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.
Beauty issue: Your nails are yellow all over, have various sized indents or are lifting away from underlying skin. (Yikes!)
Since your hands are in constant contact with the outside world (and all the dirt, germs and gook that come with it), it’s no surprise that nail problems make up about 10 percent of all dermatological concerns, the American Academy of Dermatology finds. Fungal infections (aka onychomycosis) are most common—they account for about half of all nail disorders. The most common signs: constant cracking and brittle nails. How’s this for scary: Fungi can latch on to inanimate objects—the obvious being salon manicure tools but also things like gym yoga mats or locker room showers—making it easy to catch. The go-to RX is prescription-strength Lamisil, or an oral antifungal medication that beats the infection from the inside out. Although a nail fungus isn’t something to lose sleep over, there’s a laundry list of medical conditions that cause persistent nail problems.
Possible health concern: A noticeable yellow tint that’s way more severe than the slightly off color that occurs after wearing a dark polish for a few weeks, along with slow growth and thickening may be a result of a respiratory disease such as chronic bronchitis. Depressions in the nails—from slight dips to deep grooves—could be warning signs of psoriasis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or anemia. Notice your nail beds lifting or detaching from skin near the edges? Your doctor may check to see if you are suffering from a thyroid disorder or a bacteria infection.
“Typically, problems show up on nails when health concerns are in a more advanced stage,” explains Dr. Sadick. “However, it is possible that they can be a presenting sign that then allows you to treat the underlying health concern.” Keep in mind, even if any of these diseases are treated, your nails may require a year to fully recover since fingernails normally grow about 0.1 millimeter per day.
Beauty issue: Inflamed gums or excessive bleeding after brushing and flossing.
These painful symptoms may be warning signs of gingivitis, the early stage of gum disease. If left untreated, gum disease can become the more severe periodontitis (literally meaning “inflammation around the teeth”). Gum disease is typically caused by subpar brushing and flossing habits that allow plaque—a thick buildup of bacteria—to stick to teeth, which then inflames the surrounding gums. But what’s going on in your mouth says a lot about your health and beauty. Symptoms such as bleeding or swollen gums, bad breath or tenderness in the mouth can give insight to larger issues within the body.
“Not taking care of one’s teeth can have damaging, and even fatal results,” says Thomas Connelly, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in NYC. He says issues such as prolonged swelling or bleeding of the gums should be treated the same way you would any other type of health issue. “A person wouldn’t ignore a persistent cold or prolonged sharp pain in their chest or arms and legs, so it is just as important to treat the mouth with the same sense of vigilance and consideration.”
Luckily, healthy teeth may be just a Starbucks away. Drinking green tea daily may promote healthy gums. A study that included 940 men, ages 49 to 59, who drank the potent polyphenol-laden brew regularly, had superior periodontal health than those who sipped on less, research in the Journal of Periodontology reports. “Periodontal disease is not only caused by bacteria but our immune system destroying healthy gum and bone tissue while trying to kill bacteria,” explains Dr. Connelly. “This study shows that the antioxidant catechin, found in green tea, helps reduce inflammation and therefore can decrease the overall damage caused by the immune system’s response to the present bacteria.”
WATCH VIDEO: A Review of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
Beauty issue: Excessive thinning and loss of hair—to the point that you see more scalp than strands.
Getting to the root of hair loss can make you want to well, pull your hair out. “It can be genetic but many other factors including diet, hormones, taking medications like beta blockers for high blood pressure, as well as extreme stress can play a role,” says Dr. Sadick. A highly stressful event that occurred several months before you start to notice disappearing strands could also be the culprit. The reason: your hair growth cycle is made up of three parts. The anagen stage (aka growth stage) lasts for two to eight years; the intermediate catagen phase happens for two to four weeks; and the telogen, referred to as the shedding cycle can go on for two to four months. And since shedding during the final shedding stage is as its name implies, completely normal, approximately 50 to 100 hairs should pop up in your hair brush and shower drain every day. But if you start to notice sudden or continuous hair loss or thinning, consult with your doctor, not just mention it in passing to your stylist the next time you get a trim.
Possible health concern: Diabetes, celiac disease, immune disorders such as lupus or a hormonal imbalance like those related to thyroid conditions and an increase in testosterone, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Using hair as a barometer for what’s going on—or what you put into—your body is not new. Taking hair samples is common practice for drug tests since many substances in the bloodstream make their way to strands. Because hair lingers on your head before making its way through all three growing phases, your hair reflects your diet, health and lifestyle choices from several months ago.
“Health conditions can cause inflammation and hormonal manipulation and therefore interfere with the hair growth cycle,” says Dr. Sadick. “It’s extremely important to treat the underlying disorder or cause by taking the proper medication or making lifestyle changes as directed by your physician.” Other potential hair helpers: Avoid the five food felons. Eat a healthy diet that includes protein, the building block of hair, check for nutritional allergies like celiac disease, and cease taking certain medications that state hair loss as a side effect (of course, only if you get the green light by your doc). Then sit tight and wait for the three to six months it could take to see any signs of new growth.
WATCH VIDEO: Why Warts FormBeauty issue: Severe acne, a surge in hair growth in abnormal places such as your upper lip, side of your face and on your chest, as well as noticeably thinning hair (plus, you’ve got inconsistent periods and weight gain).
Having a few bouts of bad breakouts or a spotty menstrual cycle shouldn’t arouse concern, but experience three or more of the above symptoms consistently and that’s when you should see your doctor, says Dr. Downie. She notes that patients coming in with acne or thinning hair alone are common practice. An estimated 40-50 million Americans suffer from acne at some point in their lives, and about 30 million American women experience hair loss, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Possible health concern: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that may cause cysts to grow in the ovaries and stimulates an excess production of androgen, a predominately male hormone, explains R. Jeffrey Chang, M.D., director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, in La Jolla, California. “Although the cause of PCOS remains unknown, it’s believed to be an inherited disorder,” he says.
It’s this boost in androgen levels that can cause the slew of not-so-pretty symptoms mentioned above—including a rise in sebum and oil production. The surge also leads to acne and increase in hair growth in androgen sensitive areas (essentially where men, not women, typically have a lot of hair). If your doctor suspects PCOS, a blood test can confirm abnormal hormone levels, however, it’s not a surefire method since it’s possible that results come back normal. “It happens a lot that patients show clear visible signs of hormonal imbalances, yet their hormonal levels don’t read that way,” says Dr. Day. In these cases you might have hormonal hypersensitivities and your doctor might treat the physical symptoms accordingly.
Along with a visit to a dermatologist, it’s important to make an appointment with your gynecologist to get an ultrasound, which uses high frequency sound waves to produce a clear image of the ovaries, allowing doctors to locate cysts. If you are diagnosed with PCOS, your doctor may suggest an oral contraceptive as well as oral Spironolactone, originally designed as a diuretic, both of which have proven anti-PCOS powers.