When your skin gives you 'tude, it's easy to blame the usual culprits—wishy-washy temps, working OT, or indulging in a few too many macarons. But it turns out your skin is like an alarm system for your body, and it can alert you to all kinds of health issues. When something's off on the inside, clues start dropping on the outside.
Here are eight skin saboteurs and what they might be trying to tell you:
These tend to strike during cooler months, when your skin's protective barrier breaks down, causing you to lose hydration, says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills. But if you're experiencing pesky symptoms like fatigue, constipation, and weight gain in addition to scaly skin, you may have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), which your doc can diagnose with a blood test. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, dry skin can also be a sign of an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, in which case you should nosh on more foods that are rich in omegas—like edamame, walnuts, and grass-fed beef.
If you look like you're embarrassed 24/7, it could be a condition called rosacea. "Although the exact cause is unknown, there are factors that can worsen the symptoms," says Joel Schlessinger, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and president of LovelySkin. Triggers vary but can include cold weather, alcohol, spicy foods, and (no shocker here) stress. Aside from steering clear of those factors, your dermatologist might recommend prescription medications and Intense Pulsed Light treatments (which deliver light through the skin's surface) to improve appearance and keep flare-ups to a minimum.
New spots are usually triggered by excessive sun exposure. They're your skin's way of protecting itself from sun damage, says Schlessinger. Freckles that appear post-sunburn usually indicate an increased risk of melanoma, so it's important to check in with your dermatologist just to be safe. "If no signs of skin cancer are present, they can help you find a skin-lightening regimen that will suit your needs," he adds.
Hardcore acne typically flares up during times of high stress—tight work deadlines, breakups, a crappy night's sleep—or just before your period. "Hormones play a key role in triggering adult acne, which is often inflammatory and cystic, and tends to involve the lower face and neck," says Shainhouse. If you notice that your acne is of the menstrual variety, your dermatologist can prescribe a pill that can prevent or reduce the severity. However, if your breakouts aren't responsive to meds and you're also experiencing irregular periods, unwanted hair growth, and weight gain, it could be a sign of enlarged ovaries (polycystic ovarian syndrome), which can be diagnosed by an endocrinologist, says Debra Jaliman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets
“Raised, red patches could be psoriasis, an autoimmune disorder where the immune system sends signals that tell skin cells to grow too quickly," says Schlessinger. "This means the body cannot shed these skin cells fast enough. Instead, the cells pile up on the skin's surface, causing patches of red, thickened skin with silvery scales." Womp, womp. While there's no cure, your dermatologist can recommend treatments, such as topical creams and light therapy. And if you do have psoriasis, make sure to keep a standing appointment with your doc: People with the condition are at a higher risk of developing diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
Pale skin combined with a lack of energy and shortness of breath could be a sign of anemia, says Jaliman. It's usually caused by an iron deficiency, which can be treated with iron supplements and adding more iron-rich foods to your diet—such as poultry, seafood, and dark green, leafy veggies. However, if you become pale suddenly and for no reason, check in with your doc to rule out more serious issues like internal bleeding or leukemia.
"Dark patches of skin on the neck, under the arms, and on the inner thighs is a condition called acanthosis nigricans," says Schlessinger. "This condition causes the skin in the affected areas to become darker, thicker, and often feel velvety to the touch." This condition can be a sign of insulin-resistance in the body, which is a precursor to developing type 2 diabetes. Your doctor can test your fasting glucose and insulin levels—and if they're abnormal, getting them under control can help resolve this issue, says Shainhouse.
There are oodles of reasons why your skin's itch level can hit DEFCON One, the most common of which is an allergic reaction to something you've eaten, a change in your environment (such as a new detergent), or a reaction to medication, says Shainhouse. For relief as you suss out the cause, try taking an oral anti-histamine—but if the itch just won't quit (think: two weeks and counting), your dermatologist can check you out for sneakier causes, including infections, bites, or internal diseases like celiac disease, anemia, and diabetes.