Ask Curology: why is my face red?

An expert explains how to reduce redness in skin

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Curology Team
Aug 08, 2019 · 10 min read

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Medically reviewed by: Nancy Satur, MD

Written by: Curology Editorial Team

Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. Today we’re talking about skin redness — specifically, face redness — and how to tell if red splotches on your face are being caused by irritating ingredients in your skincare products (like alcohol, for example), or whether it’s the result of a skin condition such as rosacea. Read on for expert advice!

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Dear Derm,

Why is my face red constantly? I feel like I’ve tried every product there is to reduce redness but nothing’s really worked. Sometimes my skin even stings and gets more blotchy after I use certain products. I try to cover up redness with green tinted primers and concealers, but I wish I didn’t have to wear so much makeup to feel normal-looking enough to leave the house. How can I get rid of redness on my face for good?!

Sincerely,

Rosy-cheeked and not in a good way

Dear Rosy,

There are several different possible causes of face redness, but first off, I want to say how much we feel for you! Red skin usually indicates that your skin is inflamed or irritated, which we know from experience is really uncomfortable. Don’t worry, though! We’ll help you sort it out so you can find the right solution for your unique skin.

For sensitive skin, a little goes a long way

If the skin on your face gets red often, you could very well have sensitive skin. There’s no one cause of sensitive skin, but it could be an underlying skin condition such as rosacea, eczema (atopic dermatitis), or seborrheic dermatitis. But your facial redness may not be due to a pre-existing skin condition, such as rosacea: it could be a reaction to something you’re doing to your skin. Those red blotches might just be your skin telling you to ease up on certain skincare products, or to be gentler while washing your face!

Let’s start by going over a few of the common causes of face redness or red blotches on the skin to help you narrow it down, so you can get on the road to recovery.

Causes of face redness

Leftover redness from acne

If your skin is prone to breakouts, the redness on your face might be post-inflammatory erythema (PIE). That means the inflammation in your skin from acne flare-ups caused dilated capillaries (those tiny blood vessels just beneath the skin’s surface), which can cause facial redness.

To find out if dilated capillaries are causing that redness, here’s a neat trick: pressing on the skin with a clear glass slide (or any transparent object, like a glass cup) will temporarily push the blood out of the capillaries, so you can see whether or not the redness is still there. If your skin still looks red, it’s probably being caused by something else, not dilated capillaries. If the redness appears to go away while you’re pressing on it with the glass slide, your facial redness is likely caused by PIE (not the delicious kind).

Exfoliating too much

Exfoliating in moderation can be good for your skin, but as they say, too much of a good thing…! Over-exfoliation can leave your skin red, irritated, and vulnerable to acne bacteria. If you’re using chemical exfoliants like AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) too often — or in too strong a concentration — that could cause some irritation and, yes, redness.

AHAs can increase your skin’s sun sensitivity, too, and rosacea-prone skin is already sun-sensitive as it is.

Face scrubs can have this effect, too: the rough stuff that’s meant to slough off dead skin cells and dislodge clogged pores can be too tough on sensitive skin, causing it to react by looking red. This applies to any kind of physical exfoliation, including cleansing brushes such as the Clarisonic, or even just drying your face with a towel too enthusiastically (it’s best to gently pat your skin dry!). You can tell you’ve over-exfoliated if that scrub, cleansing brush, or facial leaves your skin looking red and feeling “raw.”

Washing your face with hot water

When hot water hits your face, it can strip your skin of its natural moisture barrier, leaving your skin damaged and vulnerable. Hot water also causes the tiny blood vessels near the skin’s surface to dilate, which makes your skin appear red and flushed — especially if you’ve got rosacea.

Wash your face with lukewarm water instead — your skin will thank you! If you enjoy piping-hot showers too much to give them up forever, try turning it down a notch when washing your face, or wash your face over the sink with lukewarm water before or after your shower.

Wash your face over the sink with lukewarm water before or after your shower.

The ingredients in your skincare/beauty products

Alcohol is unfortunately used in a lot of skincare products, even though it dries out the skin and can damage its protective barrier. If your skin gets red and irritated or dried-out after using a product, look for alcohol, “denatured alcohol” or “alcohol denat.” on the ingredients list. If, however, alcohol is found towards the end of an ingredients list, there might not be enough of it in the product to bother your skin. It depends on how much is used in the product and how much your skin can tolerate it. But if your skin tends to be red or irritable, or if you know you have rosacea, it’s best to avoid it whenever possible!

Other ingredients can cause the skin to look red from irritation, too, which is why it’s important to always check the ingredients. Here’s our quick and easy guide to checking products for irritating ingredients.

Sunburn or windburn

You don’t have to be spending all day outdoors to get a sunburn — even when you’re in a car or indoors by a window, your skin is exposed to the sun’s damaging rays. When you do spend an extended amount of time outdoors, you’re at risk for both windburn and sunburn. (It’s possible to have windburn and sunburn at the same time — ouch! But often, what one thinks is windburn is actually a sunburn.) Both windburn and sunburn can cause facial redness, so you should protect your skin with SPF year-round. Check out our list of face sunscreens for every skin type, and our ultimate guide to sunscreen. A moisturizing sunscreen can help protect your skin from both sunburn and windburn.

Tips for reducing/avoiding facial redness

1. Resist the urge to exfoliate dry, flaky skin. If your skin is both red and dry, exfoliating will only make matters worse. Cut back on anything that tends to dry or irritate your skin, such as exfoliation (physical or chemical), over-the-counter products containing retinol, or prescription topicals containing retinoids. This would also not be the best time for treatments such as microdermabrasion or chemical peels.

2. Use a gentle, hydrating cleanser. Consider using a gentle, hydrating cleanser, such as the Curology cleanser. Avoid cleansers that aren’t gentle — if it leaves your skin feeling tight, shiny, or dried-out, it’s not doing your skin any favors.

3. Choose your moisturizer wisely. If your skin is red and dry, try applying a moisturizer for sensitive skin, like the Curology moisturizer. To replenish, protect, and repair irritated or damaged skin, look for moisturizers that have certain moisturizing ingredients: emollients such as shea butter or mineral oil, humectants such as hyaluronic acid or glycerine, and replenishing ceramides, for good measure. (We explain these more in our Moisturizer Guide!) The Curology moisturizer contains a combination of emollient, humectant, and occlusive moisturizing properties, which makes it a great option for soothing and protecting sensitive skin prone to redness.

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Here are few other soothing, gentle moisturizers we recommend:

Pai Skincare Chamomile & Rosehip Calming Day Cream- Chamomile, matricine, and chamazulene help soothe the skin- Rosehip oil nourishes the skin with omega 3, 6, 7 and 9- Nut allergy alert: contains sweet almond oil

Avene Xeracalm A.D. Lipid-Replenishing Cream- Formulated for dry, sensitive skin suffering from redness, irritation, or dry patches

Acure Seriously Soothing Cloud Cream- Hyaluronic acid effectively locks hydration into the skin- Nut allergy alert: contains sweet almond oil

Avene Skin Recovery Cream- Minimal ingredients designed to be safe for sensitive skin

4. Ceramides are your skin’s best friend. Ceramides are naturally occurring lipids (fats) in the skin which can also be found in some moisturizers/skincare products. They can help repair and strengthen the skin’s protective barrier, so adding a product with ceramides to your skincare routine might help. Here are a few moisturizers with ceramides we recommend for sensitive skin prone to facial redness:

CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30- Sun protection: important!

Aveeno Ultra-Calming Nourishing Night Cream- Contains oat extract and feverfew, which can help soothe inflamed or irritated skin

FIRST AID BEAUTY Ultra Repair Pure Mineral Sunscreen Moisturizer SPF 40- Broad-spectrum sun protection with physical-only sunscreen ingredients (zinc and titanium oxide)- Colloidal oatmeal and squalane soothe the skin

5. Protect and nourish your skin with a thicker moisturizer when the temperature drops. If your skin gets red in winter or anytime it’s cold, dry, or windy outside, your skin might just be sensitive and need extra protection. Heavier, richer moisturizers such as EltaMD Intense Moisturizer or CeraVe Healing Ointment can help lock in moisture and provide a defensive barrier to shield your skin against, say, cold wind. A thick cream containing hyaluronic acid or glycerin, which help your skin draw in and retain moisture, can be helpful as well.

Rosacea symptoms

How can you tell if you have rosacea? First, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your skin flush easily — whether it’s from certain emotions, eating spicy foods, drinking alcohol, etc.?

  • Does your skin easily get red after exercise or minimal sun exposure?

If you answered yes to those, you could have at least a mild rosacea tendency (which is very common). Rosacea causes facial redness, dilated blood vessels, and sometimes, acne-type bumps (but not blackheads or whiteheads). This is medically known as acne rosacea, although rosacea is not exactly acne — at times, rosacea may be accompanied by ordinary acne (acne vulgaris).

Unfortunately, we can’t stop facial redness due to dilated capillaries (small visible red blood vessels) without certain in-office dermatology treatments such as lasers or pulsed light. Temporary redness from inflammation can be improved, however, by ingredients such as niacinamide, metronidazole, and azelaic acid — which are available in your custom Curology formula, if your Curology provider thinks it’s the right treatment for you.

How to prevent facial redness or rosacea symptoms

To keep rosacea from worsening, do your best to avoid the common causes of facial flushing: minimize your exposure to hot or spicy foods, alcohol, and try to stay cool. Don’t take hot showers and baths — stick to a comfortable warm/lukewarm temperature. Most importantly, protect yourself from the sun!

Studies show that changing what you eat may play a role in preventing rosacea symptoms, too.

  • Avoid drinks or foods that are hot (for example, switch your extra-hot latte for an iced tea or cold brew).

  • Avoid spicy foods that contain capsaicins: spices, hot sauce, cayenne or red pepper.

  • If you drink alcohol (including beer, wine, and hard liquor), try cutting back — as always, moderation is key! — because the less you drink, the less facial redness you may experience.

  • Avoid cinnamaldehyde-related foods such as tomatoes, citrus, cinnamon, and chocolate (sorry, chocoholics!).

Prebiotics and probiotics for rosacea

Research indicates the possible role of a gut-skin connection in rosacea: your microbiome of “good” bacteria that lives in both the skin and GI tract may be a possible factor in the disease. Does that mean taking probiotics can help reduce redness? It’s not proven — but studies do support the idea that a healthy gut contributes to healthy skin.

If you’ve heard of probiotics but are scratching your head at prebiotics, don’t worry — you’re probably getting them in your diet. Prebiotics are food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial GI microbes; many dietary plant fibers act as prebiotics. Foods rich in prebiotics include asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes. Consuming a wide variety of dietary fibers, in sufficient quantity, will encourage the growth of a diverse and a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn may decrease rosacea symptoms. You can also buy probiotic supplement pills that contain prebiotics to get both in a single dose.

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Try not to get “red in the face”!

We know how frustrating it is to try to figure out why your skin is prone to redness — and how emotionally difficult and even embarrassing it may feel. Just know that you’re not alone, and that you’ve got this! Stress can also contribute to skin condition flare-ups, so do your best to relax, take care of yourself, and remember that other people probably don’t notice or mind about a little redness nearly as much as you do. If you’d like recommendations for makeup to help cover redness that won’t clog your pores or irritate your skin further, check out our blog and Guides for recommendations.

Finally, your Curology provider may be able to prescribe you a custom formula to help with that redness. Sign up for a trial of Curology now to get a free consultation online.

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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Curology Team

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Nancy Satur, MD

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