Until a few months ago, I had clear skin. Then one day, I woke up and my cheeks had exploded with blackheads. Despite a diligent skin-care regimen, it looked like I was perpetually forgetting to take off my makeup before I went to bed and sleeping on a pillowcase that hadn’t been washed in eight months. I pulled out my usual arsenal of products containing glycolic and lactic acids, but nevertheless these clogged pores persisted. They’d go away for a few days, then emerge again like the regenerated heads of the Hydra.
I relayed my woeful tale of cheek acne to celebrity aesthetician and Take Care Spa founder Sadie Adams. She reached down, felt my face, and told me something that I honestly wasn’t expecting: I had tons of tension in my jaw from clenching it all the time. And that, she said, was probably what was causing my cheeks and jawline to break out. Curious to know more, I consulted other pros to figure out just how common this could actually be. More on that now.
Jaw tension and the lymphatic system
To understand the link between jaw tension and acne, it’s important to first understand a bit about the lymphatic system. “The lymphatic system is an important part of our immune system responsible for the differentiation of fluids, waste, nutrients, and other materials between the cells, tissues, and blood,” says David Amron, MD, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon and founder of the Roxbury Institute in Beverly Hills.
“The lymph fluid is responsible for the transportation and excretion of foreign substances and bacteria from the cells to the blood vessels,” adds renowned dermatologist Barbara Sturm, MD, who has an eponymous (cult-fave) skin-care line. When you clench your jaw, your masseter—AKA the strongest muscle in your body—puts pressure on the tissue around it, Sturm explains. When there’s pressure on the tissue, it restricts blood, oxygen, and lymph flow.
How this all relates to acne
“If [lymph flow] gets disrupted, this results in a local, increased level of waste material that is the perfect sustenance for bacteria such as acne,” says Dr. Sturm. “Stagnation within the system or blockages in the nodes can often mitigate the body’s ability to filter toxins. Excess toxins increase the levels of sebum causing overproduction to skin,” adds Dr. Amron. So, essentially, clenching your jaw could cause lymph flow to freak out, which in turn could cause your skin to freak out.
And the connection is even more complex than that. “Clenching your teeth often gives you pain in the jaw and people massage their face and jawline with their fingers. Without being careful and washing your hands every single time, bacteria from the hands residue dirt and oils can, of course, contribute to breakouts,” says celebrity skincare guru and medical aesthetician Kat Rudu.
The last piece of the puzzle? Stress. As we’re all aware, acne and stress go hand in hand. Jaw clenching and teeth grinding can be both an indicator of stress and a cause of stress—a double whammy for your skin. “The glands and cells that produce the sebum in our skin have receptors for stress hormones like cortisol, which means that they are up-regulated to produce more sebum if we are stressed. The sebum is the ‘food’ for bacteria, which can get into the clogged pore via the hair follicle,” says Sturm.
Here’s how to deal with jaw-clenching breakouts
First things first: It’s time to embark on an antibacterial, anti-inflammation acne protocol. Adams recommends the Sonage Glow To Go Glycolic Acid Peel Pads, $30, which slough off the top layer of dead skin to help unclog pores. We’re also fans of Dr. Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics Calming Serum, $250, which helps chill out inflamed skin using a soothing blend of plant-based ingredients like cardiospermum, echium, and sunflower. She also recommends daily dry brushing focused on the sides of your head, ears, jawline and down to your collarbone, which will help stimulate lymphatic drainage and also slough away dead skin.
As for your clenched jaw? Sit with your elbows resting on your knees and your cheekbones resting on the heels of your hands. Open your jaw. “As much as possible, feeling the disk at the TMJ moving forward and down while opening the mouth,” Adams advises. This will help relieve muscle tension and promote circulation.
“Gentle massages can help stimulate the lymph flow, as well as regular lymphatic drainages performed by a trained cosmetician,” says Sturm. “This will help with slight puffiness, especially around the eyes, neck area and rest of the face as well as stimulating the lymphatic flow that takes care of the transport (and therefore elimination) of toxins and waste from the cells to the blood.” Adams’ last piece of advice? Practice self-acceptance and relaxation. For the sake of your jaw, and perhaps for a clear complexion as well.
Looking for more ways to clear up your skin? You may want to try cupping—on your face. If that’s too intense for you, try out one of these dermatologist-approved spot treatments instead.
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