Contrary to popular opinion, your mirror is not just skin deep. A quick glance at it can reveal signs that you drink excessively, take drugs, are nutritionally deficient or have a medical illness. Paying attention to what you see in the mirror can reveal what’s going on below the surface.
Next time you’re looking in the mirror, have a look at your skin and eyes and compare what you see to this handy guide.
What the eyes reveal
People tend to dismiss eye bags as the result of fatigue and lack of sleep, but puffy eyes can occur for other reasons too:
— Allergies from exposure to airborne allergens, or to a product being applied on or near the eyes (especially cosmetics or eye drops containing preservatives) may cause swelling.
— Overdoing salt in our diet results in fluid retention. Australians typically eat three to four times more salt than the recommended half teaspoon daily, which also increases the risk of high blood pressure.
— Ageing — in its typically cruel fashion — causes fatty tissue that normally surrounds and protects the eye within the bony socket to protrude more.
— Medical conditions like thyroid disease can cause swelling of tissue around the eye and even cause the eyes to bulge. This should be investigated by a doctor.
— Fatty deposits visible on the upper eyelid skin can be a sign of high cholesterol.
— Yellowing of the white part of the eye is due to jaundice, from liver problems.
Skin colour changes
Human skin tones vary a great deal, but a noticeable change in skin colour can be a sign of illness or poor health.
Yellow discolouration and redness are two signs to look for.
Yellow discolouration of the eye and skin is due to jaundice, which may indicate:
— Inflammation of the liver from excessive alcohol.
— Liver damage from recreational drugs or prescribed medications.
— Viral infections including glandular fever and hepatitis.
— Blockage of the bile duct with gallstones or tumours. Jaundice should always be investigated by a doctor.
— Orange skin (especially on the hands), may result from too much of a good thing. Excessive consumption of carotene-rich foods such as carrots and oranges can make you like you’ve had a bad spray tan.
Facial redness can be a sign of:
— Excessive sun exposure and permanent dilation of blood vessels giving a ruddy appearance. This is also associated with a higher risk of skin cancer.
— Rosacea, a skin condition with redness, pimply spots and flushing may also be associated with migraines.
— Redness and rash across the cheeks and nose in a butterfly pattern, worsened by sun exposure may be a marker for lupus, an immune disorder which can also affect kidneys and joints.
— Skin darkening and thickening in creases, particularly the armpits and neck (called acanthosis), may result from insulin resistance or diabetes.
— Generalised darkening of skin may indicate a genetic condition called haemochromatosis, with a buildup of excess iron in the body.
— Pale skin, especially if seen in the palm creases, inner eyelids and gums can be a sign of anaemia or iron deficiency.
Unexplained dry skin
There are many reasons why your skin may be dry, including ageing.
In winter months, dryness follows hot soapy showers, home heating and low humidity. Skin dryness can also be a sign of medical conditions such as eczema, thyroid abnormalities, and medications (including cholesterol lowering agents).
Nutritional deficiency of zinc and vitamins A, B and C can result in skin dryness too.
Too much or too little hair
Hairiness can be genetic, but hormonal changes may cause too much hair to grow in unwanted places.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome may occur in up to 10% of women, and along with excess hair growth, this syndrome is also associated with weight gain, reduced fertility, menstrual irregularity and acne.
The list of reasons we lose hair is long. Normal cyclic hair shedding, hormonal changes (especially after pregnancy), medications, nutritional deficiencies, immune disorders and diseases such as thyroid disease are some possible causes.
A doctor can investigate if loss is prolonged or excessive.
Nails that change
Nails that are brittle and split easily can be a sign of iron or vitamin deficiency (biotin, folate and vitamin C).
Medical conditions such as thyroid disorders, lung or heart problems can result in clubbing or curved nails, while pitted, discoloured and lifted nails may result from psoriasis, that also causes a red scaly rash on elbows, knees, and scalp.
Nails are made of keratin (like hair), and not calcium (like bones), so increasing calcium or dairy intake will not improve nail strength. There is some evidence that daily biotin (vitamin B7) supplements may strengthen fragile nails.