Dull. Sickly. Grey. Pale. Tired. Lacklustre.
If you thought of your own reflection in the mirror and cringed after hearing those words, you’re not alone. Everyone wants to be glowy, healthy, vibrant, and alive – and sallow skin that plagues so many of us is the exact opposite of that.
Sallowness is skin that just looks older, more tired, even sadder. It sometimes seems to appear overnight. What gives?
The good thing is, it’s usually not permanent and we can often fix it super quickly and easily!
First, let’s see whether it’s sallow skin you’re suffering from.
The two telltale signs of sallow skin
How can you tell if you have sallow skin? The main identifying feature of sallow skin is that it looks unhealthy.
It’s not your standard, happy skin that most people should be able to get with a basic skin care routine and (relatively) little effort. Conjure up a mental image of an unwell or elderly person, and notice how their skin often seems… lifeless.
There’s two visible reasons for sallowness:
Unusual skin tone
Often sallow skin is characterised as having a grey, yellow, green, or pale complexion, rather than a tan or pink colour with vibrance and brightness. Like how you look when you’re feeling queasy or just woke up from a too-short sleep early on a weekday morning. But, you know, all the time.
Dehydration and fine lines
A lack of adequate hydration lends your skin a crepey, withered look and a flaky texture that doesn’t shine and glow but instead looks rough to the touch. Like tissue paper, your skin will look thin and delicate and uncared for. Not cute.
Here’s what might be giving you sallow skin
What causes someone to develop sallow skin? There are so many reasons that are unique to everyone, but here are a few of the most common:
Lack of sleep
Ah, sleep. It seems like everyone will have you believe that it can cure pretty much any issue you’re having. And that’s because they’re kind of right. The mental and physical benefits of sleep just keeping piling up study after study.
The reason why sleep is so essential to how healthy our skin looks is thanks to the many processes that go into repair and regrowth while we nap. It takes time to clear out all the garbage from the day, produce more of the building blocks of skin, and give the body a rest.
WIthout enough good quality sleep, say hello to puffiness and dark under eyes, dehydration, slower recovery from sunburn and more. Plus, you know, you look more fatigued and less approachable to others because you are!
Skipping your skin routine
Buildup of oils, grime and dead skin cells is a surefire way to dull your glow, and invite texture issues and breakouts. I *know* you’re tired after that 5th episode of Brooklyn 99 and you just want to crawl to bed, just not taking the extra 5 minutes to clean off the day will almost always lead to disaster, as you’re not only depriving your skin of the moisture, vitamins and massage it wants, but you’re letting bacteria feast away for another 12 hours – a recipe for sallowness, infection or worse. Ew.
Do you really need to be told that smoking is a one-way street to sallow town? One of the many reasons it’s a bad idea is that smoking lowers the oxygen count in your blood (in favour of other gases from the smoke). In contrast, we associate vibrant, pink skin with health as it represents well-oxygenated blood, and a strong heart and lungs.
This reduces the effectiveness of blood flow to the skin, as its less full of oxygen and other goodies, negatively affecting skin repair. Inflamed and irritated skin that’s under stress naturally pulls more blood flow to the area to encourage proper oxygenation to heal the tissues more effectively. If this blood is poorly oxygenated and low quality, this guarantees a greyer complexion, slower healing and risk of infection – yikes.
It’s crazy how much we’re still learning about how the stress hormone cortisol (produced when under intense psychological strain or anguish) leads to inflammation, both inside the body (i.e. Arthiritis) and out (i.e. the skin).
Cortisol naturally is tasked with regulating (reducing) inflammation. When people are perpetually stressed, there is an over abundance of cortisol in the boy, leading our tissues to adapt to this as the new normal and become less sensitiv to its anti-inflammatory effects when it’s needed. This can lead to a snowball effect of more and more inflammation building up over time.
Inflammation in the skin, of course, presents as redness, blotchiness, itchiness, swelling etc. But also, deeper down, chronic inflammation creates free radicals (a sort of particle thief) which damage the cells before the beginning of their life, not even allowing them a fighting chance to be healthy and productive.
Such intense, long-term stress often comes from causes such as high-pressure jobs, emotional distress, relationship strain, mental health issues and many others, when they are left to fester as appropriate changes, solutions, or coping mechanisms aren’t known or used.
The air and climate we live in affect our skin the most of all our organs, being our intentional line of defence between it and our insides. Contaminants in the air are directly linked with free radical damage and ageing (much like stress).
Extreme temperatures or weather features like strong winds can physically damage the surface of the skin and not only create temporarily sallowness but also open the door for more serious skin conditions.
Those things mentioned above aren’t the end of it – there’s a whole host of bad skin habits you might be doing without even knowing it.
Medical conditions: anemia + deficiencies
But it’s not only your habits and environment that directly impact whether your skin is sallow – it can also be deeper and more serious than that.
Sometimes sallowness is caused by what’s going on inside creeping to the surface.
If you’re lacking in essential vitamins and minerals in your diet or body, it may be reflected as lacklustre skin. Conditions like iron anemia or vitamin deficiencies will cause your body to prioritise essential organs like kidneys and liver, leaving your skin without. This can cause issues converting oxygen and other enzymatic or repair processes which our skin relies on to make healthy skin cells. If left to worsen, these conditions are extremely dangerous. If your skin is rapidly deteriorating with no apparent external cause, book an appointment with a doctor ASAP.
5 quick ways to go from sallow to stunning
So now you’re sure you have sallow skin, and you have an idea of what’s causing it. But what are the best ways to turn your skin around and get back to healthy looking skin ASAP?
Attack the dull (dryness)
Matte and dry is the opposite of what we’re going for here. Glowy skin makes you look like you’ve just finished a run and covers all manner of sins. That means hydration is your friend! Get comfy with hydrating mists, a serum, an appropriate moisturiser and occlusives to trap all the goodness in.
A face oil like like Luna Beauty C.E.O Oil is perfect because, thanks to the emollient texture and built-in Vitamin C, it cheats the glow of hydrated skin instantly AND long term. Don’t be afraid to reapply throughout the day if you need!
When you’re desperate for shine, NYX Born to Glow or a similar liquid illuminator will give you a dewy finish and beaming shine on the highest points of your face.
Banish the sickly (redness)
Redness under the eyes and around the nose are signs of being inflamed, dehydrated, sniffing and crying (even if you haven’t been!).
In addition to adjusting your lifestyle to include better quality sleep, quitting smoking, reducing stress and environmental aggravation, it’s also key to use soothing ingredients to calm down any inflammation.
The niacinamide (Vitamin B) in The Ordinary’s Niacinamide + Zinc serum formula is anti-redness in a bottle.
And if you need a bit of extra help, a light anti-inflammatory skin toned pigment like Dr. Jart Cicapair Correting Cream used sparingly as needed will do wonders
Bring back the vibrance (colour)
Sometimes though, we want colour! Specifically, plenty blood flow in your cheeks and warmth your overall skin tone makes you look young and active and as far from sallow as possible. Make sure you’re eating right and exercising to encourage healthy, rich oxygenated blood.
If you’re an mostly indoor person, step outside for 5-10 minutes a day to enjoy gentle sunshine and top up those Vitamin D levels.
And in you don’t want to risk it, or can’t get a natural tan like me, a facial tanning serum like Drunk Elephant’s Bronzing serum (with bonus anti-pollution ingredients) and a rosy red-toned cream blush – for example, ELF’s Beautifully Bare Cheeky Glow, are the perfect way to fake some active time outdoors.
Refresh and reawaken (texture)
Chemical exfoliants can literally give you fresher skin. By dislodging the old cells that are clinging on for dear life, they leave you with a smooth-as-butter canvas that reflects light better and maintains moisture better.
CosRX AHA Whitehead Power Liquid is gentle enough to use everyday and perfect for exfoliation newbies.
If you’re experienced, you might want to occasionally add in something with more kick, like a combination AHA and BHA peel such as The Ordinary’s 30% AHA + 2% BHA Peeling Solution.
Tighten and firm (deep down)
Some of you may have tried everything else and done as much as you can at home, but you’re still struggling with a loss of volume, quality or something else indefinable that makes you think you’re looking sallow and lifeless. While it might be out of the bounds of at-home repair, thankfully, there are many in-office procedures that will be able to provide the next level results you’re looking for. Chemical peels, lasers, LED lamp sessions and more can kickstart even better, fresher looking skin in a way many products can’t.