The skin is the largest organ in the body—and one of the most important. It performs many essential functions, such as protecting against germs and helping regulate temperature. Your skin also serves as a sort of early warning system for everything that is going on inside of your body. In fact, your skin is talking to you all of the time. But are you listening to what it has to tell you?
Below, five skin signals and what they might mean.
Skin Signal: Brown-gray, velvety patches of skin
Possible Meaning: Diabetes
Acanthosis nigricans is a gray, brown, or black poorly defined, velvety hyperpigmentation of the skin. The discoloration appears in the creases and folds of the body, such as the groin, underarms, or neck. Acanthosis nigricans can be genetically inherited and is often associated with obesity and endocrine disorders. The discoloration can be harmless or it can be an early warning sign of type 2 diabetes. The bottom line—if you spot these areas of discoloration on your body, don’t be alarmed, but do see a doctor. A dermatologist can diagnose acanthosis nigricans and refer you to an internist or endocrinologist who can assess the underlying cause and make recommendations for lifestyle changes.
Skin Signal: Intense itchiness
Possible Meaning: Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
It’s one thing to have an itch—it’s quite another to have severe, persistent itchiness that just doesn’t go away. This kind of itchiness can be triggered by an excess number of abnormal cells circulating in the bloodstream, which could be an early warning sign of Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If you experience itching that feels like it is underneath your skin and you can’t find relief with anti-itch creams or antihistamines, it could be a sign of a deeper problem. Consult your doctor if you experience severe, persistent itchiness, especially if it is accompanied by swelling of the lymph nodes, shortness of breath, or fatigue. When caught early, both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas have a good prognosis.
Skin Signal: Many deep wrinkles
Possible Meaning: Reduced bone density
According to the results of a recent study, firmer skin is associated with higher bone density, and skin with more wrinkles is associated with lower bone density. Researchers continue to study the reason for this, but they speculate that it’s the result of a decrease in collagen production. These proteins are critical building blocks for both bone and skin health. As we age, collagen production declines and can result in sagging skin and reduced bone density—which could lead to a higher risk of bone fractures. If you have many deep wrinkles, you may want to ask your doctor for a bone density scan. Low bone density is associated with osteoporosis—but you can slow bone losswith lifestyle changes such as exercise, calcium, and vitamin D.
Skin Signal: Dull, dry skin
Possible Meaning: Deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a critical component of a healthy diet for many reasons—they support brain function, reduce inflammation, and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) also support scalp health and lock in moisture. A deficiency in EFAs can interfere with the natural exfoliation cycle and result in dry skin or dandruff. Omega-3s are critical for health, so if you notice dull, dry skin or hair, it could be a sign that you are deficient. If you want to increase your omega-3 intake, you can swallow a tablespoon of fish oil each morning or simply be sure to consume foods rich in omega-3s, such as eggs, salmon, spinach, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Skin Signal: Discoloration or swelling of lower legs
Possible Meaning: Venous insufficiency
If you notice discoloration—or worse, swelling—of your lower legs, it could be a sign that your veins are not working properly. When blood flows to your legs, veins have to pump it back to your body’s core. If the veins struggle to transport the blood, it will collect in the lower legs, resulting in discoloration and swelling. There are a variety of conditions that could cause vein problems. This is one time when you should make an appointment with a physician to identify and treat the problem.
 Pal L, Kidwai N, Glockenberg K, et al. Skin wrinkling and rigidity are predictive of bone mineral density in early postmenopausal women. Endocrine Review, Vol. 32 (03_MeetingAbstracts): P3-126.