Reading the Skin

A crucial part of my training as a licensed esthetician in my native Romanian was learning to look at the skin as a “mirror” that reflects an individual’s overall health and well-being. As a result, I often recommend changes in diet and other aspects of my clients’ lifestyle or even a visit to their physician when my evaluation of their skin reveals signs of a physiological imbalance, stress, or a medical condition. The various skin characteristics that I evaluate include its coloration. Unusual changes in coloration may be linked to physical problems ranging from pigmentation disorders and nutritional deficiencies to a variety of serious diseases. To help you become more attuned to the important health messages conveyed by our skin, I’ve outlined the major types of coloration problems and their possible causes below. Whiteness—The causes of extreme paleness include iron deficiency anemia, circulatory congestion, respiratory problems, various genetic conditions, and vitiligo, a pigmentation disorder that may be triggered by severe sunburn, emotional distress, and other types of stress or trauma. In addition to causing self-consciousness and embarrassment, vitiligo may in some cases indicate an autoimmune disorder, genetic syndrome, or disease. Decreased pigmentation may also be a side effect of some drug treatments. Blue or purplish coloration—This skin tone is linked to cyanosis, a serious condition caused by impaired circulation. Cyanosis indicates a lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood. People with asthma and other respiratory problems may also have bluish skin. Yellow skin—Jaundice , or yellowing of the skin, is a symptom of serious gallbladder or liver problems that should be investigated by a physician. Orange tone—The causes of orange skin range from eating too many carrots or other foods with high levels of beta carotene to a genetic condition that leads to excessive iron levels in the blood. Redness—A variety of skin conditions including rashes, rosacea, and dermatitis can cause redness. In other cases, redness occurs when a rapid heartbeat causes swelling of the capillaries, bringing a rush of blood to the skin. Excessive consumption of alcohol or spicy foods, as well as some types of hypertension, can also redden the skin. Skin darkening—Many cases of increased pigmentation result from free radical damage caused by sun exposure and environmental toxins. Some cases of skin darkening may indicate a serious health problem such as Addison’s disease or scleroderma. As you can see, a number of the conditions I’ve outlined are related to what we eat and to the functioning of our circulatory system--two aspects of wellness that have long been a major focus of holistic medical traditions. A recent study by British researchers on healthy skin color has now lent additional weight to the importance of eating foods rich in antioxidants and maintaining circulatory health. Participants in the study used a software program to optimize the skin tones of faces displayed on a computer screen. The results showed that the complexions the participants considered the healthiest and most attractive looking typically displayed a balanced combination of two skin tones: the golden pigmentation gained from eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and the rosy glow provided by healthy blood flow and oxygen levels in the skin. Although this particular study was limited to Caucasian skin, the skin tones of all races display similar variations in brightness and tone. To me, these research findings are yet another example of how modern science is deepening our understanding of traditional intuitive approaches to “reading” the skin for clues to internal health.