This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Skin is the largest organ, so it’s no surprise that it can also be an indicator of what’s going on inside you. And while too many nights of partying and a less-than-stellar diet can cause the sudden appearance of dark circles and breakouts, sometimes what seems like a harmless beauty issue could be a sign of more alarming issues.
“It is what we call in medicine, dermatologic manifestation of internal disease,” says Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and founder of BeautyRx Skincare by Dr. Schultz. “There can be physical signs that there’s something going on internally, and if so, you definitely need to see a doctor.”
Here, the surprisingly common skin, nail, and hair WTHs that could be red flags for your health.
Brittle, Pitted, Thick, or Discolored Nails
“While brittle nails may result from simple things such as too much hand washing or exposure to harsh chemicals like nail polish remover, they could also signal nutritional deficiencies,” says Ruthie Harper, M.D., director of the Laser and Skin Care Clinic in Austin, Texas and creator of Skinshift skin care. If it’s no biggie, simply use a hydrating cleanser when you can and slather on a hand cream right after you towel dry. If the condition is more chronic, make sure your diet is rich in protein, biotin, iron, and a special form of silica called choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid (found in Skinshift Collagen Defense Supplement), all of which are the nutritional building blocks scientifically proven to build strong, healthy nails, says Harper.
And be aware of any change in nail shape, thickness, or color. “Nails often reflect a general state of health,” says David Bank, M.D., director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, & Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. “Discoloration or thickening can indicate liver and kidney disease, heart and lung conditions, anemia, and diabetes.” First, stop using polish (regular or gels) to rule out any adverse reactions, then see your doctor if symptoms persist, he says.
Notice some teeny-tiny (like a 1/2 of a mm) round holes in the nail called pits? “It could be a result of common diseases such as psoriasis, a skin condition that causes red, raised bumps or plaques with white flakes on the skin, or alopecia areata, an auto-immune type of hair loss that typically occurs on the scalp — but also can appear on the body such as underarms or bikini area,” says Schultz.
No, we don’t mean a sporadic bad bout of breakouts when you know your hormones are going haywire, you haven’t slept in who knows how long, or you are super-stressed. “Acne is very common in teens and adults and the cause is typically tied to hormonal imbalances, sluggish skin turnover causing congestion and blocked pores, and bacteria, which naturally exists on the skin,” says Harper.
But there could be underlying culprits tied to your health if your acne never clears up and is extreme. “Scientists are now finding that a healthy gastrointestinal is critical for beautiful skin — so, if you are struggling with mild acne, try to support a healthy gastrointestinal tract with daily probiotics.” And check in with your doctor or a nutritionist for a blood test to be sure your hormone levels are in check — and to see if you are lacking in nutrients critical for skin health, such as zinc, vitamin A, and pantothenic acid.
Excessive Hair Growth
Having more hair allover can just be a matter of genetics. It’s also one of the main characteristics of a pretty serious medical condition known as PCOS (a.k.a. polycystic ovarian syndrome), which causes a major hormonal imbalance. “Signs of PCOS include excessive hair growth, irregular menstrual cycles, and acne,” says Harper. “So, if you notice hair showing up where you don’t remember it or have all three symptoms, go see your doctor for a blood test to check your hormone levels.” Why the surge in fuzz? “Hair is generally caused by an overproduction of male hormones, called androgens,” says Bank. And with PCOS, it could be that your androgen levels are in overdrive.
Is your ponytail not what it once was? Well, it could be due to aging — hair follicles are affected by hormones and over time, won’t leave hair in the active growth phase as long as it once was. However, if you aren’t going through menopause, post-pregnancy, or dealing with major emotional trauma or stress — all of which can cause major hormonal shifts and possibly temporary hair loss or thinning — and see large amounts of hair lingering in your brush, drain, or hands after raking through some tangles, there could be more to blame. “Diabetes can cause hair to thin and fall out,” says Harper. “And certain medications such as birth control and some antidepressants as well as beta-blockers, like blood pressure medicine, can also cause hair loss.”
Along with sticking to a healthy hair-care regimen (a.k.a. shampoo, condition, don’t scorch with hot tools, and overdo the dye jobs, etc.), you also need to feed strands from the inside out to keep them strong, not dry and brittle (which will for sure, lead to breakage). “Biotin and vitamin D supplements will also help to strengthen thin and limp hair — protein-rich foods and those that have vitamin B, which is the same as biotin, help promote strong hair, too,” says Harper.
“Women who have heavy periods or don’t eat enough iron-rich foods may be prone to iron deficiency, which can also result in hair loss — your doctor can test your blood for iron deficiency,” says Bank, who suggests eating iron rich foods such as beef, pork, fish, leafy greens, fortified cereals, and beans along with some vitamin C, which can help absorption of iron. And to help the whole regrowth process along, use over-the-counter minoxidil (a.k.a.Women’s Rogaine), which helps hold hair in the growing and staying-put phase, and out of the fall-out stage, for longer.
Hives is a full-blown allergic reaction that can pop up as a rash — caused by many different foods or internal medicines and sometimes even by stress — and can show up just about anywhere on the body, either in small to large patches, super red and bumpy, or flat and insanely itchy. However, hives that are chronic, seem to linger, and never totally disappear even after slathering on topical hydrocortisone or taking oral antihistamines, might not be due to any of the above. “It could be a warning sign of hepatitis caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV), a serious liver infection,” says Schultz. First, stop taking OTC antihistamines immediately (as they can overtax the liver) and go see your doctor to get a blood test, he says.
Itchiness All Over or Red Bumps
They might resemble hives but it’s more about the location on this one. “If you have these tiny, millimeter-sized, blister-like bumps on the back of your arms, your lower back, or butt, it could be a symptom of dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), which is caused by gluten intolerance and often associated with celiac disease — it’s an outward manifestation of it,” says Schultz.
“And if you just have itching all over, all the time, no matter how much you moisturize and not just in winter, then get checked for diabetes — although more extreme tumors, such as lymphomas, can also cause generalized, relentless itching,” says Schultz.
Designed by Zhang Qingyun
Click HERE to read more from Refinery29.