Since your life is likely shifting right now (summer to fall, quarantining to socializing), so is your skin. Here's how to regain balance.
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Why All of Your Skin Issues Are Flaring Up Right Now
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Autumn always feels like a fresh start, but this year's season in particular is a whopper. Not only did you experience a hot and active summer, but you're also getting back to busy schedules and responsibilities now that the pandemic is easing up a bit (thank you, COVID vaccines!).

Even if you're mentally managing (and welcoming) these shifts, your skin is left dealing with a lot all at once. And a constellation of factors can create the perfect environment for unexpected redness, breakouts, sensitivity, and irritation, dermatologists say.

Here, three experts explain what's going on, plus the routine for this transitional time to help your skin stay calm so you can carry on.

The Stress Factor

You already know that stress sabotages healthy skin. What you might not realize is that even if you don't feel as stressed as you did months ago, negative effects can still manifest under the surface. A skin flare-up — extra-dry or sensitive skin, flaky or itchy patches, new breakouts or harder-to-control acne, or an exacerbation of a skin condition like eczema or rosacea — can happen weeks or months after an acutely stressful period.

You may also experience flare-ups from the chronic stress you've come to live with and don't fully recognize anymore. For example, "reintegrating into society is stressful," says Jeanine Downie, M.D., a dermatologic surgeon in New Jersey. "We haven't been good about taking care of our mental health in general, and many of us aren't acknowledging the acute and chronic stress we're experiencing because of the pandemic." Both these past and current stressors can show up on your face and body.

It starts with the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and androgens, says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., a dermatologist in Alabama. Some of these are produced, along with their receptors, in skin cells, according to a paper in the journal Inflammation & Allergy—Drug Targets. These hormones stimulate the oil glands and hair follicles in the skin, which can lead to acne.

"Stress hormones also set off a domino effect that results in a suppressed immune system and the release of inflammatory cytokines and other molecules," says Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a dermatologist in California. This can spur redness, rashes, and hives. Research also shows that cortisol leads to a breakdown of the skin's barrier, in part by depleting ceramides, which are lipids that surround cells and help form the barrier that keeps moisture in and irritants out. Plus, skin becomes more permeable under stressful conditions; it loses moisture more readily and allows easier access for irritants, studies have found. It also takes longer to heal. (Related: How to Boost Your Skin's Immune System to Fend Off Damage)

Cool, Dry Weather Makes Things Worse

As outdoor temps and humidity levels drop and furnaces turn on, the resulting dry air sucks moisture from wherever it can get it, including your skin, says Dr. Icecreamwala. Low humidity may even directly compromise the skin's barrier. Animal research suggests key proteins that bind skin cells together degrade in low humidity, while human studies show real-world effects: Skin is drier and less elastic and has lower moisture levels, plus it's more reactive to irritants compared with when it's in normal or humid conditions, according to a review in the Journal of European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.

Fall can also be prime time for airborne allergens, which barrier-compromised skin is extra susceptible to. "Airborne contact dermatitis is an issue we often see in the fall as different plants are blooming and allergens are released," says Dr. Hartman. (This guide will help you keep your fall allergies in check.)

The Toll of Summer Sun

Few people are perfect when it comes to sun protection, so don't beat yourself up if your skin seems a little worse for wear come fall. But it's worth knowing that the more UV exposure you got, this past year and long ago, the harder it may be for skin to deal with stress and weather changes. "Sun exposure damages skin's DNA and, in general, makes it less healthy while it's exposed and in the long term," says Dr. Icecreamwala. "Skin may also be dealing with residual inflammation from your past that can affect the way it reacts."

Researchers from Stanford found that UVB radiation (the type of sun rays that typically burn skin) loosened the bonds between skin lipids, leaving it more prone to cracking, chapping, and dryness. Meanwhile, other research suggests that chronically sun-exposed skin has lower hydration levels and that skin may not bounce back as easily when compromised compared with sun-protected skin. That can make times after sun exposure especially tough. (Related: SPF and Sun Protection Myths to Stop Believing, Stat)

A Changing Makeup Routine

If you've spent most of the past few (or more) months makeup-free, then diving into your cosmetics bag can be a shock to skin. "Makeup can contain some potentially harsh ingredients, like fragrances and sulfates. If the skin isn't used to them and is sensitive and dry to begin with, they can be irritating," says Dr. Icecreamwala.

Over the last year and a half, you've probably also gotten used to not having to remove makeup. "If you're wearing more makeup and not thoroughly taking it off at the end of the day, you're likely to see clogged pores and an exacerbation of acne," says Dr. Hartman. And if any of the other factors has made skin vulnerable, that acne may look extra inflamed and red. (Related: Could Your Sensitive Skin Actually Be ~Sensitized~ Skin?)

How to Soothe Aggravated Skin

Regardless of the reason why your skin is mad, this get-calm plan can help.

For two to four weeks, go gentle. Use Tata Harper's Superkind Softening Cleanser (Buy It, $86, to dissolve makeup and impurities and EltaMD's Skin Recovery Toner (Buy It, $31, to calm skin and repair damage.

Then, follow up with Avène's Tolérance Control Soothing Skin Recovery Cream (Buy It, $35, to hydrate and restore the skin barrier and Hero Cosmetics' Force Shield Superlight Sunscreen (Buy It, $20, to prevent further sun damage.

Tata Harper Superkind Softening Cleanser
EltaMD Skin Recovery Toner
Avène Tolérance Control Soothing Skin Recovery Cream
Hero Cosmetics Force Shield Superlight Sunscreen

Shape Magazine, October 2021 issue