Stress is an unfortunate, and often inevitable, side-effect of living. There are obvious tell-tale signs that you are under too much pressure, like tossing and turning at night, and feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list. And then there are less overt signals which, more often than not, show up first in our skin. Without launching into a full-blown biology lesson, that’s because stress causes the body to release hormones like cortisol, which in turn can trigger sebaceous glands to produce more oil, leading to breakouts or even acne. An inflamed complexion (think: redness, hives, or extreme dehydration, dryness, and flakiness) is another indicator that your face is bearing the brunt of your inner burdens.
Thankfully, there are a few targeted ingredients that can aid in successfully circumventing any of the above epidermal discomfort—and each works best when used primarily as a tool for prevention. “If you can protect your skin before something stressful happens, you will have much less of an adverse reaction when it finally does occur,” says Youth To The People’s Director of Education, Laura Cline. Working adaptogens into your daily self-care regimen is one of her suggested easy wins. Some of her favorites include ashwagandha, a cornerstone ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine that’s been clinically proven to lower blood sugar levels when taken internally, as well as other renowned stress-busters, like reishi mushroom, rhodiola, and Holy Basil (sometimes referred to as “tulsi”).
Applying adaptogens topically offers an extra layer of protection if the potent herbs and mushrooms are already a part of your diet. “The same reason we want to ingest adaptogens is the same reason we want to look to them as de-stressing skincare ingredients,” says Cline. “Loaded with antioxidants, they work by giving damaging free radicals something other than healthy skin cells to attach to—and they work both day and night with cumulative effects.” During the day, adaptogens offer protection from external stressors, like pollution, travel, and adverse weather conditions. During the night, they work to rebalance and repair skin while you’re sleeping.
Layering adaptogens is recommended if you aim to reap all the benefits on offer. A routine that kicks off with reishi mushroom, for example, will naturally hydrate and prep the skin’s surface—aiding in the effectiveness of any other adaptogens that come after. Add to that, dual-pronged herbs like ashwagandha or rhodiola, (the latter of which fights visible symptoms of fatigue, while also strengthening the skin’s ability to tolerate stress in the first place), and you’ve got a non-toxic cocktail for plump and happy skin. “Anything hydrating will help other products absorb better,” says Cline. “It’s like cleaning up a spill with a wet versus a dry sponge.”
Further clinical studies are needed, but anecdotal evidence about the topical use of ashwagandha is extremely promising—people struggling with hormonal surge outbreaks around their menstrual cycle have reported minimized flare-ups after using it daily over time. Similar evidence points to adaptogenic skincare being safe to use around pregnancy-related skin breakouts too, although it’s always recommended (and wise) to consult a physician first. “Many of the adaptogens we’re excited about now have been used directly on the skin to heal and soothe for centuries,” says Cline. “We didn’t discover them, we’re just giving them a new life, and backing up the results with science.”
Written by Elsa de Berker for Youth To The People