Back to school...and then some!

Image credit: Gnarlycraig

Image credit: Gnarlycraig


Summer might be crawling to a warm, lazy close, but for all our student readers, the summer holidays are starting to feel like a hazy memory.  School hasn’t just started up: it’s back with a vengeance, and students everywhere are dealing with the stresses of essays, projects, sleepless nights, and dreaded midterms.  But what do stress and sleeplessness do to your skin?  How can frazzled students keep up a good skincare routine without taking time and money away from their studies?

No one likes dry, chapped skin or irritating breakouts.  Having clear, healthy skin can be a great self-esteem boost, which in turn is encouragement to get away from the desk for some rest and relaxation every so often.  The key to keeping your skin healthy and blemish-free even when school is stressing you out is to understand what stress does to the skin.  Even people with good skin can suffer breakouts and other skin problems when they’re subject to too much work and not enough sleep, because stress affects the skin in a series of ways.

To start with, stress and fatigue can really mess with the body’s chemistry.  For example, stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol, which triggers increased oil production and can cause breakouts even in people who don’t normally have oily skin.  Cortisol also decreases your immune functions, making you more sensitive to allergens that can cause rashes and hives.  Stress messes up your skin at the cellular level, too, breaking down the lipid barrier between cells and damaging their ability to repair themselves and protect against bacteria and infection.  Since the skin is the body’s first and biggest barrier against disease, keeping it healthy in times of stress is extremely important.

Stress affects the skin at the cellular level.  Image credit: Don Bliss

Stress - particularly around exam time - goes hand in hand with fatigue, which comes packaged with its own set of problems for your skin.  Tiredness and lack of sleep affects your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, which can lead to dehydration and deficiencies in essential minerals and vitamins.  Dehydration is a nightmare for the skin: dry skin is more prone to damage and tearing, and can leave you with chapped, itchy patches and lesions.  Improper nutrition also has an effect, causing premature aging, uneven pigmentation and sensitivity to allergens.

As the garnish on the skin problem cocktail, stress makes bad habits like picking at the skin much, much harder to control.  Common physical reactions to stress include rubbing the eyes, pulling at skin on the cheeks and forehead, and picking at dry or inflamed spots, all of which leave deposits of dirt and bacteria on the skin and can aggravate existing issues and breakouts.  Fatigue plays hell with your ability to control these kinds of physical responses, making it almost impossible to check those bad habits before they happen.

So what can a student do to fight the damaging effects of stress on the skin, especially on a budget?  Even if spending a lot of money or time on skincare isn’t possible, there are still ways to combat the effects of stress and lack of sleep.  Good nutrition should be a priority: even if you can’t make time for three square meals a day, make sure what you do eat is well-balanced.  Stay away from greasy junk food, and eat plenty of vegetables: broccoli, cucumber and radishes are particularly good for the skin.  Lighter, nutrient-rich foods like salad will also leave you feeling less tired, helping with the effects of fatigue on your skin.  Staying hydrated is also essential: keep a bottle of water on your desk and drink regularly while you work - some experts recommend four pints a day to keep your skin healthy and fight fatigue.

Healthy food isn't just good for your skin: it also keeps you going longer than fatty snacks.  Image credit: Vegan Feast Catering

Healthy food isn't just good for your skin: it also keeps you going longer than fatty snacks.  Image credit: Vegan Feast Catering

Training yourself out of bad habits like picking at your skin can be hard, but it’s worth the effort.  You can use that same bottle of water to trade bad habits for good ones: if you feel the urge to worry at your skin, take a sip of water instead.  And if you must touch your face, don’t pull and rub at it: worrying at the skin will cause it to lose elasticity.  Instead, use the tips of your fingers to apply a little light pressure to your forehead or eyelids.  Make time during your study sessions to take a break and have a shower or wash your face: not only will regular cleansing keep oil and bacteria off your skin; a quick shower can help refresh and invigorate you if you’re feeling sluggish.

But the most important thing to remember about midterm stress?  It only lasts as long as those midterms!  When exams are over, get back into regular sleeping and eating habits as quickly as you can; take a little time to yourself, and maybe treat yourself to a massage or facial.  Even if an exam goes badly, you can make up the grade with extra credit work - but you only have one body, so take care of it!