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How Caring For Your Skin Impacts Your Brain Health (And Vice Versa)

Author:

Alexandra Engler

June 30, 2024

mbg Beauty Director

By Alexandra Engler

mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she’s held beauty roles at Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

June 30, 2024

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June was Brain Health Month, so we dove into the rich, complex, and research-backed connection between the brain and skin.

The brain and the skin share a complex bond that researchers, dermatologists, and physicians have been attempting to parse out for almost a century—since the theory of the gut-brain-skin axis was first presented in 19301.

While we’re still learning quite a bit about the science behind this multifaceted connection, intrinsically it’s something many folks have come to understand on their own.   

Think about what happens during times of stress and what you see in the mirror: For most folks that’s skin flares, breakouts, dullness, and even worsened appearance of wrinkles. 

“[For example,] you’re feeling overwhelmed with mounting deadlines at work, and your eczema is flaring—the itching is out of control,” writes board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D., who specializes in the mind-skin connection. ”In those moments, you know that your skin can reflect what you’re feeling inside, and what you’re feeling inside can be reflected on your skin.”

What’s exciting about this moment in time, is that now the broader beauty industry is starting to take this connection seriously. Not only are folks starting to incorporate more lifestyle and mental health advice into their beauty routines, but now we’re starting to see a whole new subset of beauty offerings that specifically target the brain-skin link. 

Welcome to the smartest field of beauty. 

Meet the experts

Clinical Professor of Dermatology Robert Norman, D.O.

Board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.

Board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D.

Cosmetic Chemist Krupa Koestline

Director of research Jose Ginestar

The origins of the brain-skin-gut connection

The three organs share a connection that makes them sensitive to each other, each playing a vital role in each other’s function. This connection is what’s often referred to as the gut-skin-brain axis2 in research. There’s a reason that the gut is often called the body’s “second brain,” and now research indicates that the skin should probably have the moniker of “the outer brain.” 

“Dermatologists have long known how to read the signals the skin sends: it is a window to our physical health,” says neuro-dermatologist Robert Norman, D.O., who specializes in the intersection of geriatrics, neurology, and dermatology. “However, the latest science shows that the skin—the body’s largest organ—is more than just a protective coating that keeps our bones and bits in place.

It is, in fact, an outer brain—an external nervous system—that not only responds to stimuli but can clearly show us the earliest stages of significant changes in brain health.” 

The brain, gut, and the skin have always been deeply intertwined. When the fetus forms in the womb, the three organs are developed in synchronization, all formed from the outermost layer of the embryo,3 called the ectoderm. The three are intrinsically connected from development—and this shared origin means they remain connected throughout one’s lifetime.

Terminology lesson: Psychodermatology

Psychodermatology is a subset of dermatology, and specifically studies the intersection between brain health and skin health. The subject explores how cognitive and mental health influence the skin, and vice versa. Through psychodermatology we are learning how emotions influences the way our skin looks, feels, and reacts, as well as how skin’s appearance influences our sense of self-worth. Learn more about the study of the skin-brain connection here

The brain, skin, and gut share an equally complex common language, involving neurotransmitters4, neurohormones, neuropeptides, receptors, sensory nerves, and more. 

For example, neurotransmitters act as short-term messengers between the three organs to send signals (good or bad), influence behavior, and inspire change. And neuropeptides are released by sensory nerves and affect more long-term action in the body, such as “modulating inflammation, cell growth, and the immune responses in the skin,” notes Norman.  

An example: “A major source of important signals to the rest of our body, especially the brain, are called neurotransmitters and they are produced by the gut,” says San Francisco-based board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D. “Serotonin represents one of the best known neurotransmitters, which of course impacts our mood among a slew of other things in the body. In fact, one study shows increasing serotonin5 in those undergoing stress improves the skin barrier—showing mood changes have an impact on skin health.”

NeurotransmitterKnown asInfluence on the skinInfluence on the brainSerotoninThe happy hormoneImproves barrier strengthMediates feelings of satisfaction & optimismAcetylcholinen/aSupports skin cell formationPlays a role in memory & attentionβ-Endorphin”Nature’s morphine”Protective effect against UVBPain management & reward Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)The chief inhibitory neurotransmitterSoothing & smoothing effectImproves calm CortisolThe stress hormoneDamages collagen & skin barrierLinked to cognitive decline Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP)n/aManages inflammation Neuroprotective properties GlutamateThe master neurotransmitterImproves moisture & barrier repairCognitive performance & function Dopamine The reward chemicalImproves wound healingImproves pleasure & motivation

The microbiome of the skin and gut play a role, too: “More and more research is coming out about the microbiome and its impact on the skin, brain, and overall health,” says Campbell. “These organisms help keep us healthy, but they can get imbalanced and cause associated inflammation or other issues.”

The relationship between the gut microbiome and brain health is better studied and clearly shows a positive correlation between gut microbiome health and brain health6. But we’re learning that the skin microbiome also plays a role: In fact, a recent pilot study found that improving skin health, upregulated the production of short-chain fatty acids7 in the skin, which in turn, helped improve cognitive function.

Research also indicates that improving barrier function in the skin decreases the level of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood.  

And, in addition, the immune system and body’s inflammatory response are also wrapped up in this conversation. Inflammation wreaks havoc on the body—and when it arises in one organ, its ripple effects never stay just there.

Research shows us that chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to increased risk of cognitive decline, as well as a slew of skin disorders and premature aging8

Image by mbg Creative

The science of a healthy brain & glowing skin: What the research says

Clearly, the connection between the skin, brain (and gut), is one that’s very involved (and, to be frank, I only did a brief overview—it gets significantly more complicated the deeper into research you go.) So this may leave you wondering: How does this actually affect me, my skin, and my brain? 

Well, the answer to that is a bit more straightforward.  

We know through research that mood has a direct influence on the skin’s appearance. For example, stress is an underlying factor in a number of skin conditions and woes, such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, dullness, and wrinkles. 

In the case of acne, the hormone that triggers cortisol also triggers sebum production. So, as cortisol increases in the body, oil production does as well9. This sebum increase—combined with overall inflammation, genetic susceptibility, and barrier disruption—paves the way for breakouts

Stress also exacerbates skin dysfunction and contributes to premature aging. Research shows that long-term perceived psychological stress can make people appear older than they are10. But this doesn’t need to be chronic, compounded stress. Even uniquely stressful moments are shown to disrupt skin: A 2023 study found that divorce can even lead to increased transepidermal water loss and skin dryness11

But also: the skin should be viewed as a marker for brain diseases. And to ignore the brain-skin connection is to miss out on many potential early signifiers for serious brain concerns. 

“Our skin reflects critical changes to the way we think, feel, and perceive, as well as our ability to handle stress and make decisions. By knowing how to read its signals, the skin can reveal the beginning stages of depression, personality disorders, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and even Parkinson’s, long before these diseases wreak personal havoc,” says Norman. “Knowing more about brain-skin health will help people learn what they can do right now to protect, enhance, and even reverse changes to both our inner and outer brain.”

In fact, research suggests that inflammatory skin signals may serve as a useful biomarker for early detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease12. And folks who deal with inflammatory skin conditions are more likely to exhibit signs of cognitive decline later in life.

And as Norman notes, there’s compelling evidence to suggest there’s an increased incidence of melanoma and Parkinson’s13

Image by mbg Creative

Welcome to the growing market of neurocosmetics

Now, beauty brands are starting to harness the power of skin care to modulate the brain’s stress response—which not only feels good but ultimately improves the health of the skin long term. This subcategory of beauty is called neurocosmetics.

“Neurocosmetics is a fascinating area where skincare meets neuroscience,” says cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline, founder of KKT Consulting. “These products are designed to interact with your skin’s nervous system to promote not just physical beauty but also psychological well-being. They aim to influence the skin-brain connection using ingredients that can affect neurotransmitters, reduce stress, improve mood, and provide a sensory experience that feels good.”

Interestingly Koestline suspects the rise of neurocosmetics is in part due to wellness and health culture as well: “The market is really exciting and speaks to a broader understanding of wellness. People are increasingly looking for products that make them feel good inside and out,” she says. 

So, how is this being done? We look to exciting research and development advancements for that. 

For example, the skin care brand Neuraé, uses formulas and ingredients to influence neurotransmitters.

“To optimize skin’s beauty while improving our well-being, we need to promote positive messages and reduce the intensity of negative ones,” says Jose Ginestar, Director of Research at Neuraé and their parent company Sisley Paris. “That’s why it’s necessary to modulate the signal’s strength and balance the different neuromediators. As a reminder, these chemical molecules—as messengers—can exercise direct influence over both our skin and our emotions; they especially transmit messages between our skin and our brain. There are at least 40 neuromediators in common with the brain.”

After developing specific mood-enhancing and skin-enhancing technologies for a decade, the brand launched earlier this year targeting both brain and skin health.

“After years of research, we decided to focus on specific neuromediators—either ‘positive’ (endorphins, GABA) or ‘negative’ (cortisol, CGRP)—because they are fundamental in the skin and brain language,” notes Ginestar. “For example: in the brain, the beta-endorphin kicks off a feeling of pleasure and well-being; in the skin, this neuromediator protects against inflammation and promotes healing. Other example: the cortisol causes anxiety when it’s released in excess in the brain; in the skin, this neuromediator weakens the barrier and causes sensitivity.”

To do this, they found specific neuro-ingredients that delivered results for both the mind and skin. “For example, Red Indigo extract is able to modulate excess cortisol in skin and, at the same time, to stimulate the beta-endorphin synthesis by keratinocytes for a rebalancing and anti-stress action,” says Ginestar. Another botanical example: Alpine Skullcap has been shown to increase the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps improve mental calm and soothes the skin.

And a not-so-small bonus: Alpine Skullcap has potent antioxidant properties, too.

Other brands have been harnessing the brain and skin’s unique connection. For example, Tatcha’s Forest Awakening collection uses hinoki oil to improve barrier strength and an essential oil blend (of cedar, hiba, and hinoki oils) that has been shown to reduce stress—essentially mimicking the experience of being outside in nature.

Or Codex Labs Shaant Balancing Foaming Cleanser is not only formulated to calm oily, reactive skin, but contains Patchouli Leaf Extract, which can help reduce internal stress (a common trigger for sebum overproduction9.)

And with the growing interest in peptide technology, we’re also seeing exciting messenger pepitides enter the space. Koestline notes palmitoyl tripeptide-8, which is “an innovative biomimetic tri-peptide derived from neuromediator (POMC) linked to a lipid for optimal penetration and efficacy. It has shown to calm and soothe irritated skin caused by UV, immune reactions, and mechanical stress and helps to maintain and restore a normal skin sensitivity threshold.”

While this is certainly an exciting area of ingredient innovation for many brands, in some ways, it’s not entirely new. In fact, many classic ingredients may have these effects.  

For example, notes Campbell, “Menthol produces a cooling sensation to the skin, which is helpful for patients suffering from itch. Capsaicin can cause a warm, burning or stinging sensation to the skin to also help alleviate pain. Interestingly, it’s not only the sensation of capsaicin that is helpful, the substance itself depletes substance P14 from sensory nerves dulling or blunting their ability to sense discomfort or painful sensations.”

Koestline also points to essential oils like lavender, chamomile, and jasmine (“Widely used for their relaxing and soothing effects, these can help alleviate stress and promote better sleep, she says) and adaptogens (“Adaptogens are known for their ability to reduce stress and improve mental clarity and energy levels,” she says.) 

And time-honored beauty rituals can also play a role in managing this connection. For example, not only does massage improve blood flow to the skin15, but it also helps reduce stress.

In fact, massage has been shown to improve children’s eczema16 along with their anxiety, mood and levels of activity. Even something as simple as washing your face has mood-enhancing benefits: Research suggests the act of cleansing oneself can help folks cope in stressful situations17

Neuraé Harmonie The Serum$ 195

Tatcha Forest Awakening Body Oil$ 58

Codex Labs Shaant Balancing Foaming Cleanser$ 25

The beauty and the brain: A lifelong relationship  

The connection between the brain and skin is a profound one. It starts even before birth and is then forged throughout life. We can improve the health of the brain through the skin, and the appearance of the skin through the brain. And the skin can also serve as an important early biomarker for cognitive decline and mental health.

This relationship is the basis for the growing market neurocosmetics, a subcategory of beauty that sits at the intersection of neurology and cosmetics.

So next time you look in the mirror, just know that caring for your skin isn’t just about vanity—but it can be a meaningful way to care for your brain health as well. 

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