It may seem like a frizz-attack before a job interview or puffy eyes the morning after late-night margaritas are the end of the world, but at least they don’t signify any major health concerns.
“Your skin, hair and nails are a reflection of what’s going on internally in your body,” says Neil Sadick, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Here’s how to know if common beauty concerns such as battling severe acne, a pesky dry patch or yellow nails are clueing you in to a more serious health concern.
Beauty issue: A skin-colored growth near your nail that resembles a wart. It just won’t. Go. Away!
Standard warts, caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), often return, so repeated OTC treatments (which typically include occlusion, salicylic acid or freezing with liquid dimethyl ether) might be necessary. “If the growth looks exactly the same after two months of treatment, then you should see your doctor,” suggests Jeanine Downie, M.D., director of Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey. You may need an in-office version of cryosurgery—which delivers a more powerful dose of liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide—or the growth might not be a wart after all.
Possible health concern: Squamous cell carcinoma, one of the three most common forms of skin cancer, which typically develops on parts of the body often exposed to UV light, including the face, ears, chest and hands, explains Bruce Katz, M.D., professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai in NYC.
Your doctor will probably take a closer look at a suspicious growth using a magnifying scope to pinpoint irregular edges, color, texture or size. If irregularities are visible, a biopsy may be needed. The entire growth or small sample is examined for any sign of cancer. If the results come back positive, your doctor will suggest various types of removal. A common technique is Mohs surgery, during which the doctor shaves off super thin layers of skin one at a time, then checks each under a microscope for cancer, until only healthy cells are present.
Beauty issue: A dry patch near your lip that doesn’t disappear, no matter how much moisturizer you slather on it.In a perfect world, your skin renews itself approximately every 28 days. Exposure to extreme environmental conditions like cold temperatures and wind as well as natural skin aging can slow this process down. This means that it could take a month or longer for superficial skin cells to naturally flake off and new, supple cells to make their way to the surface. If you have patches of dry skin that stick around longer than normal, or are painful, itchy, scaly or changing shape, you should see your doctor.
Possible health concern: Actinic keratosis (AK), a pre-cancerous lesion that could become a squamous cell carcinoma if untreated.
Because skin surrounding this area has a high amount of blood flow, the potential for spreading to adjacent healthy skin cells is increased and early detection of cancerous growths and treatment is crucial, notes Dr. Sadick. While Mohs surgery may be needed to fully remove an AK lesion, if it’s small and only imbedded in the uppermost layer of skin, your doctor may suggest using 5-flourouracil. This topical chemotherapy cream halts the growth of damaged, cancerous cells similar to intravenous chemotherapy. After several weeks of redness and flaking of the skin—and possibly even a divot-looking hole—the area typically heals.