How Crying Affects Your Skin — and How to Calm It, Stat
These days, you can't have too many stress management strategies on the books. From meditating to journaling to baking, keeping your stress levels, well, level can be a full-time job in itself — and few offer up stress relief quite like a full-on, it's-my-party ugly cry.
"Crying can be considered a manifestation of emotional stress in the body," says Erum Ilyas, M.D., Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of the sun-protection brand AmberNoon. No matter the reason behind your tears — work drama, sadness, heartbreak, grief — a good cry can improve your state of mind, reduce stress levels, and serve as a way to regain balance. "The release from emotional tears shed can sometimes be just what you need to keep going," says Dr. Ilyas.
The only bummer? A sobfest can freak out your skin (especially if your skin is acne-prone or sensitive). So, adding some extra TLC to your skin-care routine may be necessary to reduce post-cry flare-ups.
"If you do find yourself super-tearful as a result of stress, taking an extra moment to understand the role of your skin-care routine can be essential," says Dr. Ilyas.
Crying Actually Helps Counter the Effects of Stress
Stress can manifest physically all over your body (think: sweating, insomnia, headaches), and the skin is no exception. There are a host of skin conditions that can be triggered or aggravated by stress, including acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis. Research suggests this is because your skin is an active participant in the stress response cycle.
"If you find yourself dealing with significant stress, your skin more than definitely will show this in some form," says Dr. Ilyas. "I often describe skin conditions as a check-engine light, given how many different ways stress can impact the skin."
Interestingly enough, crying is one of the ways the body attempts to maintain equilibrium against internal and external stressors. There are three types of tears, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology: basal (which act as a protective shield for your eyes), reflex (which wash away harmful irritants), and emotional (which are produced by the body in response to intense emotional states). Emotional tears actually contain traces of stress hormones not found in basal or reflex tears (for example, the neurotransmitter leu-enkephalin is found in emotional tears, which is thought to play an important role in pain perception and stress responses), according to the AAO. Some scientists feel the release of this particular type of tears helps bring the body back to baseline after a stressful moment or stimulus — hence why your insides feel less stormy after crying.
Other research backs it up: A study published in the journal Emotions found that crying while stressed can indeed be a method of self-soothing, helping to calm and regulate your heart rate, and other studies show that emotional tears may release oxytocin and endorphins (feel-good hormones). Overall, even though crying is a result of difficult emotions, because it can, in turn, help reduce stress, over time, it may help you keep stress-related skin issues under control.
...But the Act of Crying Can Stress Your Skin Out, Too
As good as crying may feel emotionally, the physical effects aren't so hot for your skin.
For one, the salt in tears can throw off the fluid equilibrium of the skin, drawing moisture out of the top layer and leading to dehydration, says Dr. Ilyas. Not to mention, since the skin around the eyes is super thin and delicate, it becomes irritated even more easily than other areas on your face or body.
The friction from those balled up tissues or your shirtsleeve (just me?) doesn't help, either. "The constant rubbing of the eyes and face while wiping tears away disrupts the skin barrier, which is the outermost layer of skin that helps to seal in moisture and protect you from the outside world," says Diane Madfes, M.D., New York-based board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. When it's disrupted, your skin becomes more vulnerable to environmental irritants such as sun damage, allergens, and pollution.
Then there's that signature post-sob puffiness. When you cry, an overflow of tears can accumulate in the soft tissue around the eyes and blood vessels in the area dilate thanks to increased blood flow in the area, causing redness and puffiness, says Dr. Ilyas.
Tears come from glands above your eyes, then cross the eye, and drain into your tear ducts (small holes in the inner corners of your eyes) which drain into the nose, according to the National Eye Institute. "This can lead to an excessively runny nose that can result in raw, sensitive skin around the nostrils," she adds. "The nostrils will appear widened, reddish, and slightly swollen."
Meanwhile, thanks to the increased blood flow and dilation of the blood vessels in the face, your cheeks will flush. "For those prone to rosacea, breakouts can worsen due to increased pressure in the capillaries of the skin from fluid tension," says Dr. Ilyas. "This can also lead to broken blood vessels."
All in all, crying puts your skin through the wringer — but there's one silver lining: Crying might be good for your skin if you're on the oily side. The chemistry of emotional tears is still being unpacked by scientists, so any skin benefits tears provide aren't exactly clear, but it's thought that "for oily skin types, the salt in tears can likely benefit the skin by drying out excess oil and potentially killing bacteria on the skin that can cause acne," says Dr. Ilyas. This is similar to anecdotal reports that salt water, especially from the ocean, help clear acne, she says. "The thought is that the water evaporates and salt is left behind, creating a drying effect."
How to Take Care of Your Skin After Crying
To restore and protect your skin after some tearful minutes (or hours), start by decreasing the swelling and inflammation. This can be accomplished by putting a cool washcloth on your face; try running it under water, tucking it inside a plastic or reusable bag, and then popping it in the freezer for 15 minutes. "Using cold compresses helps by constricting the blood vessels and tissues (known as vasoconstriction), which brings down the redness and inflammation and leads to a decrease in swelling," says Dr. Ilyas.
"You can also relieve some of the accumulated pockets of swelling by gently massaging (with your fingers or a jade roller) from the center of the face outward to push this fluid into the lymphatic system," she adds.
The next step is to repair the skin barrier that was disrupted by salty tears and abrasive tissues. Gently applying a moisturizer to your face — preferably, one that contains squalene, ceramides, or hyaluronic acid compounds, says Dr. Madfes. This can help replenish hydration and reduce irritation, says Dr. Ilyas.
Use a gentle moisturizer, such as CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion (Buy It, $19, ulta.com) or Pond's Nourishing Moisturizing Cream (Buy It, $8, amazon.com), and pay special attention to your cheeks when you apply. A favorite trick of Dr. Ilyas' is popping your moisturizer into the fridge before applying. "The coolness of the cream will lead to vasoconstriction to further reduce facial swelling," she says.
As for healing your eye area, "eye creams with caffeine and calendula can help to shrink the swelling by contracting the tissues," says Dr. Madfes. "Caffeine is also an antioxidant that can help to decrease inflammation." Dr. Ilyas recommends Origins No Puffery Cooling Roll-On (Buy It, $31, ulta.com) and AmberNoon Cucumber Herbal Eye Gel (Buy It, $35, amazon.com).
Most importantly, resist the temptation to apply products containing retinol, including firming eye creams. "Many will be too strong and may cause extra dryness for the first 24 hours after crying," says Dr. Madfes. Once your skin's back to its regularly scheduled programming (no swelling, redness, or irritation), you can go back to your usual skin regimen accordingly.