Often times, we think of our skin in terms of vanity. We’re concerned about how clear our foreheads are and whether we can minimize the appearance of the pores on our nose. It’s easy to forget that our skin is also an organ that can show signs and symptoms of illnesses going on internally.
While you may think of your skin in terms of cosmetics, it’s also important to use it as a gauge of health. After all, you’ve probably known people who developed healthier lifestyles and saw their skin begin to glow. So it’s important to talk to your doctor about your skin, particularly any sudden or marked changes you notice, because they could be signs of an underlying condition.
And we’re serious when we say talk to your doctor. Using the web for self-diagnosis can cause more harm than good; not just by stressing you out, but also by creating the potential for self-misdiagnosis and unnecessary or unhelpful treatment. So be sure you have an ongoing dialogue with a healthcare professional about any concerns, so you can get the most accurate diagnosis and treatment possible.
This is the first in a series on skin care and underlying health issues. Dr. J.D. Zipkin contributed to the reporting in this article.
What Causes Yellowing of the Skin?
There are a number of reasons that skin might turn yellow, from the harmless to the serious. In fact, yellow skin isn’t always bad. It really has more to do with just how yellow you’re looking (for example, whether your eyes are yellow) and what’s causing it. There are two main causes of yellow skin: carotenoids and bilirubin, with the former being less serious than the second (New York Times).
For example, certain fruits and vegetables can make you appear a bit more yellow, but consuming an excess of carotenoids can leave you looking almost orange. This excess of yellow or orange is known as hypercarotenemia or carotenemia. You may remember the toddler who turned yellow from consuming too much of the beta carotene-containing Sunny D (BBC).
But if your yellow coloring is caused by bilirubin, it’s jaundice and likely affects your skin as well as your eyes. The underlying cause of jaundice can be a sign of serious health issues, particularly those connected to your liver.
[Read More: Why Do We Expose Jaundiced Babies to Light?]
When “Yellow” Is a Good Thing
This kind of yellow is usually subtler; it’s less of a vibrant yellow and more of a subtle glow. And it comes from getting your fruits and vegetables. But too much of a good thing is possible, and like the above-mentioned toddler, eating carotene-rich foods in excess can cause skin to turn a brighter shade of yellow.
A study done on 35 Caucasian students who switched their diets from the traditional French fries and pizza that many young adults consume to more vegetables saw changes in their skin tone. When they chowed down on more produce the students had more yellow in their complexion that gave them a sort of “glow” (PLOSone, NPR).
The study controlled for make-up, sunless tanning, and UV-exposure. Unfortunately, the study did not observe the skin effects of this diet on non-Caucasian people. Unilever, which sells certain food products, also published it, so the study isn’t free of industry ties.
This increase in yellowness was because of the carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables that give them their color: beta-carotene and lycopene. These beneficial compounds not only gave the students a glow, but they’re also powerful antioxidants that help stop oxidative cell damage. Because these pigments are fat-soluble, they accumulate in the skin and give it a yellowish hue.
[Read More: Which Fruits and Vegetables Are Best for Your Skin?]
The study also observed whether others could use a yellowish pigment to determine health. When photos of Caucasian, African, and Asian faces were given a yellow tint, those viewing the photographs found them to appear more attractive. This phenomenon of finding carotenoid-pigmented skin more attractive has also been studies on fish and birds.
When “Yellow” Is a Bad Thing
Jaundice — the yellowing of the skin, eyes, and/or mucus membrane — occurs when there is a problem with the usual dynamic between the blood cells and the liver (MedlinePlus). Blood cell membranes become more fragile with age, and eventually must be removed from the body. They’re filtered out in a system that includes organs such as the liver and spleen, which turn these old blood cells into bilirubin and can then exit the body through stool and urine.
Bilirubin is what makes bruises appear a yellowish hue as they’re healing. There are normally a lot of blood cells in the liver, but If there is an abnormal amount of broken down red blood cells going to the liver, if the liver is not functioning properly, or if bilirubin can’t exit the digestive tract (e.g. if there’s a blockage), it can cause there to be excess bilirubin in the body and cause jaundice (American Family Physician). Depending on the underlying condition, a person with jaundice may have few other symptoms or very severe symptoms.
Jaundice isn’t frequently found in adults; it’s more common in infants. So, having jaundice as an adult can be a sign of a serious issue. However, even jaundice exists on a spectrum from the benign to the very serious in terms of underlying cause, which is commonly an issue with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas.
On the one hand, jaundice can be caused by the formation of gallstones, which can be painful and necessitate surgery to remove the gall bladder, but are comparatively benign (MedlinePlus). But it can also be a sign of autoimmune disorders, liver malfunction, hepatitis, drug interaction, a biliary tract infection, health issues stemming from alcohol abuse, or certain cancers.
[Read More: What Alcohol Consumption Does to Your Skin]
In order to look for underlying conditions, doctors might do a few things. They might have you get a blood test to examine blood counts, the amounts of different kinds of bilirubin, and evidence of viral hepatitis. They might also utilize an ultrasound or other imaging technique to look at the biliary tract, gallbladder, and liver. Finally, as a last effort they might also request a liver biopsy if neither of the previously mentioned determine diagnosis.
Your skin is an important indicator of health, and it’s important to discuss changes in your skin with your doctor. Yellowish skin can be very benign and caused by an increase in carotenoids, but it can also be the sign of an underlying condition, as it is with jaundice. If you notice a sudden or a gradual yellowing of your skin, it’s important to talk to your doctor and rule out any serious conditions that might be causing it.