how not to f*ck up your face

Why Is the Skin on My Face Constantly Flaking?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

This week, in the department of Celebrating Good Old Things: I was wandering, briefly aimless and frozen, one recent weekend afternoon around New York City’s Greenwich Village when I happened upon America’s oldest apothecary, the family-owned C. O. Bigelow. (Full disclosure: I was once related to the family by a cousin’s marriage; sadly, a divorce un-related us.) Its windows beckoned steamy warmth, so I trundled in for some relief from the cold. Inside, I was overwhelmed by a cornucopia of delights: vividly packaged soaps, adorable miniature tubes of hand lotion, exotic toothpastes, and shaving creams. Oh, the silky rose blushes! The divine, gardenia-scented candles! I wanted to touch and sniff everything (and was kindly encouraged). The store, I learned, celebrates its 185th anniversary this year. (If you can’t get there, you can have an almost comparable experience in its online establishment.) Poking around, I was reminded why it’s easy to fall prey to conspicuous consumption. It’s fun! But as I spied one skin-care cream after another promising one skin-saving miracle after another, I was also reminded that while there are many packaging miracles in the beauty forum, there are few miracle products. Yeah, yeah. Dum spiro, spero: While I breathe, I hope. But caveat emptor!

A reader, noticing unusual flakiness around her eyebrows, needs a skin-saving miracle.

Q: In the past few months, I’ve noticed that the skin on my forehead and around my eyebrows is constantly flaking. I don’t use anything except cleanser and moisturizer on that part of my face. I read that it might be due to colder weather, but I live in Southern California, so I don’t see how that could be the problem. Any thoughts?

A: My first thought, as I zip myself into a full-length, down sleeping-bag coat and tug on my Uggs: Do you have a guest room? Second thought: Because my relationship to med school is secondhand, I should get advice from dermatologist Ranella Hirsch. “When a dermatologist hears ‘flaking on the forehead and eyebrows,’ two very specific things come to mind,” she said. “Seborrheic dermatitis is incredibly common and is often seen as flaking on the central forehead, the brows, the glabella (the smooth part of the forehead above and between the eyebrows), and the nasal folds.”

Have you been feeling especially youthful, baby? Because another name for your issue is “cradle cap.” The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis isn’t clear, according to the Mayo Clinic. It may be due to the yeast Malassezia (which also causes dandruff on the scalp), excess oil in the skin, stress, or something wacky (technical term) in your immune system.

The best way forward is to see a dermatologist to confirm what you’ve got. Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic condition, says Hirsch, meaning it can’t be cured, only managed; your doctor will be able to prescribe something you can pull from your medicine cabinet when the need arises. Till you see her, Hirsch says you can try a touch of ketoconazole cream. Or you could dance over to TikTok for their viral advice and wash the affected area with Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo, which contains pyrithione zinc 1%, effective against seborrheic dermatitis as well as fungal acne. (Though dermatologists agree that dandruff shampoo can be effective for treating fungal acne, it isn’t effective for treating the bacterial kind, or for people with dry or sensitive skin.)

If the above solutions don’t work and you’re stuck waiting for a dermatologist appointment, Hirsch’s second suggestion might be helpful. Is it possible you’re using a product on your hair that’s seeping onto your forehead? You might be suffering from what’s called “pomade acne.” Keeping with the theme of grease, Hirsch recommends testing out this hypothesis by styling yourself in an Olivia Newton-John–type headband for a spell. Obviously, if it turns out that a hair-care product is the crux of the problem, quit it.

Sometimes seborrheic dermatitis — like other unpleasantries — simply goes away on its own for no discernible reason. Dum spiro, spero!

Originally published on January 10.

Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now she writes the weekly newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the beauty arena from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn how to be loving witnesses to ourselves and one another as we age.

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