So you've got a red mark on your skin. Is it an allergic reaction? A stress rash? A thoughtful memento left by a month-old zit? A nasty ingrown hair — or, worse, a serious health hazard? Possibilities abound. The one thing you do know: You don't want it there.
To assist in identifying 10 of the most common reasons for red marks on the skin — from spidery broken blood vessels to bumpy keratosis pilaris — we sought the expertise of dermatologists Debra Jaliman, M.D. and Heather Rogers, M.D. Ahead, they not only weigh in on what your sketchy red mark may be, but whether it requires a trip to the doctor.
(While using the below guide is infinitely better than playing "match that lesion" on the internet, know that the self-diagnosis game, even when bolstered by the proxy of a few derms, is by no means definitive. If a red mark on your body is of legitimate concern, trust your gut and get that thing to a doctor for an IRL look-see.)
What It Looks Like: A small, firm pink mound on the skin.
The Likely Culprit: Dermal nevi, benign growths that often appears in young adulthood.
What To Do About It: Dr. Rogers calls dermal nevi a safe and normal skin legion, but with that said, these babies will not go away on their own. "You are stuck with them unless you have them surgically removed by a dermatologist," she says.
What It Looks Like: Inflammation or an infection stemming from one or multiple hair follicles.
The Likely Culprit: Folliculitis (or inflamed hair follicles) is usually caused by a bacterial or fungal infection, thought recurrent cases of ingrown hairs are also sometimes referred to as folliculitis, Dr. Jaliman says. "Ingrown hairs are hairs that grow sideways into the skin. They form because the hair curls back instead of growing straight,” she explains.
What To Do About It: See a doctor, who can pinpoint whether the condition is bacterial or fungal. If the infection is severe or recurring, you may be prescribed an antibiotic cream or oral antibiotics, Dr. Jaliman says. She suggests avoiding shaving or rubbing the skin if your folliculitis is due to ingrown hairs; instead, apply warm compresses to ease irritation and discomfort. “Laser hair removal may also help in preventing ingrown hairs from occurring,” she adds.
What It Looks Like: A red, mole-like growth of any size.
The Likely Culprit: Cherry angioma, a common growth created by a collection of small blood vessels. “Angiomas are benign tumors that stem from an overgrowth of capillaries,” Dr. Jaliman says.
What To Do About It: If the sight of the growth doesn’t bother you, Dr. Jaliman says it can be left alone. “They are almost always harmless,” she says. Still, she suggests getting the growth checked out to make sure it is cherry angioma and not something else that isn’t benign. If you’d like to have a cherry angioma removed, Dr. Jaliman says that, while it's possible, insurance often won't pay for the procedure because it's considered cosmetic in nature.
What It Looks Like: A scrawled red line on the face or body.
The Likely Culprit: A broken blood vessel, also known as a spider vein. These can occur due to weather changes, pregnancy, or genetics. When there is a change in pressure, the vessel will dilate or enlarge just beneath your skin’s surface.
What To Do About It: A broken vessel on the face can be treated by applying apple cider vinegar to the area, Dr. Jaliman says. “The apple cider vinegar will help reduce the appearance of the spider veins by lessening the redness,” she says.
If the home remedy doesn't help or broken blood vessels are found elsewhere on the body, in-office treatments can erase them from sight. Laser treatments, like CoolGlide Laser Vein Reduction Therapy, typically cost about $750 per session and may require a follow-up visit before the redness is banished.
“There is also an injection-based therapy called sclerotherapy, which will help spider veins go away within a week or two,” Dr. Jaliman says. The treatment, which costs about $300 or more, utilizes a very fine needle to inject a solution into the vein, causing it to swell and close off. The body then absorbs the vein, as blood is safely redirected to other veins. Dr. Jaliman says that people tend to see results after one treatment, though some might need subsequent treatments before the vein in question disappears completely.
What It Looks Like: A mole that has become red or begins to bleed.
The Likely Culprit: Probably an irritated mole. This isn't dangerous, Dr. Rogers says, as long as it resolves.
What To Do About It: "I tell my patients they can ignore an irritated mole for up to one month, but if it remains irritated after that, I need to see it because it can be a sign of skin cancer,” says Dr. Rogers.
What It Looks Like: Small, lightly-colored hard bumps that make your skin feel like sandpaper.
The Likely Culprit: Keratosis pilaris, a genetic condition that occurs when the skin doesn't exfoliate normally. Keratin blocks the pores, resulting in tiny pink or red bumps.
What To Do About It: Feed your skin active ingredients that force it to exfoliate. “Any lotion with salicylic acid is good because it is a keratolytic agent, something that thins the skin on and around the area where it’s applied and causes the outer layer of the skin to loosen and shed,” Dr. Jaliman says.
What It Looks Like: A shadowy red spot on the face, chest, back, or other places where acne develops.
The Likely Culprit: “The most common red spots that resemble scars are secondary to acne,” Dr. Rogers says. “The inflammation of the acne leaves shadows of inflammation that can stay red, then fade to pink or brown depending on your skin type — and then hopefully fade away.”
What To Do About It: Dr. Rogers relies on a three-step process to help fade acne scars. First, she suggests wearing sunscreen to prevent the scar from darkening with sun exposure. Second, she recommends a treatment product with retinol or glycolic acid in order to promote skin-cell turnover. Finally, she strongly advises not to pick at these marks. “This will reactivate the inflammation, make the spot red again, and push you right back to the beginning of the healing process,” she says.
What It Looks Like: Small, red bumps on the cheeks or jawline that don’t look like cystic or pus-filled zits.
The Likely Culprit: Inflammatory papules, brought on by skin irritation. “If you see these bumps, that means you have done something to the skin that it doesn't like, such as too much exfoliation or using a product with fragrance or essential oils that are causing irritation," Dr. Rogers says.
What To Do About It: If you see these little bumps, Dr. Rogers suggests wiping the slate clean with your skin care and avoiding active ingredients, like retinol, acids, and scrubs, until they go away. “Pull back on everything and just use basic, soothing products to help your skin settle,” she says. “If the little red bumps itch after you wash your face, I would recommend coating skin with 1% hydrocortisone cream and following with moisturizer at bedtime. Repeat for a few days until they resolve.”
What It Looks Like: Painful, red bumps with pustules (whiteheads) mixed in.
The Likely Culprit: An infection, such as staph infection. Dr. Rogers says, "Irritation and allergies itch, whereas an infection hurts. The white heads represent pus, which is made up of dead white blood cells, an important part of your immune system that fights infection."
Dr. Rogers says that the most common location for staph is on the nose. “Reports say up to 30% of us are carriers, meaning at any time we have staph colonized in our nose or skin," she explains. "When we get irritated skin or a cut, it makes it easier for the staph to get in and multiply and result in an infection.”
What To Do About It: Go to the doctor and have the red bumps examined, Dr. Rogers says. Your physician may take cultures to find out what kind of infection you may have and which antibiotics to prescribe.
What It Looks Like: Hives or patchy red marks on the skin that may be raised or flat, or in patches or lacerations.
The Likely Culprit: An allergic reaction, which can come from plants, beauty products, animal hair... pretty much anything.
What To Do About It: To immediately soothe itching, Dr. Jaliman recommends taking an over-the-counter allergy medicine like Benadryl. Though something like hives may not seem like such a big deal, she suggests seeing a physician for a proper diagnosis and further help. "You want to make sure it's an allergic reaction you're having and not something else," she says.
What It Looks Like: Tiny raised bumps dispersed among red, irritated skin.
The Likely Culprit: Heat rash, or inflammation caused by sweat that won't evaporate due to obstructed sweat glands.
What To Do About It: The good news: Most mild cases of heat rash tend to go away on their own within a few days, Dr. Jaliman says. Help it along by washing the area with cool water and a gentle soap. "Don’t rub the skin dry with a towel," she says. "Let your skin air dry instead. If symptoms continue longer than a few days, and you are experiencing a great deal of discomfort, see a physician."