stress can cause pimples–how can we relieve ourselves of stress to erase these unwanted blemishes. But for now, I have no grounds to reject the null–that stress does nothing to contribute to pimples.

Stanford published the findings of a 2003 study which analyzed the relationship between stress and acne. Researches observed college students’ changes in acne throughout periods of regular classes as well as exams. The participants included 22 students, 7 men and 15 women, with an average acne severity scale of 0.5 according to the Leeds acne scale (what we would consider ‘minimum’ acne). By the end of the study, the team had observed that students had a higher degree of acne around the time of their exams. Scientists considered confounding variables including the quantity and quality of both food and sleep, and their possible effect on stress.

The researchers concluded that students who already experience acne may see worsened symptoms during periods of examinations or stress. However, the study didn’t say why this occurred–that is to say–what the mechanism was. What is it about stress that causes acne, if any? Another shortcoming of the study was the sample size. The study consisted of only 22 students who had pre-existing cases of acne. Although the results ‘seem legit’ according to the scientific method, I would suggest that the researchers also observe students without acne during examination periods, to see if acne caused stress in subjects who had no previously experienced the condition. This strategy would better support the findings because the researchers would be analyzing a more diverse demographic.

So I took my curiosity to the ever-trustworthy WebMD, and was met with somewhat satisfying results. Sebum is an oily substance that may explain why acne appears during periods of stress, according to Lisa A. Garner, an expert in dermatology at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center. The professor explains that receptors within sebum-producing cells interact with stress hormones, which could produce these red devils. She also claims that sebum-cells are irritated by the individual’s stress, which produces oil to clog hair follicles where a pimple then appears. However, this is simply scientific speculation which has yet to be confirmed.

It seems curious to me that while we can send a man to the moon and look at craters on mars, we can’t figure out what’s going on with our damn faces. I speculate that this could be due to a lack of funding or interest on the subject. Therefore, more studies need to be done! For now, I would recommend maintaining a steady diet, exercising regularly, and preparing in advance for tests to avoid stress. So don’t take your grandmother’s word for gold, but maybe one day science will give me a reason to believe that stress can cause acne.

Works cited:

Stanford study:


intimate stressed guy:


2 thoughts on “Does Stress Actually Cause Acne?

  1. Kateryna Okhrimchuk

    I think it’s so funny that we know that stress and things like exam periods cause more acne breakouts but we can’t figure out the mechanism. It’s like what we learned about in class with the sailors sucking on lemons to prevent Scurvy but they had no idea why it helped or how it worked, but it did. An interesting fact that many people don’t know is that eating pizza, fries, and chocolate don’t actually cause breakouts; it’s never been proven and in fact, there’s very little evidence that specific foods actually do cause acne. For most of my life I avoided chocolate like the plague when I saw a pimple pop up on my face but now I eat as much chocolate as I want knowing that it’s not the cause of my breakouts.

  2. Erin Kelly

    I really liked this post because of how relatable it is! I know that this is purely anecdotal evidence on my part, but I think stress is killer. It causes so many problems and imbalances in our bodies, and I think a lot of that has to do with cortisol levels.

    Here is an article about the problems with stress and some things we can do to help:

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