Can you think your way to clearer skin?

Written by Zeynab Mohamed

Psychodermatology is the emerging field taking a more holistic approach to treating skin concerns. But can gratitude journaling and meditation really help your skin glow? Writer Zeynab Mohamed investigates 

Meditation, gratitude journaling and affirmation: what have they got to do with skincare?

Well, in our current era, in which notions of self-care and wellness reign supreme, it hasn’t taken long for some of us to start swapping out tangible products for rituals of self-care. In fact, mindfulness practices are becoming an increasingly popular skincare step among many skincare obsessives. Emily Weiss, founder of Glossier; influencer Christina Grasso, aka @thepouf; and Allison McNamara, founder of MARA Beauty, all attribute gratitude journaling and meditation to their ever-glowing skin. Could there be something in it? 

Psychodermatologists certainly think so.

Though you may have not heard of psychodermatology, this branch of dermatology is quickly establishing itself in the world of skincare. As the name would suggest, its focus is on the innate connection between the mind and skin, adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to treating the skin – often a combination of psychological therapies, meditation, gratitude practice, deep breathwork and affirmations – to tackle skin issues beyond the surface level.

As you’d expect from a scientific field, research into the powers of psychodermatology is taking off. Early studies have shown mindfulness practices to decrease skin-damaging stress hormones, promote lymphatic drainage, support the skin barrier and strengthen overall skin health.  

In 2013, board-certified dermatologist and clinical psychologist Richard G. Fried carried out an analysis of non-pharmacological management of dermatological conditions to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of psychological treatments on skin. The literature he reviewed included studies into a range of treatments including hypnosis, support groups, meditation, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive behavioural therapy and many other modes of psychotherapy. In one study, he found that psoriasis patients on phototherapy treatments who simultaneously engaged in a meditation program required 40% less exposure to ultraviolet light to see a change in their skin than patients who didn’t practise daily meditation.  

As Dr Alia Ahmed, a medical dermatologist with a speciality in psycholodertamology, tells Stylist, we hugely underestimate the connection between psychological health and skin. “Psychodermatology empowers patients to recognise and manage at the same time as treating their skin condition,” she explains. “Interest in psychodermatology is peaking as more people are becoming aware of the link between mind and skin, and many want to seek adjunctive treatments for their skin. For example, a person with eczema would benefit from medical treatment, and in addition, can engage in habit-reversal therapy to help them break the itch-scratch cycle.”

It’s not just dermatologists acknowledging the power of mindfulness. In 2014, Dr Howard Murad, pharmacist and founder of Murad skincare, developed a daily inspiration app to complement his product range. The app sends out a daily affirmation to users and there are 11 affirmations in total, including ‘I am free to be myself’ and ‘Why have a bad day when you can a good day’. Based on his research into cultural stress, he found that the combination of these 11 positive affirmations and daily journaling worked to reduce stress, in turn bolstering a range of skin benefits including less pronounced dark circles and fewer fine lines.   

It’s not only Murad; more and more skincare brands are incorporating the healing power of mindfulness to work alongside their more traditional skincare products. 

Founded by psychotherapist Charlotte Ferguson, Disciple is a brand created as a means to target stress in the form of skincare, using formulas containing adaptogens that work beyond the skin surface. Wild Source offers guided meditation as part of its skincare remit while Indie Lee has launched Coming Clean, a mindfulness and wellness podcast to help their customers navigate and implement wellness practices into their routine.

In theory, it sounds amazing, but how are individuals outside of experimental studies faring? “Discovering psychodermatology and discovering skin-supportive mindfulness practices has changed my skin and my life,” says Jessica DeFino, beauty journalist and creator of The Unpublishable newsletter. “I can honestly say my skin has never been healthier than it is now –using no prescriptions, very few products, and lots of mindfulness practices.” 

DeFino is a big advocate of psychodermatology and truly believes that less is more when it comes to skincare. After years of mistreatment by way of a topical steroid prescription, her skin was left severely damaged. “The standard treatment for steroids is two weeks; I was on them for two years, which caused a condition known as skin atrophy”. It was this experience that led her to start viewing her skincare routine in a more cerebral way. “I started experimenting with what I call soul-care as skincare, or mindfulness,” she adds. “During this period, my skin was too sensitive to handle any topical skincare whatsoever, so I started researching ways that I could heal my skin without products.”     

“It is not a matter of if the mind affects the skin,” she continues. “It does, without a doubt. It’s a matter of understanding how the mind affects the skin, and how we can harness that power for the benefit of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”

Scientifically it makes perfect sense: the skin and the brain are developed from the same area of the embryonic tissue in utero and thus form a powerful connection. This explains why we blush when we’re embarrassed, get goosebumps when we’re scared or develop blemishes when we’re stressed. “But what people don’t often realise is that the connection goes the other way, too,” DeFino adds. In 2015, she started exploring whether a positive state of mind could positively impact the skin. “And the answer is [it] can! For instance, meditation has been scientifically shown to lower cortisol levels, which in turn lowers the rate of transepidermal water loss in the skin, which in turn boosts hydration. Meditation literally improves skin barrier function! I like to say meditation is a moisturiser.” 

While the benefits of affirmation, meditation and gratitude journaling may be promising, what’s needed is more research on their direct impact on skin. Can affirmations and journaling really compare to the results of active ingredients such as vitamin C and retinol?  Well, I must admit I have already ordered a journal and downloaded a meditation app. Traditional skincare products better watch out, because there is a new type of skincare product in town. 

Main image: Getty.

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