An organ itself (your body’s largest in terms of both weight and surface area), skin protects against invasive bacteria, regulates body temperature, and picks up information from the stimulation of touch, pressure, pain, heat, and cold. Little wonder, then, that when there’s something wrong with you on the inside, your skin sometimes sends up the first warning flare. Here are 16 things your skin says about your health.
1. Raised, Red Patches
It means that you may have psoriasis, an imbalance of immune cells that leach underneath skin and cause inflammation, which is what leads to those irritated patches of skin.
“Some people have genes that make them more susceptible to this autoimmune disease,” says Marina Peredo, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Though you can get psoriasis at any age, she notices two peak times of diagnosis: one in people when they’re teenagers or in their early 20s and another when they’re in their 50s or 60s. The latter flare-up is often set off by a stressful event, like a death in the family or divorce.
Strep throat is another common trigger of psoriasis. Peredo always asks her patients if they also have joint pain, stiffness, or swelling. That’s because 30% of psoriasis sufferers also have psoriatic arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease characterized by joint pain accompanied by psoriasis.
If you have this condition, it’s not enough to simply treat skin with a steroid cream, so your dermatologist may refer to you to rheumatologist for treatment. And, be sure to monitor your health in other areas. “People with psoriasis may also have an increased risk for many other internal conditions like heart disease, cancer, and depression,” adds Marisa Potter, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami, FL.
2. Pimples on Your Chin, Jawline, or Neck
The culprit is your period. Hormones like testosterone fluctuate throughout your cycle and make your glands produce more oil, which can ultimately clog your pores and result in pimples.
Rev up your treatment the week before your period: If you regularly use a cleanser with an acne-fighting ingredient such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, apply a leave-on treatment with that same active ingredient, and treat your chin, jawline, neck, and the rest of your face just to be safe.
If you get super-bad breakouts at the same time every month, you might want to see your dermatologist or primary doctor for a prescription treatment like birth control pills or another kind of hormonal therapy, which can level out your hormones to prevent the surges that lead to breakouts.
3. Velvety, Brownish-Gray Patches of Skin
It could mean diabetes. Called acanthosis nigricans, this kind of discoloration commonly appears in creases and folds around the groin, underarms, and the neck; it can be an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes—a disease that can involve elevated levels of the hormone insulin. Excess insulin circulating in the blood may trigger abnormal growth in skin cells.
Dermatologists can sometimes diagnose acanthosis nigricans just by looking at your skin. The next step would be to see an internist for a diabetes test. If the result is positive, your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes and medication to manage the disease.
4. Dull, Dry Skin
It could mean deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are famous for their health perks: They support brain function, reduce inflammation, and can help lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. They also play a vital role in skin, strengthening cell membranes and regulating cell turnover, which ensures skin stays hydrated and radiant.
A deficiency can slow the natural exfoliation cycle, resulting in dryness—even dandruff. The best way to get omega-3s is from your diet. Eat plenty of salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, walnuts, and soybeans, all of which are rich in fatty acids.
5. Intense Itchiness
It could mean Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Severe, persistent itchiness—triggered by an overabundance of abnormal cells circulating in the bloodstream—can be a very early sign of these two types of cancer. It’s not a normal itch. It feels like something is underneath your skin, —and neither over-the-counter anti-itch creams nor antihistamines offer relief.
If you notice other symptoms, like painless swelling of the lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and shortness of breath, see your doctor. When caught early, these cancers can have a good prognosis.
6. Yellowing of the Skin
Liver problems such as hepatitis or cancer, could also be gallstones. A yellow-tinged pallor is often caused by an excess of bilirubin in the system. Bilirubin is the yellow substance that occurs when dead blood cells break down in the liver. Yellowing can also happen in the eyes.
Newborn babies often have jaundice or yellowing of the skin because they produce more bilirubin than adults. When adults have yellowing, it is most often due to a larger condition that typically involves the liver such as Hepatitis (A, B and C are the most common types), liver cancer, or alcohol abuse that has led to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver.
7. Changing Mole or Lesion
Skin cancer, melanoma, squamous, or basal cell. If not caught early, melanoma can be fatal. The other two are not as deadly, but can become disfiguring. Look for lesions or moles that are changing color or shape, or crust over and bleed or don’t heal. Causes are sun damage and genetics.
8. Dark Under-Eye Circles and Puffiness
Chronic allergies dilate blood vessels and can cause them to leak, which creates puffiness and that telltale dark purple-blue hue. “Many people don’t even realize they’re suffering from allergies. They come in wanting a professional dermatologic fix because they think it’s too early or late in the season for pollen, or they’ve never had a problem before,” explains Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston dermatologist and past president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery.
And because allergens also trigger the release of histamine, a chemical that contributes to the puffiness and can make eyes itchy and runny, you rub your eyes. A lot. Which only makes the swelling and discoloration worse. “By irritating the thin skin around your eyes, you may even create more leaky capillaries,” says Hirsch.
9. Pimples on Your Nose and Forehead
Your fight-or-flight stress response is the most likely trigger for T-zone breakouts. When you are stressed, your body releases adrenaline that can increase oil production and increase the likelihood of breakouts.
When stress hits (or in advance when you’re heading into a stressful week at work or school), apply a leave-on acne treatment to these areas or your entire face to be safe.
10. Pimples on Your Cheeks
Anything that touches your face for a long period of time can transfer pore-clogging dirt or bacteria to your skin. Clean your phone with antibacterial wipes daily, and use a hands-free device when you can. And seriously: Keep your hands off your face!
11. Pimples around Your Mouth
Residue from acidic foods (think lemon and vinegar-based dressings) can irritate your skin and cause inflammation, while the greasy remnants of fried foods (like chips, fries, and basically every other delicious food) can physically block your pores.
Either way, the result is the same: gnarly-looking zits around your lips. Use a facial cleansing wipe to remove invisible irritants around your mouth after you eat.
12. Pimples along Your Hairline
Unless you’re going for the greasy look, you probably know better than to apply heavy-duty products like pomades near your hairline. But when you apply hair products elsewhere, and then touch your hairline to tousle your roots or smooth a flyaway, you risk clogging your pores.
Avoid applying products near your forehead, and make sure you wash your hands after you apply hair products. When you wash your face, make sure you scrub up to the roots. If your breakouts become a serious problem, use a daily toner around the hairline for extra help.
13. Skin Tags
Small, sac-like protrusions found on the neck or eyelids, under the breasts or armpits, or around the groin. Blood-sugar and hormonal problems might be causing them.
There’s at least one good thing about skin tags, according to Michael Stone, MD, MS, a functional practitioner in Ashland, Ore.: “If you figure out the cause and respond appropriately, you might just prolong your life.”
Stone explains that skin tags can form when high blood-sugar levels drive an increase in our epidermal growth factor, which controls how fast certain areas, or what doctors call “islands,” of skin grow. They can be a sign of insulin resistance, a condition where cells don’t respond properly to the insulin that normally helps them absorb blood sugar.
Some experts estimate that up to 75 percent of the U.S. population has insulin resistance. And it’s connected to metabolic syndrome, a group of traits linked to obesity and diabetes.
14. Pimples on Your Chest and Back
Cotton fabrics sop up sweat and keep it close to your skin. Because acne-causing bacteria thrives in moist places, wearing cotton clothes to the gym can turn your skin into a breeding ground for pimples.
Wear moisture-wicking fabrics (like a polyester-spandex blend and microfiber) when you work out. Because they whisk sweat away from the skin, you’ll be less likely to break out (especially if you lounge in your gym clothes all day).
15. Purple Splotches on Your Skin
What looks a bit like a bruise, is often mistaken for a bruise, but tends to hang around longer because it’s not exactly a bruise? Purpura (from the Latin for “purple”), or leaking blood vessels under the skin. It has several possible causes, ranging from a bleeding disorder to scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). But in adults over age 65, in whom it’s common, the main explanation is thin skin, often made even more fragile by years of sun damage and weakened blood vessels. Then the condition is known by the unfortunate name of senile purpura.
A substantial excessive intake of aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, vitamin E, or ginkgo biloba, which older adults often take to boost memory, can worsen the condition. So can blood thinners, such as coumadin, alcohol, and steroids.
A classic bruise tends to turn black and blue following an injury. With purpura, in contrast, there doesn’t need to be any trauma; the discoloration starts as red and turns purple, persisting longer than a bruise before fading or remaining brownish. The purple skin doesn’t blanch (fade or lose color) when you press it. Purpura can cover large patches of skin or show up as small purple speckles called petechiae. No matter what the size, the purple areas are most common on the forearms, legs, and backs of the hands.
Extensive or persistent bruises should always be evaluated by a doctor, as should someone who seems to bruise easily. It’s important to rule out underlying causes such as a bleeding disorder.
16. Premature Aging
Wrinkles, sagging, dark spots, and loss of luminescence. Lifestyle-related damage is outpacing your skin’s repair capacity.
The proteins and fats that give skin its youthful appearance (namely collagen and elastin) are highly sensitive to diet and lifestyle factors. Too many oxidizing free radicals (produced by a poor diet, stress, and smoking) can damage skin’s tissues, making skin look old before its time.
Sugar can do an especially nasty number on your skin because it not only drives inflammation and free-radical activity, it also bombards the body’s cells with glycation, a process in which glucose latches onto your skin’s collagen and elastin supply.
This process leads to what are known as “advanced glycation end products” (with the appropriate acronym AGEs), which cause the proteins in skin to become discolored and weak.
Glycation happens both inside and outside the body. This is another way that a poor diet can inflame the entire immune system, with the repercussions in the skin as the most obvious sign.
A certain amount of glycation is the unavoidable by product of eating and being alive, but a high-glycemic, low-nutrition diet amplifies the damage, causing skin to lose its radiance and suppleness far earlier than it otherwise would.