What Your Skin Says About Your Health

From itchy skin to orange palms and acne, here’s what your largest organ can reveal about your wellbeing.

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Skin- Overhead shot of Asian woman wearing white shirt with flowing long dark hair for article on skin health

The human skin has some seriously impressive superpowers: It helps regulate your body’s temperature, protects you from infection and can regenerate itself about every 27 days. As your body’s largest organ, it can also be a great warning system for all sorts of health issues, reflecting symptoms of stress, poor diet and disease. Here are some key things to look out for.

Acne and unwanted hair

Breakouts can happen at any age and are usually due to stress or hormones, says Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Toronto. “The incidence of adult women with acne is very high.” Hormonal changes in relation to a woman’s menstrual cycle are a common trigger, and “sometimes acne can be a response to something dietary,” she says. However, if you’re in your 30s or 40s and experiencing persistent acne plus unwanted hair on your face, stomach or chest, you should speak to your doctor. “Excessive acne can be an indication of polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition related to the overproduction of male hormones in the ovaries,” says Dr. Peter Vignjevic, a dermatologist and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University. “It typically causes acne, weight gain and hair growth on the upper lip and chin or the areola of the nipples.”

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Dry, itchy skin

A drop in temperature and a spike in indoor heating during winter can cause your skin to feel dry and itchy. However, persistent dryness can be related to eczema, a nutritional deficiency, or hormonal imbalance. Dr. Skotnicki says, it could signify a low functioning thyroid so a blood test might be necessary.

What you eat and drink can also play a role in keeping skin healthy. From the moment we are born, our cells begin to oxidize, so anything that contains antioxidants — such as raspberries and blueberries — is helpful, says Dr. Skotnicki. She points to a study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, which indicates that antioxidants are effective in reducing free radical damage that leads to the formation of wrinkles and loss of firmness in the skin. But there is a caveat: “You can’t get it in supplements, it has to come from food,” says Dr. Skotnicki.

Yellowish skin or orange palms

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Sometimes it’s not a deficiency, but an excessive nutrient that can lead to changes in the skin. When my baby was first introduced to solid foods, carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes were his favourites. He ate so much he literally turned orange. It’s known as carotenemia, where beta-carotene levels in the blood build up and pigment accumulates in the skin. Thankfully it’s harmless. However, if you find your skin looks more yellow, it can also be an indication of a thyroid problem or jaundice. “Babies get jaundice and it’s temporary,” says Dr. Vignjevic. “But if you’re an adult and your skin is yellow, you want to make sure to check it’s not jaundice associated with more serious liver disease.”

Red or brown bumps

Many of us have harmless freckles or birthmarks, but our skin can change with age and sun exposure. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer with more than 80,000 cases diagnosed in Canada each year, so it’s important to check for more noticeable changes such as new moles or wart-like growths. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, when found at an early stage, melanoma has one of the highest cure rates of all cancers at more than 90 percent. Melanoma spots are usually dark in colour – brown and black, although some show a mixture of colours, including blue, grey and red. “If you have a mole that’s changing in size, shape or colour, or a spot that won’t heal and can bleed, you should get it checked out,” says Dr. Vignjevic.

Dark, velvety patches

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When thick, dark, velvety patches appear on the folds of your neck, armpit or groin, it’s a condition called acanthosis nigricans. “This can be associated with hormones and also some patients with this have a risk of developing diabetes,” says Dr. Vignjevic. Many people who have this hyper-pigmentation are resistant to insulin (a cause of type 2 diabetes), so your doctor will want to arrange a blood test. Approximately one in four Canadians are living with type 2 diabetes, either diagnosed or undiagnosed, or its precursor, known as prediabetes, and this number is expected to rise to one in three by 2020.

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Originally published February 2017; Updated February 2018.