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One expert explains what changes in your epidermis could mean on a deeper level.

By Lauren Wellbank
May 06, 2020
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Credit: Getty / gilaxia

It's the human body's biggest organ, so when your skin starts acting up (think unexplained dryness or rashes) it may be a sign that something is going on internally. Here, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and Dr. Melanie D. Palm, MD, MBA, and a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon, explain what these common skin changes could mean for your overarching health.

Why Your Skin Matters

Your skin is the barrier between the delicate organs inside your body and the rest of the world; it should come as no surprise, then, that changes on the outside can signal an internal disturbance. These shifts can alert you to everything from simple dehydration to more serious issues, like diabetes. But sometimes dry skin is just dry skin, so how can you tell when epidermal fluctuations indicate a more serious underlying problem? According to Dr. Palm, only your doctor can tell for sure, which is why she recommends regular exams of both your skin and your overall health by a licensed dermatologist and primary care physician to help rule out the worrisome stuff.

What to Watch Out For

Skin that tents when you pull it back usually means you are suffering from regular dehydration; puffiness and swelling in the lower extremities that dents when you press your thumb into it can mean you've had too much salt. As for the more serious symptoms? Brown patches or excessive skin tags can be a sign of a more concerning issue, like diabetes or abnormal sugar levels. "[It's a sign of] a condition called acanthosis nigricans which consists of brown, velvety plaques, typically in body folds such as the neck and armpits," explains Dr. Palm.

Yellow discoloration of your skin can be a sign of gallbladder or liver dysfunction, and pigmentation or bronzing can indicate excess iron, hemochromatosis, or adrenal dysfunction, she adds. Unusual paleness, on the other hand, especially along your gum lines, or conjunctiva of your eyes, could mean you have anemia or low iron levels. And if your gums are bleeding, and you've noticed small, spontaneous bruises called petechiae? Your body may be trying to tell you that you need more vitamin C in your diet.

More Than Skin Deep

Just as your skin can alert you to bigger issues, your hair and nails can also play a big role in issuing an early warning. Thinning hair, for example, may be a sign of anemia or biotin deficiency. "Autoimmune conditions, like lupus or thyroid disease, may also be associated with hair loss," explains Dr. Zeichner. Additionally, nail changes, such as yellow discoloration or white streaks, can indicate "liver, kidney, or even lung disease," he notes.

How to Take Action

If you've noticed any of the major aforementioned changes to your skin, consult with your doctor as soon as possible. "You are your best advocate," Dr. Palm says. "I truly trust when patients state something has changed, and if something doesn't feel right or is changing, work with your physician to investigate appropriately until a proper underlying cause is identified."

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