Every blemish, bead of sweat, and goosebump is a message from your body. Here’s what it all means.

Jessica DeFino
September 08, 2020
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I’d like to officially announce that my skin and I are in a healthy, committed relationship. We couldn’t be happier; we are thoroughly and completely in love. We just get each other, you know? 

Before we got to this point, though, we had to work through our fair share of communication issues (all, admittedly, my fault). Like the time my skin tried to warn me about my college diet of pizza and beer with a bout of cystic acne, and I unceremoniously silenced it with a round of Accutane. Or when it developed dermatitis as a way to say, “You are so stressed and you need to slow down!” and I shut it up with topical steroids.  If only I’d known sooner that my skin wasn’t trying to pick fights with me—it was trying to talk to me.

“The brain and the skin are intimately related,” explains Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology in San Francisco—and honestly, “intimately” is putting it mildly. 

The brain, skin, and gut all start out as the same bit of embryonic tissue in utero, where they form what researchers have dubbed the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis. Even as the body continues to develop, the three remain inextricably intertwined in ways that aren’t yet fully understood by science. And while it may sound a little woo-woo to say that your mind can influence your skin (and vice versa), there are plenty of everyday examples that prove it.

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Take blushing, for example. When you feel embarrassed, your brain processes that embarrassment as stress. That stress triggers the release of adrenaline and that adrenaline “causes the blood vessels to dilate, giving your skin the appearance of blushing,” Dr. Icecreamwala explains. The Gut-Brain-Skin Axis goes so much deeper than that, though.

“The skin-body connection is just one small example of how interconnected the body is,” says Jill Therese, the founder of Heal Your Face With Food. “When we get hot, our body wants to cool us down so we sweat through our skin releasing the extra heat. Sometimes a viral infection can result in a rash on the skin, which is the body's immune system in the skin attempting to fight the infection. If we're experiencing blood sugar management issues that directly impact insulin levels, we can experience cystic acne as a result of the underlying inflammation and excess cell growth.” In short: “The body is an entire ecosystem and what happens in the body often directly shows up in your skin,” as Therese puts it.

Of course, not every pimple or dry patch is necessarily related to what’s happening within. The skin also sends signals about its external environment, from products to pollution problems, which makes sense: It’s the organ that connects your inside world to the outside world, after all.

“Your skin is a reflection of the state of your health. That being said, we have external factors that [people didn’t have] 3,000 years ago, like pollution and skincare [products] that destroy the barrier, which adds a new layer to all of this,” Mary Schook, an aesthetician and cosmetic formulator, tells HelloGiggles. As an aesthetician, Schook deals with damaged skin all day, every day, and maintains that many of the issues she sees are modern manifestations; the result of overly harsh beauty products and overly complicated routines. If you’re lucky—AKA, sensitive—whatever’s bothering your body will show up on your face.

Ahead, a beginner’s guide to decoding the messages your skin is sending you.

Goosebumps say, “I’m scared or stressed.”

Goose pimples, gooseflesh, goosebumps… whatever you call them (side note: “goosebumps” is the only acceptable answer), this skin reaction is one of the most common examples of the skin’s emotional depth. “Goosebumps develop when the hair follicle muscles involuntarily flex, often in response to stress, cold climate, or emotions,” Dr. Icecreamwala explains. So the next time a scary movie makes the hair on your arms stand up, you can thank the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis.

Sunburn says, “My melanin is maxed out.”

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Yup, even sunburn can be classified as communication from within. “Greatly simplifying, the body uses melanin as a built-in defense against UV rays,” Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston, tells HelloGiggles. “A tan is when the skin is trying to handle the UV rays. When that mechanism is overwhelmed, you have a toxic reaction—that's a sunburn.” 

Hives say, “I can’t handle this.”

Skin is a literal life-saver. See: hives, rashes, and all manner of skin-related allergic reactions. “Something that is an allergen for a given person triggers immunoglobulin E (IgE) to bind to the allergen and then to either a mast cell or a basophil, which leads to the release of histamine and an inflammatory cascade,” Dr. Hirsch says. That cascade ends on the skin in an effort to get your attention. Your body’s basically screaming, “I’m not a fan of whatever you’re eating/drinking/doing right now.”

Whiteheads say, “Balance your blood sugar.”

There are lots of reasons you might be experiencing whiteheads. “I usually see whiteheads present with blood sugar management issues in the body,” Therese says. Blood sugar management imbalances like dysglycemia (“where your blood sugar goes up and/or down drastically throughout the day,” according to the nutrition expert), can result in increased insulin and Insulin Growth Factor 1. “This can lead to increased skin cell growth at the pore, which is one of the most important factors that contributes to cystic, whitehead-type breakouts,” she explains.

Whiteheads also indicate that “bacteria is trapped on top of the skin instead of in the pores,” Schook adds, with Dr. Nadia Musavvir, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in skin health, noting this could be the result of “poor detoxification, stagnant lymph, dairy in the diet, excess sugar in the diet, fats not being processed well, hormonal fluctuations, or digestion issues.” 

Comedones say, “You’re producing too much oil.”

You know those small, skin-colored pimples? Those are called comedones, which is a fancy way of saying “clogged pore,” which is the skin’s way of saying, “You’re producing too much sebum,” per Dr. Icecreamwala. They could also be a sign that the sebum you are producing is too thick or sticky. This can happen when there aren’t enough Omega-6 fatty acids in your diet, or you’re not getting enough vitamin D. 

If your comedones (or any type of acne, really) are itchy, they “may be dysbiosis or fungal in nature,” Dr. Musavvir says. “It could also be external factors, but if not, then look at diet, specifically sugar intake or regulation of sugar.” 

Rosacea says, “Get your gut in order.”

Rosacea is one of dermatology’s greatest mysteries, so figuring out what your skin is trying to tell you via those red, cherubic cheeks can be difficult. “Rosacea flare-ups can indicate that the blood vessels are dilating due to some sort of stressor,” Dr. Icecreamwala tells HelloGiggles. “These stressors can include sunlight, spicy foods, hot liquids, and hot temperatures.” Schook notes that it could also be related to gut issues, Demodex mites, a compromised skin barrier, or even an overwhelmed nervous system. “Look at microbiome balance and look at diet, such as possible food sensitivities,” Dr. Musavvir suggests. 

Skin is a literal life-saver. See: hives, rashes, and all manner of skin-related allergic reactions. “Something that is an allergen for a given person triggers immunoglobulin E (IgE) to bind to the allergen and then to either a mast cell or a basophil, which leads to the release of histamine and an inflammatory cascade,” Dr. Hirsch says. That cascade ends on the skin in an effort to get your attention. Your body’s basically screaming, “I’m not a fan of whatever you’re eating/drinking/doing right now.”

Jawline acne says, “Your hormones are imbalanced.”

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“Acne along the jawline is usually due to hormonal fluctuations,” Therese says. “Acne forms in the sebaceous glands, which are incredibly sensitive to hormonal fluctuations. Hormonal fluctuations often upregulate sebum levels, AKA oil, at the pore level, which can cause clogging, which leads to a breakout.” Because there’s a higher concentration of sebaceous glands around the jaw, “you'll see more acne show up there when hormones are out of balance as a result.” 

Dr. Musavvir notes that these types of hormonal fluctuations typically involve increased levels of androgens. “Higher androgen production is either due to higher circulation of cortisol or insulin,” she says, “indicating dysregulated stress response or blood sugar regulation.” 

Eczema and psoriasis say, “You’re stressed out.”

“Eczema, a manifestation of dry skin, is known to be triggered by stress,” Dr. Hirsh says. “Psoriasis too.” Stress, which involves increased production of the hormone cortisol, weakens the skin barrier and leads to moisture loss, resulting in dry, flaking skin. You can strengthen the skin barrier and add moisture topically—but until you address the underlying stress, these conditions may continue to pop up.

Dermatitis says, “Your barrier is in bad shape.”

Dealing with dermatitis? It’s time to give your skin barrier some love. “This condition tends to flare up when using products that strip the barrier and remove its protections,” Dr. Hirsh explains. Dermatitis often shows up around the mouth, and toothpaste is a common cause. Prescription steroids—often prescribed to treat other skin conditions—can also trigger dermatitis, since they thin the skin barrier over time. 

Again, almost any of the above conditions could be caused by external factors, too, like over-cleansing, over-exfoliating, using harsh skincare products, using too many skincare products, using an ingredient that your particular skin is sensitive too, and more.

The point is, your skin is always saying something. 

True, the messages behind under-eye circles (“You need more sleep”), general puffiness (“Time for lymphatic drainage massage and maybe less salt in your diet”), dryness (“I’m thirsty!”), and other skin “issues” aren’t always easy to interpret, much less address. Start by simply listening. It’s the key to any healthy, happy relationship—even the one between you and your skin.