How to Brighten a Dull Complexion

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Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Sweeping blush across your cheeks can help brighten your complexion and give off a healthy glow. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.

You want to present the best face possible to the world. To many people, a bright, glowing complexion often means health and happiness. When your complexion looks dull and ashen, however, the face you present might suggest that you're tired, worn down, ill or even older than you are.

On top of being the largest organ in your body, your skin is the most significant feature of your face and serves as a major indicator of overall physical health. If your skin looks sallow, don't give up. Turn away from the mirror and find out what you can do to restore a healthy, more youthful glow to your face. Diet changes, skin care products and a dermatologist's care all can help brighten a dull complexion.


Cosmetic procedures are not the only remedy for unhealthy skin, nor are they the most effective. In fact, staying hydrated remains one of the simplest and least expensive ways to maintain skin health. A healthy diet can greatly improve your complexion, too. Recent studies are beginning to link choices in diet and overall skin health, and scientists believe that certain foods aggravate some skin conditions while others increase skin health. Healthy foods that are rich in nutrients most likely strengthen skin cells and skin tissue, promoting a robust complexion [source: Science Daily].

Other non-surgical ways of rejuvenating your skin include moisturizing, exfoliating and, if you decide to, wearing the right makeup. The following pages will explore ways in which you can remedy a dull complexion and improve the overall health of your skin. As with all physiological concerns and conditions, you may want to consult your doctor to learn the best possible solutions for your individual skin type and well-being.

Read on to learn more about the ways in which your lifestyle impacts the face you put on every day.


Lifestyle Changes for a Brighter Complexion

Although you might not want to judge a book by its cover, you can judge your internal health by the health of your skin. Good health -- and healthy skin -- often starts with diet. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in valuable nutrients can improve not only your physical well-being but also your physical appearance. In general, eating a mix of colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, will go a long way toward improving your nutrient intake.

For skin in particular, vitamin A is top of the list. Found in vegetables with beta carotene (the orange ones), vitamin A strengthens skin cells. Low-fat dairy products also pack a good vitamin A punch. However, health conditions such as thyroid disease may inhibit the body's ability to convert vitamin A for use. You should consult your doctor about any of these concerns [source: Science Daily].


Studies show that antioxidants, especially the group known as flavonoids, may enhance skin health by neutralizing free radicals that attack and break down skin cells. It's easy to remember which foods contain antioxidants because they are rich in color -- for example, berries, cherries, red grapes, oranges, lemons and limes. Vitamins C and E also defend against free radicals. Citrus fruits contain vitamin C, and certain oils, cereals, nuts and sunflower seeds provide vitamin E [source: International Food Information Council].

Essential fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts, canola oil and flax seeds, promote healthy cell membranes that hold moisture inside skin cells. More moisture in the skin enhances the health and appearance of your skin. Nutrient-rich oils, such as olive oil and oils labeled cold pressed, expeller processed, or extra virgin, also contain essential fatty acids [source: WebMD].

Drinking an adequate amount of fluids -- especially water -- can enhance many aspects of your health. When you are thirsty, grab a glass of water instead of beverages high in sugar and caffeine. Water increases skin moisture and helps flush wastes and toxins from your body. And instead of coffee or black tea, you might consider drinking green tea. Green tea provides anti-inflammatory benefits and protects cell membranes [source: WebMD].

Other lifestyle remedies for dull skin include getting enough sleep and exercise. Again, the healthier you are overall, the healthier your skin will be and appear. Read on to learn other steps you can take to prevent and treat skin damage.


Exfoliating for a Brighter Complexion

Once you've improved your diet, you want to make sure that your healthy skin shows. One way to boost your skin's healthful appearance is by exfoliating, the process of removing dead skin cells.

Your skin has several layers. The outermost layer, called the epidermis, consists of five sublayers. The outermost of these, known as the stratum corneum, is actually dead. The dead skin cells found in this layer protect the healthy, living cells underneath. Usually, the dead cells fall off and replenish about every two weeks [source: King]. Exfoliation helps remove those cells instead of allowing them to build up.


The average person should exfoliate twice a week. However, older skin does not renew as quickly, so too much scrubbing can do more harm than good. In contrast, heat increases oil and sweat production, which speeds up the accumulation of dead cells and requires more frequent exfoliation [source: Health].

You can find many types of skin scrubs and exfoliants at your local drugstore and in other stores. You may wish to try one of these products, but you can also exfoliate by taking a clean, damp washcloth that has a rough or bumpy texture and apply your preferred skin cleanser, gently rubbing the surface of your skin. You can also soap up exfoliating gloves and rub your hands over your face as though you were washing. If you use exfoliating gloves, be sure to rinse and dry them thoroughly so they don't trap dead skin cells or develop mold or bacteria. Avoid using sponges because they also will hold onto dead cells and breed bacteria [source: Health].

Now that you've improved your diet and worked off extra dead skin cells, continue reading to learn about the benefits of moisturizing.


Moisturizing for a Brighter Complexion

Dead skin cells don't absorb moisture well, so exfoliating prepares your skin to get the most out of your moisturizer. Exfoliating exposes fresh skin that is better able to soak up moisturizer; however, to pick the best type of moisturizer for your skin, you need to know what varieties are out there.

So what do moisturizers do for skin? Normally, the middle layer of your skin, called the dermis, passes water up to the outer layer, or the epidermis. Once it reaches the surface, water then evaporates. When the amount of water is too low, however, your skin will start to dry out. That water then evaporates. Moisturizer helps the epidermis hold onto water -- and a healthy glow -- for longer [source: Skin Care Guide].


Moisturizers line drugstore shelves and department store counters. Although the number of ingredients may seem dizzying, the main ingredients in most moisturizers are humectants and emollients. Humectants draw water from the air to your skin and help keep it there. This is great if you live in a very humid climate, but humectants don't do much in dry weather. Urea, glycerin and alpha hydroxy acids are examples of humectants.

Emollients, on the other hand, sink into the spaces between skin cells and help replace the lipids that make your skin look healthier [source: Mayo Clinic]. Emollients include oils from plants, minerals and animals, as well as shea butter, cocoa butter, petrolatum, cholesterol and silicones. Water-based moisturizers are lighter and lack the greasy residue of oil-based moisturizers, but they do not last as long.

More expensive products are not necessarily better. Try a few different moisturizers until you find one that works well for you. You may want to consult a dermatologist to learn about the best moisturizers available. If you have any concerns about ingredients, test the moisturizer on a small patch of skin for a reaction before applying it to your entire face. When using moisturizer, be sure to apply it when your skin is still damp to help trap water in those skin cells.

Sometimes, exfoliating and moisturizing aren't enough. In the next section, you'll learn about the available medical options meant to brighten your complexion.


Complexion-Brightening Procedures

If you still feel dull and ashen, it may be time to see the dermatologist. Doctors may suggest a chemical peel, dermabrasion or laser surgery. To make an informed decision, you should understand what happens during each of these skin resurfacing procedures.

Chemical peels are exactly what they sound like -- a doctor applies one or more chemicals to your skin to peel back a dead or dying layer and reveal the brighter layer underneath. Chemical peels may also help reduce lines and acne scars and even skin pigment. They do carry risks, however. Any chemical can be harmful, and the substances used in chemical peels can cause blistering and scarring or change your skin tone. If you decide that you want to try chemical peels, be sure to have a doctor perform the procedure. Even though some states permit others to apply chemical peels, doctors are best equipped to deal with any complications and give you appropriate information [source: Ohio State University Medical Center].


Dermabrasion and dermaplaning surgically scrape the skin, and doctors usually reserve them for deeper skin problems, such as acne scarring. If you simply want to perk up your skin, dermabrasion and dermaplaning may not be the best solution for you.

Microdermabrasion is likely a better choice for skin brightening. Instead of scraping the skin, surgeons use a tool that sprays tiny abrasive crystals over the skin; a vacuum removes the dead layer of skin. You will not notice a difference immediately with microdermabrasion. Swelling and crusty skin is normal, followed by several weeks of redness.

Laser surgery goes deeper than microdermabrasion, and doctors mainly reserve the procedure for acne scarring and sun-damaged skin with wrinkles. Laser surgery uses light waves to vaporize the top layer of skin, exposing new skin beneath. As with any surgery, there are preoperative and postoperative steps you have to take, and you should discuss potential risks with a qualified doctor before making a decision [source: American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery].

If you can't or don't want to change your skin, then you have one more option. On the next page, learn some easy makeup tips to hide dull skin.


Makeup Tips for a Brighter Complexion

You have a date, a family portrait, an interview or some other special occasion for which you want to look your best -- and hydrating, exfoliating and moisturizing haven't done the trick yet. If you wear makeup, however, it's possible to alter your look without changing your skin.

First, make sure you use a gentle cleanser before you start working with powders and other cosmetics. Then, lay the foundation for brighter skin by choosing a liquid that contains vitamin C, which may lessen the appearance of blotchiness and make your skin tone more uniform. Liquid products typically beat powder ones for brightness, because the water in the makeup reflects light.


Next, find the correct colors for your skin tone. Look at your skin when you're in the sun. If you notice a bronze, gold, green or yellowish cast, you have warm undertones. Cool skin will have a pink, rosy, beige or brown cast. Once you know your undertones, you can select the best shades of foundation and other makeup to complement your skin. If you have trouble, ask a cosmetics salesperson for help. Remember that the best foundation should perfectly blend with your natural skin color, not change it.

To add a bit of glow to your complexion, you can dust blush or bronze powder across prominent facial features such as your cheekbones. For the finishing touch, you may want to use a liquid iridescent highlighter. Just like the highlighter you use on books or notes to make text jump out, a facial highlighter will attract eyes by increasing your skin's glow. You can also mix it with your foundation for an all-over glow or use it to contour cheeks and highlight brow bones.

For lots more information on complexion and skin care, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. "Facial Peels and Laser Surgery." (Aug. 13, 2009)
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Foods for Healthy Skin: You Are What You Eat." WebMD. Aug. 1, 2006. (Aug. 11, 2009)
  • Ehrenfeld, Temma. "Is Chocolate Bad for Your Skin?" Newsweek. Feb. 7, 2008. (Aug. 11, 2009)
  • "Exfoliating 101: How to Let Fresh, Radiant Skin Shine Through." Feb. 20, 2009. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • International Food Information Council. "Functional Foods Fact Sheet: Antioxidants." March 2006. (Aug. 11, 2009)
  • King, David. "Introduction to Skin Histology." Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. June 24, 2009. (Aug. 12, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Botox Injections." Aug. 2, 2008. (Aug. 18, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Moisturizers: Options for Softer Skin." Dec. 16, 2008. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Medline Plus. "Botox." Aug. 3, 2009. (Aug. 18, 2009)
  • Ohio State University Medical Center. "Chemical Peel." 2009. (Aug. 13, 2009)
  • Science Daily. "What to Eat for Glowing Healthy Skin." Nov. 15, 2007. (Aug. 11, 2009)
  • Skin Care Guide. "An Overview of Skin Moisturizers." 2005. (Aug. 12, 2009)