skin care

Let Your True Color Shine: How to Treat and Prevent Sallow Skin

By April 30, 2021 No Comments

Does your skin look dull, yellowish, or like it’s been drained of its typical hue? No matter your skin tone, a change in its usual color and appearance can indicate sallow skin.

Sallow skin is commonly known to be the result of certain biological and lifestyle factors, but a lesser-known root cause? Photoaging. Photoaging is the accelerated aging of the skin due to unprotected exposure to UV light from the sun. It leads to a range of skin conditions, including sallow skin.

While photoaging is a prime instigator of sallow skin, it’s not the only culprit. Skin can become sallow for a variety of reasons, and there’s a different solution for each one. Avoiding sallow isn’t shallow—it’s making healthy skin a priority.

Signs of sallow skin

You’ll know if your skin is sallow if it’s lacking its normal, natural complexion. The main symptoms to look out for are a change in color, radiance, and smoothness. Essentially, sallow skin looks noticeably less healthy than before. These are the signs that you have sallow skin:

  • Skin discoloration: Skin appears paler, yellower, or browner than your normal tone
  • Dullness: A decrease of the skin’s normal glow and brightness
  • Uneven skin tone: When the skin is rough, flaky, or patchy in texture or color

Causes of sallow skin

There is a range of factors that lead to sallow skin—both those you can and can’t control. What you can prepare for is how you either responsively treat or proactively prevent sallow skin, and each cause of sallow skin has its own unique solution.

1. Photoaging

Photoaging is the medical term for what happens to sun-damaged skin. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun over time prematurely ages the skin, so this is a type of aging independent from merely growing older. Photoaging shows up in a variety of ways, including fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, rough skin texture, and yes, sallow skin.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, sallow skin is a clinical sign of photoaging1. Because anyone can experience photoaging regardless of skin tone or race, no one is immune to it. It affects all skin types.

The good news is there are concrete, proven ways to mitigate photoaging.

Treatment plan: Prevention with skincare

In addition to many other benefits, retinoids (vitamin A derivatives like tretinoin and retinol) help protect the skin from sun damage, so they’re good options if you or your doctor suspects photoaging could be the cause of your sallow skin. Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Night Shift, is a powerful treatment for photodamaged skin. According to a clinical study, it successfully restored sallow skin to its natural color and improved texture and decreased wrinkles2.

Using sunscreen and avoiding direct sunlight for extended periods of time are essential in preventing photoaging. Get a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, applying 15 minutes before you go in the sun and every two hours.

Antioxidants are another effective tool in preventing photoaging3, including vitamin E and ascorbic acid, among others. Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a potent skincare treatment that’s gentle on the skin. For skincare purposes, it’s available as a convenient topical solution, delivering antioxidants directly to the skin. Niacinamide is a proven treatment for sallow skin, so this is a very accessible remedy to seek out.

Vitamin C is a protective antioxidant that the skin loves and another powerful tool to combat sallow skin caused by photoaging. The best vitamin C serums also contain vitamin E, doubling their effectiveness4.

What is the best way to implement these preventative skincare treatments on a daily basis? Start with these three key steps to get back your healthy, glowing skin: cleanse, treat, and protect. Let’s break it down specifically for preventing and treating sallow skin. Take note of the frequency and timing of each part of the routine.

  • Cleanse: The first step to starting your skincare routine is to wash your face with a cleanser, then exfoliate with polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) that repair glycation that can cause sallowness. Clean your face morning and night. You can use your PHA at any time of day—just be sure to use it separately from your retinoids.
  • Treat: Incorporate vitamin C serum in the morning to prepare the skin for sun exposure. Apply niacinamide at night to repair DNA5 and a derm-grade retinoid proven to treat photoaging.
  • Protect: Use a moisturizer to heal and hydrate the skin in the morning and at night. And last but certainly not least, did we mention sunscreen? To prevent photoaging and, ultimately, sallow skin, apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every morning before you go out in the sun and then every two hours.

2. Medical and biological causes

When something is going on internally in the body, like an underlying or preexisting health condition, it often reflects externally—on the skin. These are the top conditions that can lead to a sallow complexion.

  • Anemia: Anemia is the most common blood disorder and develops when there’s an insufficient amount of red blood cells to distribute oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency, compromised bone marrow, sickle cell disease, and vitamin deficiency can all lead to anemia. Among fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, and chest pains, sallow skin is a main symptom of anemia.
  • Vitamin deficiency: The most important vitamins for skin health include vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin B12, and niacin (or B3). These are necessary to ward off a variety of skin problems, like rough and dry skin, bruising, dark spots, sun damage, and, you guessed it—sallow skin.
  • Dehydration: Water is a basic requirement for survival that can often be neglected. Dehydration that results from a lack of water consumption manifests in many ways, including sallow skin. Dehydration can be exacerbated by too much caffeine and alcohol, both liquids known to dry out the skin.
  • Maillard reaction: The Maillard reaction is a natural process that happens in the skin as it ages, producing advanced glycation end-products (AGEs)6. AGEs occur when sugar bonds with proteins and alters them. This can weaken elasticity and cause the skin to become yellow or brown—a.k.a. sallow7.

Treatment plan: Prevention and responsive remedies

  • Anemia: Combatting anemia requires a combination of preventative and responsive measures. Since iron deficiency is often linked to anemia, you can often treat it with iron supplements and an iron-rich diet. Vitamin B12 can also help. Before you go buy any supplements, though, talk to your primary care doctor. They can measure your iron levels to determine if this is the root cause of your symptoms.
  • Vitamin deficiency: Eat a healthy, nutrient-rich, balanced diet to maintain your overall health. Talk to your doctor before taking any vitamin supplements so they can determine the exact nutrients you’re lacking.
  • Dehydration: This one’s pretty straightforward: Drink about eight glasses of water a day to maintain hydration, and limit caffeine and alcohol.
  • Maillard reaction: PHAs applied as a topical solution significantly reduce the effects of sallow skin caused by AGEs8. A dermatologist can help determine if PHAs would be beneficial for your skincare regimen. Unlike AHAs and BHAs, PHAs won’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you can use them at any time of the day. Like any exfoliating serum, we recommend using them separately from your retinoids.

3. Lifestyle causes

Circumstances, habits, behaviors, and other complexities of human nature can affect our skin. The following lifestyle factors can lead to sallow skin.

  • Smoking: Smoking causes the skin to age prematurely by inhibiting oxygen to the skin and reducing collagen, resulting in dryness and dull, sallow skin.
  • Sleep deprivation: It’s called “beauty sleep” for a reason. Not sleeping well here and there happens, and that alone doesn’t cause sallow skin. However, if it’s happening regularly, that’s a different story.
  • Stress: Not only can stress affect mental health, but often, it can show up in physical ways. Stress can increase the cortisol hormone, and too much cortisol—especially in the case of chronic stress—can cause sallow skin, among other negative responses.
  • Ignoring skincare: Free radicals or pollutants in the air are everywhere. If you don’t routinely cleanse, moisturize, and protect the skin, that can lead to all sorts of repercussions, among them sallow skin.

Treatment plan: Prevention and responsive remedies

  • Smoking: The simple solution is to completely stop smoking. Of course, smoking is highly addictive, so this is much easier said than done. There are plenty of resources to help quit smoking, including cessation techniques and nicotine supplements.
  • Lack of sleep: Adults should aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Improve your sleep habits by going to sleep at the same time every night, avoiding screen time before bed, limiting caffeine, and getting exercise during the day.
  • Stress: Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, but the way we deal with it is what matters. Effective stress coping mechanisms include meditation, exercise, having a support system, and making time for relaxing and activities that bring you joy.

Take action to tackle sallow skin

Sallow skin has many opportunities to show up. Regardless of the reason your skin has turned sallow, a combination of preventative and responsive treatments will bring the life—and natural color—back to your skin.

Specifically when it comes to a skincare routine, start treatments we outlined above gradually to give your skin a chance to adapt to your new skincare products. Stop using anything that irritates your skin, and talk to your derm to tweak your routine for your skin.

Skincare can be confusing, but we’re here to help! Feel free to email us if you have any questions.


  1. Pandel, R. et al. (2013, September 12). Skin photoaging and the role of antioxidants in its prevention. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3789494/
  2. Weiss, J. S., et al. (1991, January). Tretinoin treatment of photodamaged skin. cosmesis through medical therapy. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2022089/
  3. Pandel, R., et al. (2013, September 12). Skin photoaging and the role of antioxidants in its prevention. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3789494/
  4. Lin, F., & Et al. (2005, October 1). Ferulic Acid Stabilizes a Solution of Vitamins C and E and Doubles its Photoprotection of Skin. Retrieved from https://www.jidonline.org/article/S0022-202X(15)32491-X/fulltext
  5. Thomas, B. C.; et al. (2014, July). Nicotinamide enhances repair of ultraviolet radiation-induced dna damage in primary melanocytes. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24798949/
  6. Antiaging bionic and polyhydroxy acids reduce nonenzymatic protein glycation and skin sallowness. (2014, May 1). Retrieved from https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(14)00094-2/fulltext
  7. Levin, J., DO, & Momin, S., DO. (2010, February). How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921764/
  8. Antiaging bionic and polyhydroxy acids reduce nonenzymatic protein glycation and skin sallowness. (2014, May 1). Retrieved from https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(14)00094-2/fulltext
Angela Rollins

Angela Rollins

Angela is a health enthusiast who is passionate about taking care of ourselves inside and out. She believes that by prioritizing our wellness, we can feel more confident in our skin. Angela is devoted to making skincare science accessible for all so that you can make educated decisions for your skin’s health.

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