Ruddy, pink cheeks and a healthy glow are often signs of youth and vigor – but a too-rosy hue can indicate something more sinister: sunburn, acne, an unexplained rash or underlying health condition, to name a few possible causes. Redness on your face can be an embarrassing and frustrating problem, but luckily there are several treatments to help turn down the heat and restore your natural complexion.
Physicians often diagnose unexplained facial redness as rosacea, a condition that can have a number of different triggers and usually affects adults ages 30 and up, says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. "Rosacea is basically the word for dilated blood vessels in the nose and cheeks that cause a bright red color on the face," he says. "And for some people, managing rosacea is simply a matter of identifying its causes and finding ways to avoid them."
Ultraviolet exposure from the sun, for example, can worsen an existing case of rosacea. For some people, so can spicy foods or hot beverages, like coffee. Another common trigger, says Benabio, is wind. "Making sure you have a nice, thick moisturizer with you to shield your face if you're going sailing or skiing can help prevent flare-ups," he says.
For some people, though, avoiding these triggers isn't enough to calm their chronic redness. While rosacea is not considered a "curable" condition, there are medications that may help reduce symptoms. Dermatologists often prescribe an antibacterial face wash or a sulfa-based cleanser for sensitive skin. A topical antibiotic cream or oral antibiotic may also be helpful in reducing the inflammation and pimple-like bumps caused by the condition.
Sometimes, over-the-counter or prescription acne medication may also be useful -- but because people with rosacea tend to have very sensitive skin, you should use acne drugs only under a dermatologist's supervision. In the most severe cases, Benabio says, laser treatments can lighten the appearance of permanently damaged blood vessels, as well.
Easy Ways to Reduce Temporary Redness
Of course, not all red skin is caused by rosacea; there are other reasons why your normally healthy looking complexion could suddenly take on a scarlet hue. Two of the most common reasons are sunburn and windburn, says Diane Berson, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.
If Sunburn Is the Cause...
Prevent sunburn by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, anytime you go outside, and be sure to reapply after swimming or sweating, or anytime you're out there longer than two hours. And take special precautions if you're currently taking any medications: Some topical acne treatments -- as well as some oral medications -- can increase the skin's sensitivity to sun's rays.
If Windburn Is the Cause...
As for windy days, a scarf or face mask is usually your best protection against the elements. If you're unable to cover up completely, make sure you're wearing a thick moisturizer, says Benabio. And spending hours in a windy environment, like on a ski slope or a motorboat, may require extra protection. Slathering a petroleum jelly product, like Vaseline, onto the exposed areas of your face may help form a barrier and protect against burn.
If Your Face Is Red After You Wash It...
If your skin tends to get red after it's washed, it's probably a sign that you need a more gentle cleanser or that you're using something too abrasive, like a washcloth or loofah, to scrub your face. You may be able to solve this problem, though, by choosing a mild cleanser (like Cetaphil's Gentle Cleansing Bar) and washing only with your fingers, rather than with a cloth or sponge. Don't use face washes that foam or contain alcohol (which can be drying) or that have a grainy texture (which can be irritating to sensitive skin), says Berson.
Applying a moisturizer immediately after washing your face can help reduce redness caused by dry and irritated skin. If that's not enough, makeup may help camouflage some of that color, as well. "To absorb oil, camouflage redness and prevent irritation, look for mineral-based cosmetics that contain powdered formulas of silica, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide," says Berson. "Some cosmeceuticals now also include anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as niacinamide for barrier repair, and antioxidants."
Finally, a red face may also be a sign of another condition going on elsewhere in your body. You may get red in the face when you're embarrassed or after a hard workout -- and that's totally normal, says Berson. But if your face suddenly gets red or feels flushed for no apparent reason (and it doesn't get better quickly on its own), talk to your doctor. It could be caused by an allergic reaction or a temporary spike in blood pressure, both of which should be diagnosed by a professional.
- American Academy of Dermatology. "Proper skin care lays the foundation for successful acne and rosacea treatment." August 1, 2013. (August 14, 2013) http://www.aad.org/stories-and-news/news-releases/proper-skin-care-lays-the-foundation-for-successful-acne-and-rosacea-treatment-
- American Heat Association. "What Are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?" April 4, 2012. (August 15, 2013) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/SymptomsDiagnosisMonitoringofHighBloodPressure/What-are-the-Symptoms-of-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301871_Article.jsp
- Benabio, Jeffrey, MD. Personal interview. August 14, 2013.
- Berson, Diane, MD. Personal interview. August 13, 2013.
- Cole, Gary, MD, and Alai, Nili, MD. "Rosacea" MedicineNet. February 1, 2012. (August 15, 2013) http://www.medicinenet.com/rosacea/article.htm
- Jourdain, Sarah. "Do Certain Cleansers Cause Redness?" HowStuffWorks. (August 14, 2013) https://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/cleansers-cause-redness.htm
- WebMD. "Rosacea - Topic Overview." June 25, 2011. (August 14, 2013) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/rosacea-topic-overview