Has Your Acne Only Gotten Worse Amid the Pandemic? 55% of People Are Reporting "Yes"

Illustrations by Becky Jiras

At first, Megha Kamath, 18, didn't notice her acne was flaring back up again. "I was caught up in the whole quarantine thing and freaking out over the pandemic," she told POPSUGAR. That much is fair. When something like the novel coronavirus effectively thwarts the lives of millions of people around the world, priorities shift, and taking care of your skin nosedives to the bottom of the list.

But a few weeks in, "I noticed it getting worse," Kamath said. "My initial reaction was, 'Oh my god, what am I doing?' I started trying to figure out what went wrong. Now, my current feeling is frustration because my acne hasn't gotten better. It was really bad two weeks ago, and so I started icing my face and using nicer products. I don't remember my skin ever being flawless or pimple-free, but before the lockdown, it was relatively clear. Now it's freaking out and breaking out, and it's just not fun."

In truth, and as anyone could attest, acne is never "fun" — and yet, the added stress, lack of sleep, and overall lifestyle change that has come with mandated stay-home orders (and, then, state-by-state restrictions) have only heightened the experience. What's worse: Kamath is not even close to alone in the struggle.

According to a survey by market research firm Dynata for DeVries Global of 1,000 women across the US, more than 80 percent noticed an increase in one skin problem or another since COVID-19 hit. One in four say they're experiencing more acne, but that percentage bumps to 55 for those surveyed under 25. That's on top of the already 50 million people impacted by the skin condition year-round.

The statistics are somehow surprising and yet not at all — as are the obvious and not-so-obvious aggressors below — but one thing is for sure: no matter why, or when, or for how long this persists, we're all in it together.

The Biggest Acne Aggressors Right Now

To put it bluntly: the novel coronavirus has f*cked with everybody's lives, throwing off daily routines and schedules like a kid thrashing through the shelves of a candy store. That shift in your day-to-day can impact your skin in a number of ways, as you change everything from what you're eating to how much you're moving (and every little thing in between).

It could be that your skin is irritated by the face mask you're required to wear outside and during all appointments, or that you're taking too many damn Zoom meetings. Yep, dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says sitting in front of a computer all day means you might be leaning on your hands or touching your face more often. "This can lead to skin irritation and inflammation, which promote acne breakouts."

As can eating too many sugary or starchy foods that increase blood sugar levels or adopting a new skin-care routine with heavy or occlusive ingredients, he said. Even the type of product could be too risky to use right now: several dermatologists have advised patients to stop taking the oral prescription spironolactone — often prescribed for hormonal acne — amid the pandemic, as data show it might increase the risk for infection.

Kamath, for example, suspects her recent breakouts could be the result of a multitude of things like boredom, a poor diet, and halted access to her dermatologist.

Then there's the stress. (Oh, how could we forget the stress?) The internal reaction it has on your body can trigger the stress hormone cortisol, which then revs up oil production on the skin and — you guessed it — leads to flare-ups. Still, even more so than the straightforward acne triggers people are dealing with right now are the equally common, but rarely talked about, ways your mental health plays a role.

The Psychological Impact of Acne During a Pandemic

Acne can be a sensitive subject for anyone in any given period, but the current physical-distancing measures can further catapult the feelings of isolation or stress.

"A person with acne might see an increased flare-up of acne with increased stress. It all depends on how someone perceives their acne and what belief system they carry about how other people perceive them."

"Dealing with COVID-19, many people will experience anxiety and depression," said Mina Guirguis, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and psychodermatologist. (It's more than just likely; in fact, a survey just released by the CDC and the Census Bureau of 260,000 people found that one in three Americans have reported feeling a strain on their mental health since April.) What that looks like, of course, depends on the individual.

"We know that stress impacts our body in many ways, often in a negative manner. A person with acne might see an increased flare-up of acne with increased stress. It all depends on how someone perceives their acne and what belief system they carry about how other people perceive them. If a person is struggling with having acne and develops anxiety or depression to having acne, this person's symptoms might decrease in intensity as they don't have to go out and meet other people, especially if they believe that other people are not accepting of their look or judge them in some fashion. Let's consider another person who is comfortable with having acne, being at home or not or using Zoom or not will not make a difference to them."

Getty | Rochelle Brock / Refinery29 for

It's not just breakouts, either; in fact, chronic stress can exacerbate multiple skin disorders like a rash or rosacea "as well as their symptoms of itching or burning," said board-certified dermatologist Roy Seidenberg, MD, of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. The additional layer of this pandemic is that rising unemployment rates mean people are no longer able to pay for skin-care treatments. Plus, "when someone loses their job, they may lose a sense of purpose, importance, power, identity, or self-esteem," he said.

Managing your stress can be exceedingly different during these unprecedented times, but the silver lining here — and we promise, there is one — is that people sheltering at home means the likelihood of being seen by others drops significantly.

"One would imagine that people will be more comfortable letting [their skin breathe] if they are out of the public eye; one small reward, perhaps," Dr. Seidenberg said. "People will always want to look good and be seen without acne, but there will probably be a collective understanding, or empathy, in these times."

How to Save Your Skin (and Your Sanity)

The most important part of self-care in the wave of a pandemic is being kind to yourself. Understand that your breakouts are not anything you did wrong, and instead, redirect that energy to tweaking your skin-care routine for your specific concerns now.

That means washing your face with a gentle exfoliating cleanser to keep excess oil at bay, managing hormonal breakouts with an effective spot treatment, and trying (hard as it may be) to not react to your flare-ups. If you feel anxious or embarrassed showing your skin on video chats, know that it's OK to turn off the camera feature.

Also important? Since most states are requiring you wear facial coverings outside, make sure you keep yours clean to avoid "mask acne" by washing the fabric as much as you would your face — every day.

"Masks should be cleaned every day in hot water with a mild, fragrance-free laundry detergent and white vinegar (which has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties) and dried on higher heat settings in the dryer," said Elizabeth Mullans, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Uptown Dermatology in Houston. "I recommend having multiple masks in case the fabric wears out from washing and drying with heat. Since repeated washing and drying may cause fabric masks to deteriorate faster, and because some people are sensitive to fragrance, I like the Arm & Hammer Sensitive Skin Free and Clear ($8)."

To manage any stress or anxiety that has popped up amid the current circumstances, Dr. Guirguis suggests you introduce a few coping mechanisms to your day-to-day. "That could be learning relaxation exercises, using cognitive behavioral techniques, engaging in physical activities, meditation, and so forth." You can also seek psychological treatment from a professional via teletherapy, which, for patients with skin conditions, "often leads to an improved sense of well-being," he said.

The one thing Kamath is most looking forward to post-lockdown is what's been thrown out of whack for everyone: her routine. Well, that — and friends, college, and "getting to a dermatologist to take a look at my skin."