Can you really manifest perfect skin?

Can you really manifest perfect skin? | Soho House

Psychodermatology is beauty’s newest buzzword, but what is it and does it actually work? Writer Isabella Truman investigates

Thursday 13 October 2022      By Isabella Truman

After months of being blemish-free, my skin, specifically the area around my chin, is once again full of acne. It’s red, painful and it feels bad to cover it with make-up, but worse when I don’t. I’ve tried every trick in the book, the latest being tretinoin – a prescription retinol that’s popular among celebrities, although they’d rather we believe a simple serum helped them achieve that glazed doughnut glow. It worked for a while, and even gave me the confidence to go foundation-free. But it wasn’t long before I was back to square one, awaiting yet another appointment with my dermatologist when I was introduced to the idea of manifesting your way to clear skin. 

The rhetoric has been popping up on TikTok recently, with videos focused on affirmations for dewy faces and spells for clear skin made with the likes of rose petals and oils. In fact, there are more than seven million posts under the hashtag #manifestingclearskin, all of which suggest you can think your way to being blemish-free, so naturally, I was intrigued. 

A friend recommended I get acquainted with Jessica DeFino – a former beauty editor who now writes about the many ways the industry is fraudulent, as well as interrogating how beauty standards have become the products of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism, as per her 2020 Teen Vogue article on the issue. DeFino is also an advocate for the skin-brain connection – your bodily reaction to emotions and mental state. For example, the feeling of embarrassment leading to blushing, nerves and fear leading to goosebumps, or stress often resulting in giant pimples on your chin. 

I’d long known stress was a cause for my hormonal acne – its current flare-up likely due to an imminent cross-country move. Until now, I hadn’t realised there was much I could do about it. DeFino speaks about being able to breathe, orgasm and mediate your way to healthier skin, just like the plethora of TikTok gurus who insist that ‘glow-ups’, pouty lips and even big butts can be attained through simply changing your mindset. But how much truth is there really in it? Most initial reactions would say it’s nonsense, however, there is actual science behind the trend. 

A growing number of dermatologists believe that manifesting can change your physical appearance by reducing your stress response. Psychodermatology, the new buzzword in beauty, focuses on treating skin concerns via a mental health perspective, not just a cellular one, using psychological techniques to address the brain-skin connection. In her 2008 book (yes, long before Goop and the wellness boom) The Mind-Beauty Connection, one of the field’s leading psychodermatologists Dr Amy Wechsler pioneered this thinking. 

She writes that on ‘a most basic level, the mind-beauty connection is about the powerful force that exists between our inner minds and outer appearances, which is based on proven biochemistry.’ Dr Wechsler says she treats two of the most common skin problems she sees – premature aging and adult acne – by using a holistic approach that gets ‘to the bottom of exhaustion or emotional issues’. Essentially, instead of simply covering up the issue and treating symptoms with an array of expensive topical treatments, she believes in fixing the root of the problem.

Chronic stress, which can manifest as anxiety, depression and burnout, activates the sympathetic nervous system, Dr Wechsler explains. This sets off a plethora of unpleasant events, including ones that wreak havoc on the skin, such as surges in stress hormones like cortisol and the subsequent breakdown of tissues like collagen. At the same time, cortisol stimulates the overproduction of sebum, the oil that is implicated in acne. Any of the Big Four skin conditions – acne, eczema, rosacea and psoriasis – can be impacted due to this as the body truly does keep score.

That’s where psychodermatology comes in. The likes of talk therapy to get to the bottom of stress points, getting enough sleep and regular exercise are all encouraged, and so too is daily meditation, which has been scientifically shown to reduce cortisol levels. This, in turn, lowers the rate of trans-epidermal water loss in the skin and boosts hydration. Meditation not only helps people to de-stress, but it’s also found to give those who practice it a thicker cerebral cortex, which naturally thins due to ageing. Plus, a 2017 study found it ‘turns on’ anti-inflammatory genes – something that will help to cure inflammation-based conditions like the aforementioned Big Four. 

Results from a 2014 study found that of those who completed psychodermatology therapies, 94% reported reduced stress, 92% said it increased their confidence, and 90% reported that they understood their skin condition better. Come to think of it, when have you ever seen wellness queen Gwyneth Paltrow or anyone at the forefront of meditation with a breakout?

Breathwork – a key element in most meditation practices – activates the parasympathetic nervous system and ‘the relaxation response’, a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School in 1975. Scientists now theorise that this essentially prevents the body from translating psychological worry into physical inflammation, aka acne. Mindfulness and, according to DeFino, even practicing gratitude for your bad skin works, too. ‘It’s a simple shift in perspective, but it helps me see my skin through a lens of love, rather than a lens of judgement. Instead of lamenting it, I celebrate it. Instead of stressing about what I look like, I look for the deeper message – usually to stop basing my self-worth on what I look like’, she writes. 

Tomorrow’s gratitude journal entry is going to include thanks for my blemishes and plans to meditate, do some breathwork, and perhaps I’ll throw a little yoga in there for good measure, too. Because, yes, it appears you really can Zen your way to perfect skin. 

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