Palm readers examine life and love lines to predict the future of their bare-handed, starry-eyed clients. It’s a fun activity for mystics, but as far as accuracy is concerned, your palm may not have much to say — and if it did, your psychic might not have the education to interpret it.
On the other hand, there’s a lot your skin can tell you, and it’s not a fortune teller but a dermatologist who’s likely to get a good reading. There are parts of your lifestyle, history, and general health that specialized physicians can understand from a simple, non-invasive skin examination.
As a dermatologist, I know firsthand. I’ve examined hundreds of patients with different backgrounds and conditions, and with my training, there’s a lot I can determine or at least strongly suspect about a patient just by looking at their skin — sometimes as soon as they walk into my office.
Our skin tells detailed and fascinating stories of our lives and healthfulness that may also constitute as warnings in a dermatological context. Here are just a few of the things I can tell about a patient from skin alone.
You have too much fun (in the sun)
One of the most basic things a dermatologist will notice about your skin is how much sun you’re getting. This goes beyond the obvious: most people know a sunburn when they see one, and a dermatologist can spot it a mile away. But after the redness fades there are plenty of other tell-tale signs of sun damage. Premature wrinkles, age spots, scaly spots of skin (actinic keratosis) and red blotches or bumps (rosacea) are all indications you’ve been a little carefree with the Vitamin D.
On the flip side, it is easy to tell if you’ve been cautious about sun exposure too, or if you haven’t been getting enough rays. If you have an excessively sweaty forehead, for instance, this could be a sign of a Vitamin D deficiency.
You’re a picker
Acne and psoriasis are two of the most common conditions that my patients come to me for treatment. I tell them not to pick or scratch at their skin, and often they will tell me “of course not!” Then they come back and their issue still hasn’t gone away. I ask if they’ve been picking, and they still say “no!”
The funny thing is that I can tell when they are lying, and not because of their eye contact or tone of voice. If you’ve been picking, your skin will show it — the way it heals or scars is a dead giveaway. Not only is picking unsanitary (and can lead to further breakouts), it causes distinct discoloration that can be difficult or impossible to eradicate. If you pick compulsively, you may have excoriation disorder. The scarring can be treated dermatologically and the compulsion psychiatrically.
So don’t lie to your doctor if you’ve succumbed to the urge to pick. She or he can tell, and can help you get it under control.
You have a hormone imbalance
Hormones can mess with our skin as much as they do our emotions. I can tell by the location of certain breakouts, for instance, whether my patient has a hormonal imbalance. Hormonal acne is most common among women ages 20 through 40 because women are most hormonally active during these ages and prone to fluctuations. Such breakouts commonly occur on the jaw and the chin and may recur (like menstruation) on a monthly basis.
To the untrained eye, this may seem like any old breakout, but dermatologists know better. It’s a good thing, too, because we can help clear things up by recommending cleansers, topical retinoids, contraceptives and other treatment options.
You’re stressed or unhappy
Have a prominent frown line? Contrary to what some may assume, this doesn’t mean you’re unhappy, but they do result from repeating facial expressions like frowning enough to form permanent grooves. But there are simpler ways for a dermatologist to tell you’re unhappy. Unhappiness and stress often go hand in hand, and the latter can have serious effects on your skin and general appearance.
Stress causes a chemical response in your body that makes your skin more sensitive and reactive. Under stress, it produces extra cortisol, which signals your glands to produce more oil, aggravating existing skin issues and wearing on your immune system. A natural enemy of collagen, cortisol also breaks down your skin tissue causing wrinkles like the aforementioned frown lines. Stress may also suppress hyaluronic acid production, causing dryness and dullness year-round.
If I spot these signs, especially in addition to dark eye circles (indicating poor sleep), I could guess that you’re stressed pretty easily. While your demeanor just may back up these suspicions, there are steps you can take to de-stress your body from skin to soul.
There’s something more serious going on
Your skin can also indicate a much more serious issue in need of immediate medical treatment. Yellow skin, or jaundice, may be a sign of liver disease of pancreatic cancer. It happens when there is too much bilirubin (created by the breakdown of red blood cells) in your system. Neck lumps and facial flushing are symptoms of thyroid cancer. Blue-ish skin may be a sign of heart disease (indicating low oxygen levels), and gray skin, kidney disease (slow blood flow).
These more serious medical conditions have other symptoms and can’t be treated by a dermatologist, though if we see something worrisome we will order the appropriate tests to get you help ASAP.
What you see is what you get
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. This is most likely to be true if the book is your general health and wellbeing, the cover is your skin, and you’re a board-certified dermatologist. We may lack the drama of your local fortune teller, but it’s important you visit regularly to keep your largest organ happy, healthy, and looking great.