Dermatologist Dr Phillip Artemi helps us decipher the cosmetic clues to illnesses that might be staring you right in the face. By Pip Harry.
Cosmetic clue: patchy dry skin
The simplest answer: A low-humidity climate or normal ageing
As we age our oil glands get smaller, which leads to drier skin, particularly around the leg area. “A cold, low-humidity climate will also tend to dry out skin,” says Artemi. “When it’s cooler out, we tend to do the wrong things by our skin – have long hot showers, use a lot of soaps, have long soaks in the tub, use a lot of woollen fabrics. Some medications can also dry out skin, including diuretics and cholesterol drugs.”
You can improve dry skin by taking short, warm (not hot) showers using soap-free cleansers, moisturising regularly and wearing cotton clothing.
But it could be: psoriasis
People affected by psoriasis have skin cells that grow too quickly, which can cause a dry build-up. It’s a genetic condition that’s most common in women aged 30 to 50. “Psoriasis sufferers get patches of skin that are thick and elevated and have a white, silvery scale,” says Artemi. “Those patches can be dry, but their skin in general isn’t dry.”
Psoriasis is very localised and often occurs in scaly patches on the scalp, elbows, knees, palms or soles of the feet. It’s easy for your GP or dermatologist to diagnose the condition, which can be treated with oral and topical medications or ultraviolet light treatment. It's vital to keep skin moisturised to avoid scratching.
Cosmetic clue: adult acne
The simplest answer: A hormone imbalance
“Adult acne is really common and usually occurs in women. It can be a continuation of teenage acne but a lot of women say it has developed in adult life,” says Artemi. “With true adult acne you don’t see many blackheads or whiteheads; it's red bumps and pustules. It’s invariably a hormone imbalance of some kind. Treatment is normally a combination of hormone therapy and traditional acne treatment.”
But it could be: Pyoderma faciale
A relative of rosacea called pyoderma faciale can cause lumps and pustules on the face that closely resemble severe acne. “Pyoderma faciale usually occurs during pregnancy,” says Artemi. “The woman may have a background of rosacea and it suddenly gets out of control, causing nasty pimples on the face.”
The treatment is similar to controlling aggressive acne and the anti-acne drug Roaccutane may be prescribed, but it’s unsuitable during pregnancy. “[Pregnant women] just have to be nursed through with safe topical measures and safe antibiotics,” says Artemi. “If it hasn’t settled after childbirth, we can then try Roaccutane and antibiotics.”
Cosmetic clue: thinning hair
The simplest answer: Genetics, stress or hormonal changes
Female hair loss is fairly common and normal, says Artemi. “In women it tends to occur post-menopausally, due to hormonal changes, and they get thinning of the hair rather than bald patches. Hair loss can also occur after pregnancy or major stress and is usually reversible.” Treatments include hormone therapy (if the hair loss is linked to menopause) and topical hair regrowth treatments.
But it could be: Autoimmune disease
Some autoimmune disorders such as lupus, Graves’ disease (the most common form of hyperthyroidism), multiple sclerosis and arthritis can cause the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack healthy cells, including the hair roots. Signs you might have an autoimmune disease include defined circular patches of baldness with rapid onset. “Certainly, you can get thinning of hair due to autoimmune disease,” says Artemi. “Be aware if your hair loss occurs in an unusual age group or time of life and see your GP for further testing.”
Autoimmune disorders range from severe to mild and there are more than 80 different kinds. Treatments usually involve anti-inflammatory and steroid medications, immunosuppressant drugs, and physical therapy.
For more health tips pick up the February issue of Good Health magazine at magshop.co.nz.