Why is my skin so dirty?
November 12, 2012 2:36 PM   Subscribe

Weird question about my skin. Is this a thing, or is it only me?

Okay, this is not a huge deal and I've learned to deal with it in my life. But I've always wondered if I am the only person who has this weird skin condition, and whether there's anything I can do to make it more normal.

My skin is hard to clean. When I say "hard to clean", I mean hard to clean. When I shower, it's not enough to just soap up and rinse off. I need to scrub, either digging in my fingers pretty hard or scraping my fingernails over my skin. I can actually see and feel the dirt coming off. This is kind of a pain, because it makes my showering time significantly longer than average - it always takes me at least 15 minutes in the shower, even if I am not washing my hair.

Yes, I shower every day. I have to go through this scrubbing process every day. It is a pain. I have tried to just soap and rinse, but then I end up with dark areas of dirt on my skin. Even with the scrubbing, there are some areas that are darkened on my skin and it is embarrassing.

Maybe it has something to do with sweat? I am able to wash my hands normally, without any of this dirt buildup. But everywhere on my torso, and especially around my neck and pelvis, requires this scrubbing. I was pregnant last year, and during that time I didn't do the scrubbing on my tummy because I was worried about hurting the baby. By the time I gave birth, my whole belly was almost black! At the time I thought it may have been partly a discoloration of the skin (like linea nigra, which I also had), but I think it was just dirt. In the days/weeks after birth, I scrubbed my belly again in the way I usually would, and it gradually came off.

Other possible factors:
- My childhood was kind of neglectful. As in, my parents did not bathe me regularly. I only had weekly baths/showers until I was about 11 or so, when I realized I was dirty and started showering daily. I am kind of paranoid about being clean now.

- I tend to have oily skin and hair. I need to wash my hair every other day or it gets too greasy. I also am prone to acne, although I have it under control right now. But my skin does get pretty oily overall.

- I am half-Asian. Not sure why this would be a factor, but I just wanted to mention it in case. (The other half is white.)

So, has anyone heard of this condition? It is embarrassing. It is also a pain because I have to spend so much time in the shower every day. My husband can get clean in 5 minutes, but it literally takes me 15-20 minutes to get to the same level.

Thanks for any feedback.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same thing! But I don't think mine is as severe. I just use my nails to get the dirt off my neck. It is very annoying. I haven't found a solution yet. But I am from South America so my skin tone is kind of tan.
posted by Autumn89 at 2:38 PM on November 12, 2012

Are you using your hands when you wash, or are you using a washcloth or loofah? A washcloth might be more effective in getting you clean.

Also, could it be dead skin cells that are coming off, not dirt?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:40 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have no knowledge on the skin part, but let me clarify the hair thing; don't wash you hair every other day, it damages your hair, and it's most likely the reason why it gets greasy (when you shampoo your hair you strip it of all of its natural oils, for which the scalp then compensates by overproducing more oil).

Trying switching your hair washing routine, start with every three days and build it up towards less and less, perhaps once or twice a week. In the beginning it'll be greasy, but your hair will eventually stabilize. Also, you can try washing it every day, but then only using water.
posted by ahtlast93 at 2:45 PM on November 12, 2012

I have never heard of this - have you discussed with a doctor? Are you scrubbing your skin off?
posted by valeries at 2:49 PM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are you sure it's dirt and not just oil? Sounds like normal, oily skin to me....and that means you will look good long after the rest of us look old and haggard.

What colour is your skin to "dirt" contrast?
posted by taff at 2:50 PM on November 12, 2012

I only had weekly baths/showers

Well, weekly baths/showers were actually the norm for a significant portion of the population; you don't really hear the term "Saturday night bath" much anymore.

I'd suggest a Vic washcloth. Dry brushing your skin might help, too.
posted by jgirl at 2:50 PM on November 12, 2012

I need to scrub, either digging in my fingers pretty hard or scraping my fingernails over my skin. I can actually see and feel the dirt coming off.

Grodiness/TMI alert: I can sometimes scrape off a good layer of grunge in the shower, especially on my legs and feet. Is the stuff you scrape off kind of grayish, with sort of a sludgy texture? If so, it's dead skin. Totally natural! Your husband can probably do the exact same thing with his skin, he just hasn't discovered it yet.

Dead skin does not absolutely have to come off - the entire top layer of your skin is dead skin cells, and you need it to live. It sloughs off fine on its own (grodiness/TMI alert #2: I once wore a cast on my leg for eight weeks, and the dead skin underneath didn't have anywhere to go so it stayed flaked on, so when the cast came off my entire leg was SUPER GROSS in kind of an appealing way). You can help it along by exfoliating gently with a loofah, mesh puff, or gloves like these, but trying to get every last bit of skin in every shower is unnecessary. Once or twice a week will do.

It sounds a little bit like you might be scrubbing yourself to the point of irritation, and that's why your skin is darkening. Maybe your condition is totally different, but dead skin is what it sounds like to me.

Also, I didn't bathe every night as a kid, either. I definitely only washed my hair once a week. That too is normal. When we hit puberty, we get stinkier naturally, and we also get more concerned with hygiene and image. I know I went through a "why didn't anyone tell me I was so gross?" phase around 11 or 12.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:58 PM on November 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Is your "dirty" skin dry and scaly?
It could be ichthyosis vulgaris.
[FYI: If you decide to do a picture search for ichthyosis, be prepared for horrific pictures. Consider this a warning. The linked picture is fine.]

OP, please don't feel embarrassed about it, it is not anything you do or things that went wrong in your childhood. See a dermatologist, there is no cure per se, but creams and ointments that help. Best of luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 3:02 PM on November 12, 2012

Do you moisturize your entire body after a shower? You could have (like taff says) oily skin or your moisturizer (or natural skin oil) could be catching the color or very fine fibers from your clothes or dirt from the outside. I used to rollerblade as part of my commute home from work and I would catch a lot of dust and have the same sort of thing. The other thing is, you may just be really healthy and your body is exchanging skin cells quickly.

If you are concerned, take a bath once a week (soak!) and then use a scrub after a nice soak (at least 10-15 mins) and let the water out as you exfoliate with a scrub. Shower rinse and use a loofa or a wash cloth to make sure you get everything off.

I used to use a scrub brush to shower with to feel clean. I find that the clean vs. not so clean feeling is the body wash I use. The creamy stuff leaves a moisturizing residue as opposed to the clear soaps which dries the skin a bit but does not have moisturizers in it.

Sometimes I feel like I am not clean enough, but then I realize it is much better after a body scrub so it's just the need to exfoliate.
posted by Yellow at 3:05 PM on November 12, 2012

I second what Metroid Baby says... it happens to me too! Maybe try soaking in a bath once a week and doing a good scrub down with the gloves - and then shower normally the rest of the week so your skin gets a break. Moisturize after. If it feels compulsive and you can't help doing it to the point of damage/irritation, like you can't stop - see a therapist.

FWIW, in many places around the world with bathing traditions you can go to the local bath-house and someone will do the scrubbing for you! (Turkey, Korea... ?). SpaCastle in Queens (in NYC) will do it for $30 or so, plus the admission price.

In The Bookseller of Kabul the author describes going to the baths and getting a scrubdown ("little grey snakes of dead skin") in Afghanistan.

You can also see it in an episode of "No Reservations" where Anthony Bourdain is in Turkey (Istanbul) and goes to the baths.

You're OK! =) (Also, if I'm in a big polluted city, it gets worse - the amount of dirt that rubbed off in Beijing was appalling.)
posted by jrobin276 at 3:09 PM on November 12, 2012

Also: has your husband said anything about this? It probably depends a little on the nature of your relationship, but SOs will usually gently let you know if something's amiss in the cleanliness department.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:33 PM on November 12, 2012

I can scrub or scrape off a grayish residue of dead skin often too, but I never have any attendant discoloration other than redness from scrubbing. The only other time it's visible for me is when my skin is flaky from being so dry, so the only thing I'd be concerned about is the darkness of the discoloration.

Exfoliation plus moisturizer seems to do the trick for not having a layer of dead skin gunk to get rid of all the time, but the actual discoloration seems like something it might be worth seeing the dermatologist about.
posted by yasaman at 3:54 PM on November 12, 2012

Is it possibly acanthosis nigricans? Do you have a history of diabetes or insulin resistance in your family? I used to have this, until I got my blood sugar under control using a low-carb diet. Gestational diabetes is also common.
posted by peacheater at 4:05 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Think about wiping down a slightly greasy kitchen bench or cleaning slightly greasy dishes. Which would work better, your hands and fingernails or a cloth?

Get a nice heavy terry-toweling washcloth.

A little anti-dandruff shampoo on your washcloth can work well too.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 PM on November 12, 2012

You have some sort of skin condition. This isn't normal, and what you are scraping off isn't "dirt" per se, but rather a buildup of dead skin and sebum (body oil). You may even have a fungal bloom.

It's not a normal condition, and I say this as someone who has a couple of different (but manageable) skin disorders. The easiest thing to do would be to talk to a pharmacist or your doctor if you can.

The thing is, scraping your skin with your fingernails is not good for your skin in the long run (in the short term you could even give yourself an infection).

Rubbing your body with a towel isn't even very good for you. I try to avoid using soap on my face if I can (and I only use a mild soap at the end of the day), and try to use my fingers to wash myself. It's much easier on your skin.

Instead of soap, I instead focus on moisturizing creams to prevent acne.

However, your condition isn't normal at all and can probably be corrected easily with medication.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:18 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it also sounds like you could have acanthosis nigricans.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:18 PM on November 12, 2012

I wonder if a salicylic acid astringent might help. Also, you might try the Clarisonic. I use it on my face, not my body, but it's very good at exfoliating.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2012

I had a family member (white, of English/Irish/Scottish heritage) who had a similar issue. She used a loofah every day all over because she was reluctant to see a dermatologist.

Later, she developed vitiligo. I have no idea if those things were at all connected (and can't ask her, because she died some years ago), but I would really encourage you to see a dermatologist.

Her skin was weirdly grayish/silvery and looked like she had been coloring on it with a pencil.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:40 PM on November 12, 2012

I'm going to go ahead and say that this is pretty normal. At least for me, my sister, my best friend, and my partner. The stuff you are scraping off is just dead skin. And I definitely hear you on the belly thing; my belly is blotchy-grayish because of this but I can't be bothered to scrape it off. Also you have to look pretty closely to see it.

My sister and I are olive skinned and it shows up gray on us. We are also prone to acne and just oily people in general. Maybe our bodies don't shed the dead skin as effectively as some other people, but I don't think this quite qualifies as something you need to see your dermatologist for. (But go if you want! Can't hurt!)
posted by pintapicasso at 7:15 PM on November 12, 2012

It sounds like what you're talking about, pintapicasso, is what's often called "ashy skin". OP, if that's what's going on for you, there is lots of info out there about addressing it. This link covers some of the basics.

Agree that if that's all it is, no need to see a dermatologist unless the over-the-counter recommendations don't work for you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:54 PM on November 12, 2012

Her skin was weirdly grayish/silvery and looked like she had been coloring on it with a pencil.

Some people (especially the kind that resist consulting proper doctors) get that from eating too much silver, though it doesn't sound like the OP's issue.
posted by flabdablet at 12:59 AM on November 13, 2012

"By the time I gave birth, my whole belly was almost black!"
This is the normal hyper-pigmentation of pregnancy. You may also have had darker coloration on your face (chloasma), nipples and other areas.

Please be gentle to your body and beautiful skin! Please stop scratching your skin off with your nails. Use mild products and moisturise a lot (see the 'ashy skin' link above). See a dermatologist if you're worried, they should be able to reassure you.

Mild benign neglect can actually be your friend when it comes to cleanliness - our bodies are to a large extent self-regulating systems, and over-cleaning sometimes unbalances the system. It seems you may have some worries stemming from the way you were brought up and these may be leading you to be a bit anxious.
posted by glasseyes at 5:57 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

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