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Why the effects of stress could be skin deep

Why the effects of stress could be skin deep

I always wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t knuckle down at school. That’s what I tell myself at least. It wasn't a question of intellect. Clearly. So, instead, I studied French. Quite the U-turn.

However, the fascination with medicine, the human body, health, fitness and nutrition has never left me. To this day, these are the subjects that dominate my reading and YouTube searches.

This morning I was reading an article published in the Journal of Dermatological Science. Just something I had lying around on the kitchen table!

Light read

The article was from June 2009. It was about gender-linked differences in human skin, which is something I've talked about previously on the blog.

Also read: The truth about men vs. women's skin

Ignoring the differences between men and women in terms of body hair, sweat rate, skin sebum production, thickness and pH, there was one thing that really jumped out at me.

Firstly, according to the article, men have a greater susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections. This is perfect support for the syndrome known as ‘man flu’.

On a more serious note, the article says that men are more prone to skin cancer than women, with squamous cell carcinomas being twice as common in older men.

Based on a study in Germany that the article quotes, the prevalence of melanoma (a type of skin cancer) is 1.72% in men and only 1.22% in women. These may seem like small and very similar figures to you but allow me to bring a slightly different focus to this data point.

There are two alternative ways to look at 1.72% vs. 1.22%:

  1. Melanoma frequency is 1 in 58 for men vs. 1 in 82 for women or
  2. Melanoma frequency is 41% more likely in men than women (based on the study).

That’s also what these two percentage figures really mean.
To reiterate this and bring it to life, the rate of death from melanoma in the US between 1973 and 1997 was 2x higher in men compared to women. We know these trends are also true across Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the UK.

This is not particularly new news to readers of the blog.

What really sparked my interest was the possible reason for this…


The skin is an organ with multiple functions, one of which is to defend against viruses and other disease-inducing organisms.

The skin is equipped with certain cells that trigger immune responses. It is believed that psychological stress as well as ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun suppress these responses. In simple terms, this means that stress and UV might be stopping the body’s immune system from kicking in.

Before any female readers go bonkers, I’m not making a blanket statement about men being more stressed than women. However, there have been studies showing that men do have higher levels of urinary cortisol and this might be an indicator of higher psychological stress in men. Cortisol being a hormone that helps the body deal with stress.

What's the point?

I concede there’s a there’s a lot of conjecture in all of this. But it almost doesn’t matter what the reasons are.

I think it is universally agreed and statistical fact that male melanoma mortality outguns the fairer sex. This is a question of fact and I believe it’s uncontroversial.

So, whether stress is the cause or whether the skin’s response to certain stimuli is the cause, men need to be more diligent about sun protection. All year round.

And don't forget...

Men also need much more sympathy in the winter months when they get blown apart by the flu. We are strong and brave (but can be fragile creatures at times).