- Sallow skin appears as a paleness or yellowing of your natural complexion, usually on the face.
- Possible causes of sallow skin include anemia, vitamin deficiency and a variety of lifestyle habits, such as smoking and poor diet.
- Many treatments are available to treat sallow skin and restore a healthy appearance.
Your skin’s appearance is a strong reflection of your overall health. When examining your face, you may notice your skin has taken on a sallow appearance, characterized by a dull complexion and a yellowish hue.
Sallow skin is typically brought on by medical, lifestyle or environmental factors, and can usually be effectively managed. Understanding the causes and taking appropriate measures can help return your skin to a healthy state.
What Is Sallow Skin?
Sallow skin is skin that has lost its healthy, bright complexion and appears other than its natural color. Sallow skin is not aging skin. Skin naturally thins, dulls and loses suppleness with age; sallow skin is brought on by external influences or an internal imbalance.
How to Recognize Sallow Skin
Sallow skin is typically more visible in the face, but may be present elsewhere on the body. It lacks the bright sheen of healthy skin, and is often dull and pale in contrast.
This pallor may be uniform or patchy, resulting in an uneven skin tone. This increases the visibility of blemishes and any other skin imperfections that are present.
Sallow skin color
Changes in skin color varies between individuals, but most experience a shift to a more yellow or brown color.
Sallow skin often takes on a yellow hue in those with fair and pink skin tones. For warmer, olive skin tones that are naturally yellow in color when healthy, a shift toward a more brown tone when sallow may occur.
While darker skin tones may see minimal changes, some may experience a degree of yellowness and an overall uneven skin tone.
Sallow Skin Causes
Causes of sallow skin range from medical issues, such as anemia and vitamin deficiency, to lifestyle and environmental factors including smoking, lack of sleep and chronic stress.
Lifestyle and environmental causes
Controllable external factors, such as unhealthy habits and improper skin care, can result in skin not receiving sufficient nutrition and hydration. Small lifestyle changes can often be enough to improve a sallow complexion.
Harmful environmental conditions can also contribute to sallowness. While these factors can be more difficult to avoid, precautions can be taken to minimize their impact.
The nicotine absorbed through smoking cigarettes causes blood vessels in the skin to constrict, impairing blood flow. This hinders the flow of oxygen and nutrients, preventing them from reaching the skin and results in a complexion that appears tired, dull and sallow.
A lack of hydration can impair the functioning of organs, and the skin is no exception. When dehydrated, skin can appear sallow and dry. Most experts agree that adults should consume about 8–9 glasses of water per day to avoid dehydration. Hydrated skin appears plump and exhibits a healthy color.
Fluids that contain caffeine and alcohol are well known for their skin-drying properties and should be consumed in moderation.
Lack of sleep
The occasional restless night won’t cause sallow skin, but a consistently irregular sleep schedule will impact the skin’s appearance and contribute to sallowness. Good sleep hygiene means getting 7–9 hours of sleep per night on a regular basis to maintain healthy skin.
During sleep, the body releases hormones that encourage the growth of new skin cells. When this process is disrupted, wounds healing and collagen production begins to slow. These factors can lead to a sallow appearance.
The body also balances out its hydration levels during sleep; when deprived of this opportunity due to a lack of sleep, skin can become dry and sallow.
Psychological stress is taxing mentally, but it can also have adverse physical effects and damage the skin. Prolonged periods of stress increases the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and speeds up metabolism. This has a negative impact on the body, the results of which can be manifested as sallow skin.
Additionally, long-term psychological stress can have an adverse effect on your brain–skin connection, disrupting neurological pathways to your skin cells and exacerbating skin aging.
Some underlying medical issues can result in skin appearing sallow. If you suspect this may be the case for you, be sure to see a professional to determine the underlying cause.
Anemia is a condition that causes exhaustion and lethargy, and can cause a pale or yellow complexion. Anemia compromises red blood cells and inhibits them from delivering enough oxygen to the body’s tissues. Many people develop anemia due to an iron deficiency or a lack of vitamin B12.
Your skin may appear sallow if you aren’t receiving the nutrients that replenish your skin cells. A lack of vitamins A, B12, C, D or E can lead to sallow skin.
Vitamins A, C and E protect the collagen and elastin proteins in skin, increasing blood flow and elasticity for a healthy appearance. Vitamins B12 and D bolster new cell growth, increasing the body’s natural turnover rate of skin cells.
These effects can work in tandem to combat the appearance of sallow skin; consuming adequate amounts of these vitamins can enable a healthy complexion.
Sallow skin in winter
As the face is the most exposed area of skin during the colder months, it bears the brunt of winter’s effects.
Constantly moving between warm indoor environments and the cold can have a drying effect on the skin, which may worsen issues such as sallow skin. Harsh winds and low humidity levels also leave the skin more vulnerable to dryness and a sallow complexion.
How to Brighten Sallow Skin
Some treatments for sallow skin require a shift in lifestyle or diet, and yield gradual results as your skin tone improves over the course of a month or so.
Other treatments include various over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products to help improve your complexion. Maintaining a skin care regimen that includes regular moisturization and exfoliation will provide your skin with the best defense against harsh environmental effects.
Dermatological procedures may also be useful tools for combating sallow complexions, particularly when combined with lifestyle changes.
Skin care routine
Adhering to good skin care habits are key to treating sallow skin. An appropriate skin care routine to target sallow skin should emphasize skin hydration, particularly in those with naturally dry skin.
In the evening, If you have dry skin, apply a hydrating moisturizer to reduce the appearance of sallow skin. Those with oily skin can use an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA) toner to address sallowness.
Choose products that are best suited for your skin type. While dry skin can benefit from oil-based moisturizers and creams, look for oil-free options for oily skin.
Corrective gel, noncomedogenic makeup and moisturizers with hyaluronic acid (HA) may also be effective in reducing sallowness, when chosen to meet the needs of your particular skin type.
In addition to a daily routine, exfoliating 2–4 times per week can work to improve a sallow complexion. Choose products specifically formulated for the face to avoid irritation.
Reduce the frequency of use if your skin becomes sensitive or irritated. To avoid any unwanted effects, those with particularly sensitive skin should begin by exfoliating once per week and gradually increasing the frequency as needed.
Photorejuvenation is an in-office procedure that can treat shallow facial skin, including the eye area. The two main types of photorejuvenation are intense pulsed light (IPL) and broad band light (BBL).
During a photorejuvenation procedure, a dermatologist passes a wand-like device over the treatment area, administering pulses of broad-spectrum light directly to the skin. The light triggers the body’s natural collagen production process in the targeted area, which can bolster the skin’s suppleness and reduce the appearance of sallow skin.
Professionally administered lactic acid peels remove dry skin and dead skin cells. Acting as an exfoliant, these peels speed up skin cell turnover rates to improve a sallow complexion.
During a microdermabrasion session, a dermatologist uses a buffing tool to remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells, and a vacuum to suction away loose debris.
Depending on the treatment, the buffing tool can use either a diamond tip, a blast of tiny crystal particles or a jet of pressurized water to strip away the dead cells. The body responds to this process by increasing collagen production, working to brighten skin.
Lifestyle Habits to Prevent Sallow Skin
Preventing sallow skin requires a combination of eliminating harmful habits and replacing them with good habits. These lifestyle changes are time-tested and are beneficial for both sallow skin and overall health.
Improve your diet
Sallow skin resulting from anemia or vitamin deficiencies can be effectively treated by improving your diet. Leafy greens, lean meats and fortified cereals are all sources of iron and can help reduce or eliminate anemia, while dairy products, fatty fish and colorful fruits elevate vitamin levels.
Vitamin supplements can also ensure your skin is receiving vital nutrients, especially if you have any deficiencies; vitamins A, B12, C, D or E can all help reduce sallowness.
Get enough sleep
Maintain consistent sleep cycles by going to bed at the same time every night and aiming for a minimum of seven hours of rest. Avoid digital screens before bedtime, as they tend to increase wakefulness and inhibit the release of melatonin, your body’s natural sleep hormone.
Allocating time to relax or engage in leisure activities will effectively reduce stress levels. Strategies for stress management include daily exercise, spending time with friends and practicing mindful meditation.
Speaking with a mental health professional can also improve stress levels, resulting in improvements, both physically and mentally.
While smoking can be a difficult habit to break, there are several nonprofit resources, phone apps and OTC products—such as patches, gum and lozenges—tailored to support you through the process.
Sallow skin can be the result of many causes, ranging from an underlying medical issue such as anemia or a vitamin deficiency, to lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol consumption or lack of sleep.
Once you’ve identified the particular cause or causes of your sallow skin, you can apply the appropriate treatment to help restore your skin to its natural complexion. Regulating your sleep cycle, practicing tactics to relieve stress, quitting smoking and eating a well-balanced diet are all examples of possible solutions.
Pair these changes with an effective skin care regimen for optimal results. Select products that cleanse, moisturize and nourish your skin according to your particular needs. Using these products on a daily basis and exfoliating regularly will help keep sallow skin at bay.
In cases where at-home treatments and lifestyle changes fail to improve sallow skin, seek professional advice to identify the root cause.
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