Editorial note: an earlier version of this article was first published on April 13, 2009, 2011. It was updated on September 4, 2020.
- Lifestyles, habits and environments that lead to a red face
- Health conditions that lead to a red face
- A red face can come from many sources; most of the time, it’s treatable
Despite its association with passion, love and vibrancy, the colour red is not what most people want to see on their faces when they look in the mirror. Redness on your face develops from inflammation and dilated blood vessels on the surface of your skin. Sometimes the redness can be sudden. Other times it can develop slowly over many years.
Redness in the face can be from a disease, like rosacea or shingles. However, it can also be from lifestyle or environmental factors, such as over-exfoliating or dry weather.
Below are reasons behind your facial redness and what you can do about it. We’ll split these into non-disease and disease-related conditions.
Lifestyles, habits and environments that lead to a red face
Sometimes, getting rid of facial redness comes down to daily-life choices. You can stop exposing your face to a certain factor or element in your life, and poof! Redness can begin to subside. These are fairly easy to deal with (it’s literally a process of elimination). Or, they come with simple, over-the-counter solutions you can buy.
1. Sun exposure
When we mention sun exposure, we don’t just mean sun burns, which are obviously red. Even when you don’t get burned, excess sun exposure can accumulate its effects over the years. Those effects can include several forms of sun damage. One of these is erythema (redness).
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun triggers blood vessels to grow. Sometimes, this is referred to as dilation. Whether your body produces more blood vessels, or expands the existing ones, their red colour starts to become apparent near the skin’s surface. The face is a common place to see this happen.
If you look closely at some people’s skin, you can see that diffuse redness from far away is actually millions of tiny threadlike veins (capillaries). Another word for this condition is telangiectasia.
The first step to solving this issue is to avoid being in the sun (of course!). Whether or not that’s feasible for you, it’s important to also begin wearing high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Reapply sunscreen every two hours, to ensure you are covered. Do this on sunny days, rainy days, stay-home days – every day!
If your erythema is now permanent, it can be treated by using a laser that targets blood vessels. This type of laser can literally explode the tiny vessels on your face, destroying them along with their unwanted redness. The only downside of this procedure is that you may have bruising for a few days. However, when the bruising heals, the redness is often significantly reduced. Sometimes, it is erased altogether.
You can learn more about vein removal treatments, here.
Sun exposure can also cause other forms of redness on the face. Conditions of this category can include poikiloderma, actinic keratosis (a.k.a. solar keratoses), and more.
You can learn more about sun damage and its available treatments, here.
See related on our blog:
Try from our shop:
2. Over-exfoliation during facial cleansing
Over-exfoliating or scrubbing your skin can lead to redness. This is common among young people with acne. It is falsely believed that crubbing with apricot scrubs or using alcohol based toners will help erase pimples. The opposite is true: it can worsen the inflammation.
Yes, you do need to exfoliate. But not that much.
Unless you have very oily, sebaceous skin, remember that scrubbing is best done in moderation, or not at all. You can also opt for chemical exfoliants, which are a much more gentle way to clean out your pores. Good ol’ BHA (salicylic acid) and AHAs can be the way to go!
See related on our blog:
- Chemical peels vs laser peels vs microdermabrasion: which one is right for you?
- Types of chemical peels: what are they and which one do you need?
- The best facial skin care routines for every age, broken down decade-by-decade
Try from our shop:
- Starting Up/Face® Wash by PRESCRIBED solutions®
- Line Subtractor® 10% Vitamin C Face Serum with AHAs by PRESCRIBED solutions®
- AHA/BHA Cream by SkinMedica®
- AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser by SkinMedica® with Biodegradable Jojoba Spheres (start by using this once or twice a week to avoid face redness)
3. Allergic contact dermatitis
Sometimes, the things that come in contact with our face can cause redness or a rash. Common causes of skin reactions include chemical sunscreens, preservatives in cosmetics, hair products and fragrances. Poison ivy or other plants can also do this.
If you notice your redness started when you began using a certain shampoo, soap or other product, try keeping clear of it, to see what happens. Same goes if you have swum in a new pool recently, slept on a latex mattress, worn a wool sweater or come into contact with anything not typical in your life.
Skin allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a particular substance, called an allergen. It can lead to redness, scaling, and itching.
Please see your physician If you have:
- A rash around your eyes
- A rash that is itchy
- Chronic redness and scaling on your face
They can do a patch test to determine if you have a skin allergy, or something else. They can then give you a list of substances to avoid. They may also be able to prescribe medications to soothe the redness and itching.
4. Temperature changes (both internal and external)
Be it from menopause, embarrassment, weather, steam, heavy exercise, spicy food – whatever causes a temperature change in your body can also cause flushing in the face. Typically this happens when you get hot very fast. However, it can also happen with coldness.
If you flush easily for no apparent reason, see your doctor. There may be an underlying cause that is deeper than the annoyance of a red face.
Dry weather can also cause dry skin, which can appear red. To combat moisture loss from transepidermal water loss, use a good face cream to keep your skin from getting flaky and irritated.
See related on our blog:
- Dry skin, dehydrated skin and transepidermal water loss (TEWL): what are they and how do they change your skin?
Try from our shop:
5. Alcohol intake
Some people simply get red in the face when they drink alcohol. It’s a common reaction, and it’s based on a genetic condition that causes alcohol intolerance. With this condition, the body is not able to process alcohol intake fast enough, which results in toxic build up. The face gets red when this happens.
While this point could have gone under our next section regarding facial redness from health-related conditions, one could argue that it is more of a lifestyle choice. That’s because, if you have this condition, you can simply avoid alcohol, and your problem will be solved!
There are a host of medications that can cause redness in the face. These are usually side effects. If you are experiencing flushing while taking a prescription drug, speak with your doctor about possible alternatives.
Health conditions that lead to a red face
The most common cause of facial redness is rosacea. Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory condition that leads to red, sensitive skin. Sometimes, it can cause pimple-like bumps on the nose and cheeks. People with rosacea often have sensitive skin that stings when exposed to sun or cold. It also turns bright red when they eat hot or spicy foods.
We explain rosacea redness causes and treatments, here.
8. Seborrheic dermatitis
Some people get flaky, yet oily spots on their skin. These areas can be itchy and red. In babies, it happens on the scalp, and goes away on its own (it’s referred to as “cradle cap”). In adults, it can come in the form of dandruff. Or, it can appear on the face.
This skin condition is called seborrheic dermatitis. It can also be called seborrheic eczema or seborrheic psoriasis.
To treat seborrheic dermatitis, you can try using a dandruff shampoo on the affected areas of your face. Otherwise, a doctor can help with a topical prescription. Either way, the aim is to target a yeast called malassezia. Everyone has malassezia on their skin, but it can overpopulate in some people. This yeast feeds on the oil that your skin naturally produces.
Seborrheic dermatitis can’t be cured, but it can be treated and kept under control with the right measures.
9. Autoimmune disorders affecting the skin
People with lupus sometimes develop a bright red rash on their cheeks and nose. It is often called a butterfly rash because, from a distance, it looks like the shape of a butterfly on their face. It is notable that lupus occurs more often in women, than in men. Overall, lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect many other organs – not just the skin.
A lupus rash is often triggered by sun exposure, but it can occur any time of the year.
If you have the sudden development of this type of facial redness, you should see a physician right away. A few blood tests can diagnose the problem. Sometimes, treatment is needed to keep the immune system from flaring up this way, and in other ways, if you have lupus.
Another immune system irregularity that can cause hives and rashes would be mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS). If you have MCAS, you may also feel other symptoms that resemble an allergic reaction, such as shortness of breath, a fast-beating heart, itchy sinuses, and so on. If this happens to you, see a doctor, or go to an emergency room, just in case.
10. Cushing’s syndrome and other hormone dysfunctions
Cushing’s syndrome causes your body to make too much cortisol. Cortisol causes a spike in your blood vessel growth and formation. This can lead to redness anywhere, but the face is a common spot for it to form.
Cortisol can also exacerbate redness if it comes from an external source, such as taking a steroid medication, or receiving an injection to treat a scar.
11. Shingles virus
Shingles is basically a re-activation of the virus that causes chicken pox. It can cause a red rash on one side of the body. On some people, the rash can happen on the face. However, it can also occur on other areas.
A shingles rash can be painful, and turn into blisters. At this point, it would be contagious. Shingles should ideally be treated within 3 days of noticing its signature rash pattern and pain areas. A doctor can prescribe antiviral medication for it, to prevent postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) or eyesight damage, which can develop later.
Many people get over shingles within a month. However, to prevent future complications, it’s best not to downplay the importance of getting treated for a red face that results from this condition.
12. Cancers that cause red skin symptoms
There are some cancers that can cause redness on the skin, including the face. The most notable one would be cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL). It creates a problem with your skin’s white blood cells (T-cells), which are designed to fight infection. Since these particular T-cells are located in your skin, that is where this condition manifests.
The most common types of CTCL are mycosis fungoides and Sézary syndrome. These produce rashes that can be mistaken for eczema or psoriasis.
Thyroid cancer can also cause flushing, which can lead to redness in the face.
13. Acne and folliculitis
It may sound obvious, but acne and similar pimple-forming skin bacteria (such as staphylococcus) can cause redness on the face. Some acne doesn’t form a whitehead, so the condition can appear like red bumps on the skin. These can be tiny, or cystic and painful.
Remnants of flat acne scars, called macular scars, can also leave red spots on the face for a long time (they turn brown-ish after a while). These usually go away on their own. However, some topical solutions, such as retinoids, may help with skin cell turnover, so they clear up faster.
If your acne is mild, you can probably get good results by using simple, over-the-counter skin care products (we’ve linked to some above).
If your acne is severe and painful, you should see a doctor for more help.
We explain acne and its treatment options, here.
Another condition called folliculitis can form skin bumps that look similar to acne. They commonly appear due to razor rash. Folliculitis may need a doctor’s prescription to heal, if it persists.
14. Swimmer’s itch
If, after swimming in a lake or ocean you’ve developed a rash of red bumps on the face, you may have swimmer’s itch. Swimmer’s itch is medically known as cercarial dermatitis. It is caused by a parasite that lives through a specific type of snail in salt or freshwater bodies. After departing from the snail, it looks for a host. Ideally, its host would be an animal. But it will go for humans if it can! Though, it can’t last long on humans.
Of course, swimmer’s itch can appear anywhere on the body that your skin was exposed to infected water. The face is just one of these spots.
A swimmer’s itch can go away on its own. If it persists, or if you suspect it may be something else, see a doctor.
You can learn more about swimmer’s itch on the CDC website, here.
15. Red birthmarks
While this condition would not be sudden, it is certainly a root cause of facial redness. Sometimes, it can be treated with lasers, too.
Red birthmarks are known as haemangiomas, strawberry naevus, strawberry marks, port wine stains, or firemarks. A person is usually born with these red marks on the face.
A red face can come from many sources; most of the time, it’s treatable
As we’ve seen above, a red face can stem from several conditions. If the redness seems to ‘pop up’ out of nowhere, it could be due to lifestyle or environmental factors. If it goes away when you stop a certain activity, that could be your culprit. In other cases, redness on the face can be related to health conditions – whether serious or not.
Most of the time, chronic facial redness is related to rosacea, visible veins, sun damage, seborrheic dermatitis, acne or cushing’s syndrome. With the exception of cushing’s syndrome and sun damage, these other conditions are rarely dangerous. However, they can be an annoyance. For that reason, we can thank science for coming up with solutions for a red face.
Whatever the root cause of your face redness is, it can likely be treated.
If you live in the Vancouver area, we encourage you to book a consultation at our laser and skin clinic in Surrey. We work on facial redness on a regular basis. We’d be happy to analyze your skin using our tools, and our doctor’s expertise. This way, we can give you more information on treatment options that may work for you.