Sallow skin refers to skin that has lost its natural complexion. When this happens, your skin may appear yellow or brown in tone, especially on your face.
As your skin ages, it’s natural to notice increasing dryness, wrinkling, and thinness. But sallow skin isn’t a natural sign of aging — it has external causes.
Learn more about what may be behind your sallow skin and what you can do to improve it.
What does sallow skin look like?
Your skin is made up of two components: the dermis and epidermis.
The dermis is the innermost layer. It’s responsible for your skin’s strength and elasticity.
The epidermis is the top layer. It’s constantly renewing itself by shedding old skin cells and creating new ones. This process usually takes about a month.
Once you begin treatment, it may take 1 to 2 months before you see improvements in sallow skin.Anemia
Anemia occurs when your red blood cells don’t create enough oxygen for delivery to the rest of your body. If your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, you may feel tired and lethargic. It can also take a toll on your skin by making it pale or yellow in color.
Acute anemia is usually resolved by getting more iron and vitamin B12 in your diet. Your doctor may recommend supplements if you can’t get enough of these nutrients through diet alone.
Chronic anemia is considered more serious, as it’s often related to an underlying health conditions. This includes kidney disease or autoimmune diseases.
In these cases, your doctor will work with you to treat the underlying condition. Anemia and its symptoms of sallow skin should resolve once the underlying condition is under control.Vitamin deficiency
When you think of healthy eating, your concern could primarily be related to weight loss or maintenance. However, your diet also shows on your skin.
When you don’t eat enough nutrient-rich foods, your skin can become sallow over time. That’s because skin cells aren’t getting the nutrients needed to stay healthy.
Certain vitamins, such as vitamin C, are also essential in acting as a shield against environmental elements like pollution.
Some common deficiencies that affect skin include:
- vitamin A, found in orange fruits and veggies, such as carrots and butternut squash
- vitamin B12, found in meats and fortified cereals
- vitamin C, found in plant foods, such as citrus fruits and broccoli
- vitamin E, found in nuts and vegetable oils
- vitamin K, found in berries and dark leafy greens
The key to resolving vitamin deficiencies is to eat a wide variety of foods — preferably plant-based. If you still have sallow skin after a few weeks, ask your doctor if vitamin supplements may be right for you.Smoking
Smoking is detrimental to your skin because it accelerates the aging process. For example, tobacco smoke reduces collagen, which is the material responsible for tight, supple skin.
Smoking also prevents your skin from getting enough oxygen, which can cause it to dry out. In addition to appearing sallow, your skin may become dull and wrinkled over time.
Cessation products can help you stop smoking gradually. Many over-the-counter products contain small amounts of nicotine that are decreased over time so you don’t have to quit cold turkey.
Water is important for keeping your body hydrated — especially your skin. Still, there’s some conflicting information about how drinking water affects your skin, versus retaining water on your skin with moisturizers.
Researchers aren’t sure whether drinking extra water can have an effect on skin hydration.
So although drinking enough water is important for overall skin hydration, drinking extra may not make a difference if you already drink water on a regular basis. For best results, make sure to drink eight glasses of water every day.
Keep in mind that not all beverages are equal. Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, can dehydrate the skin. Alcohol is perhaps the worst skin-drying culprit, making the skin look dehydrated and sallow over time.Stress
Stress can take its toll on your body in a number of ways, from increased blood pressure and weight gain to dry and sallow skin. Your skin is technically the largest organ in your body, and stress often manifests itself here before affecting other parts of your body.
Chronic stress poses the most danger as far as sallow skin is concerned. This is due to the damage posed by the hormone cortisol.
For the sake of your skin (and your overall health), stress management is a must. You may be able to alleviate some of your stress by:
- meditating every day, even for just 5 minutes at a time
- exercising daily
- staying in touch with friends and family
- delegating tasks to others
An occasional sleepless night won’t cause sallow skin. However, if you don’t get enough sleep consistently, your skin won’t get the nutrients it needs to stay hydrated and healthy. Over time, sleep deprivation will cause sallow skin.
For overall health, you should aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Your skin will reap the benefits of better sleep, too.
If you have difficulty sleeping this long, consider some helpful tips to get you the good night’s rest that you need:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day — including weekends.
- Avoid electronics an hour or two before bedtime.
- Try a relaxing activity before bed, such as a warm bath, meditation, or reading.
- Avoid heavy meals late at night.
- Decrease caffeine consumption, and try not to drink coffee or tea after lunchtime.
Poor skin care habits can also create sallow skin. While some effects are long-term, such as repeated sun exposure, others can become noticeable right away.
To prevent or correct sallow skin, consider the following daily skin care habits:
Wash your face twice a day. You may also need to wash your face again after you exercise. Consistent face washing removes dirt, oil, bacteria, makeup, and pollution from your skin. A creamy or gel-based wash is preferable, because it won’t irritate your skin when used regularly.
Follow up with a moisturizer. This acts as a barrier to trap water in your face so it stays hydrated. When your skin has enough water, it looks less sallow. Choose a moisturizer that’s tailored to your skin type: Creams work well for dry skin, while lighter lotions are best for combination and oily skin types.
Exfoliate once a week. This helps accelerate the process of skin cell turnover so your skin looks more radiant. You’ll notice immediate effects after the process.
Wear sunscreen every day. The AAD recommends a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF.
Choose skin-friendly makeup. Like skin care products, not all types of makeup are created equal. This doesn’t mean you must buy the most expensive and professional-grade products out there, but you should get into the habit of reading product labels.
First, your makeup should be oil-free and noncomedogenic, so it doesn’t clog pores or cause excess dead skin cells to accumulate. Consider makeup that contains vitamins, such as vitamins A and C, for an added glow.
When to see your doctor
Resolving sallow skin doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll likely reap the benefits within 4 to 8 weeks after your skin cells have gone through their natural turnover process.
If you don’t see improvements within a month or two, check in with your healthcare professional or dermatologist. They can check for any underlying conditions and advise you on next steps.Reference:
The benefits of drinking water for your skin. (2016).
Chen Y, et al. (2014). Brain-skin connection: Stress, inflammation and
skin aging. DOI:
Definitions of health terms: Vitamins. (2015).
Horne J (2015). Psychosocial factors in dermatology.
Simpkin S (2016). Smoking and its effects on the skin.
Photo Credit: engin akyurt