Dull Skin

Dull skin does not reflect light off of it's surface. Dull and lifeless skin occurs when the skin's surface is not smooth. The glowing skin or glass skin we all strive to attain is difficult to achieve if you have dehydrate dry skin. By its very nature, dry skin lacks glow and radiance because dead skin cells heap up on the skin’s surface which decreases light reflection. Dry skin is the reason dull skin occurs and gives skin a tired skin appearance. Radiant, glowing skin requires a smooth skin surface which only occurs when skin is well hydrated. 

Using the best skin care products for your Baumann Skin Type is the best way to get rid of dull skin.

Dull Skin Meaning

The definition of dull skin is skin that is not radiant because it does not reflect light. This lack of light reflection causes a dull skin tone. Glowing skin occurs when light reflects off of a smooth surface. The good news is that dull and lifeless skin can be brightened very easily with exfoliation.

The lackluster skin improves immediately when the skin surface is smooth. If you would describe your skin as lackluster, tired, fatigued, lifeless, rough, or sallow, you most likely are dealing with dry skin.

Glowing Skin

Smooth, glowing skin exhibits diffuse reflectance, with the reflected light scattering isotropically in all directions to create a luminous radiance. The specular reflection off the stratum corneum's surface follows Fresnel's equations, relying on the refractive index differential between air (n=1) and the skin's oily film (n≈1.5). The oil's higher refractive index boosts the Fresnel reflectance, while the smooth surface topology allows for uniform reflection across the skin.

This even diffusion of reflected photons emanates from the skin with minimal directionality, bathing the surroundings with a soft homogenous glow. The smooth surface minimizes surface scattering, allowing more forward scattering into the deeper dermal layers. This subsurface scattering lends additional translucency, with the backscattered photons further brightening the skin's luminous appearance.

Smooth, glowing skin reflects light evenly and beautifully. When light hits the skin, some of it is absorbed while the rest is reflected back. With smooth skin, the reflected light is diffuse, scattering evenly in all directions to create a radiant glow. The even surface allows the light to reflect uniformly off the oily film covering the skin. The more uniform the reflection, the more glowy and luminous the skin appears.

Physics of Glowing Skin

Smooth, glowing skin exhibits diffuse reflectance, with the reflected light scattering isotropically in all directions to create a luminous radiance. The specular reflection off the stratum corneum's surface follows Fresnel's equations, relying on the refractive index differential between air (n=1) and the skin's oily film (n≈1.5). The oil's higher refractive index boosts the Fresnel reflectance, while the smooth surface topology allows for uniform reflection across the skin.

This even diffusion of reflected photons emanates from the skin with minimal directionality, bathing the surroundings with a soft homogenous glow. The smooth surface minimizes surface scattering, allowing more forward scattering into the deeper dermal layers. This subsurface scattering lends additional translucency, with the backscattered photons further brightening the skin's luminous appearance.

Physics of Dull Skin

In contrast, dull skin exhibits non-uniform reflectance and increased heterogeneous surface scattering. An uneven surface topology causes irregular Fresnel reflections as light refracts off the various contours. Shadowing occurs in the crevices while highlights appear on the bumps and flakes. This creates a patchy luminance with alternating darker and lighter regions.

Rougher skin also scatters light erratically at the surface due to the disrupted stratum corneum. The increased surface scattering prevents forward propagation of photons into the deeper tissue. This loss of subsurface scattering leaves the skin opaque and lusterless. Areas of hyperpigmentation also exhibit greater absorption from higher melanin content. The combination of haphazard surface reflectance, increased surface scattering, and irregular absorption by melanin chromophores culminates in a duller, lifeless skin appearance.

Dull, Dry Rough Skin

In contrast to glowing skin, dull looking skin does not reflect light evenly. An uneven skin surface disrupts the uniform diffusion of reflected light. Bumps, crevices, flakes, and rough patches refract the light sporadically. The scattered reflection creates a duller look. 

Dull skin tends to lack sufficient oil as well. (This one of the many reasons that an oily skin type is considered healthier than a dry skin type.)  With less sebum covering the surface, there is less uniform light reflection. The light hits the uneven bare skin directly rather than reflecting off a smooth oily surface. The uneven reflection scatters the light heterogeneously, creating darker and lighter patches. 

 The heterogeneous absorption and irregular reflection off rough, uneven skin leads to a duller, less luminous appearance. 

Signs of Dull Skin

Dull skin has a rough surface. If you rub a smooth silk scarf across the surface, you may be able to hear some friction if your skin is very rough.  Other signs of rough skin are the clothes catching on the skin, skin thickening, a yellow color to the skin if skin is a light color, or if the skin is dark, an ashy grey color.You can feel dull skin. It does not have a smooth frictionless texture.

What Does Dry, Dull Skin Look Like?

Dull skin looks lined and yellow or  in darker skin types , it will have an ashy appearance. 

When viewed up close with a magnifying lens or a dermatoscope, dull skin looks like shingles on a roof that are curled up on the edges.

The roughness seen on the skin occurs when the keratinocytes in the upper layer of the skin curl up on the ends due to dehydration.

How to Brighten Dull Skin?

Dull skin may be partially caused by an uneven skin tone and areas of hyperpigmentation.

Areas of darker pigmentation like freckles or acne scars that contain melanin absorb more light than surrounding skin, disrupting the uniform reflection. There is more to dull skin remedies than simply drinking more water or applying a “good” moisturizer. 

So the best way to make dull skin glow is to even out any uneven pigmentation with skin lighteners, hydrate with moisturizers, and consider emollients such as peptides and saccharides to help smoote the skin's surface. Humectants such as heparan sulfate, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid can also help skin glow by pulling water to the skin's surface.

The best way to keep skin glowing is to use the correct skin care products for your Baumann Skin Type to even skin tone, normalize sebum levels, and repair the skin barrier.

Optical Effects of Moisturizers

Moisturizers help hydrate the skin, filling in cracks and smoothing the uneven surface texture. This hydration improves the optical properties of the skin in several ways. First, moisturizers decrease light scattering at the surface by filling in crevices that would otherwise reflect light haphazardly. The smoother surface creates a more uniform surface for light reflection.

Second, moisturizers increase translucency by allowing more light penetration into deeper skin layers. With proper hydration, the stratum corneum scatters less light at the surface. More light can then travel through to the thicker viable epidermis and dermis below. This makes the skin appear more translucent.

As light penetrates deeper, it also reflects off the blood vessels in the dermis. This lends a more pinkish hue to well hydrated skin. The increased blood flow improves circulation, bringing blood closer to the surface. The additional blood chromophores in the light path absorb more green hues, contributing to a pinker skin tone.

Overall, decreased surface scattering and increased translucency from skin moisturization combine to make the complexion appear more luminous and radiant. Proper hydration promotes a more even light reflection off the skin's surface as well as beneath its surface. This creates a healthy skin glow that showcases the skin's natural beauty.

Optical Effects of Peptides

Peptides are short chains of amino acids, often containing over 500 daltons, that are too large to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. When applied topically in skin care products, these peptides aggregate and form a protective coating on the skin’s surface. This surface film smooths over the rough contours and fills in fine lines, acting as an emollient. The peptide coating optically evens out the microtopography of the stratum corneum. This allows for more uniform surface reflection and less irregular refraction of light. The optimized reflectance gives the skin a smoother, glowier appearance. The filling in of crevices also decreases surface scattering, increasing translucency. Additionally, the peptide film helps retain hydration in the stratum corneum through its occlusive properties. This further increases moisture content and plumps up the skin, improving light diffusion. The optical benefits of enhanced reflectance, decreased scattering, and increased hydration explain why peptides are popular anti-aging ingredients to help treat dull, tired-looking skin.

Optical Effects of Saccharides

Saccharides like sorbitol, glucose, fructose, and trehalose are hygroscopic substances that attract and bind water molecules. When included in skin care formulations, these saccharides hydrate the stratum corneum through their humectant properties. The increased water content plumps up the skin, smoothing out the rough texture. Saccharides also form a protective coating on the skin’s surface that helps seal in moisture. This surface film fills in crevices and evens out the skin topography. The optical result is decreased surface scattering and increased translucency as light can penetrate deeper with less refraction. The specular reflection off the saccharide coating also becomes more uniform compared to the irregular reflection off rough, dry skin. 

Additional saccharides like polysaccharides, saccharide isomerate, and sacran provide a sheer protective layer with similar optical benefits. The enhanced reflectance, reduced scattering, and improved hydration from saccharide ingredients help restore a healthy, dewy, luminous glow to dull, lackluster skin.

What Causes Dull Skin?

Using the wrong skincare products for your skin type is the most likely cause of dull skin. This is because using the wrong products can lead to dehydration of the skin or abnormal follicular keratinization.

Dull skin is caused when the surface of the stratum corneum of the upper epidermis is not smooth as seen in the image below.

heaped up cells on skin surface cause dull skin

Other causes of dull skin are:

  • Genetics
  • Pollution
  • Stress
  • Poor diet, lack of nutrients or lack of fats in the diet. We see this in vegans often who do not get enough omega 3 fatty acids in their diet
  • Medication
  • Over exfoliation (yes you can over do it!)
  • Using the wrong skin care products for your Baumann Skin Type

Retinol Causes Dull Skin

Dull skin can occur temporarily when beginning retinoids. After 1 month on retinoids, the top layer of the skin gets more compact and the shine of the skin is increased. So- if you are on retinoids- hang in there. Your skin will be radiant soon. Do not exfoliate very often when beginning retinoids because that will increase the side effects.  Once your skin is acclimated to retinoids, they will make the stratum corneum skin layer more compact and your skin will glow.

Which Layer of the Skin Causes Dull Sallow Skin?

Dull skin is caused by the top layer of our skin, the epidermis. The uppermost layer of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum (SC) is the part of the skin that causes dull skin.

When the uppermost SC skin layer stops functioning properly, it becomes easier for skin to experience TEWL (transepidermal water loss; the measure of water evaporating out of the skin) . The amount of TEWL is in direct relation to how well your lipid skin barrier is working. An impaired skin barrier causes increased TEWL which causes dull lifeless skin.

How to Get Rid Of Dull Dry Skin?

Have you been in a mall or public area and had the pushy sales people come up an insist upon demonstrating a new skin care product to you? The sales person puts a cream on the back of your hand and rubs it in circles. Once they wipe it they show you how soft and radiant your skin is. This is a very popular sales technique. What they are doing is exfoliating your stratum corneum, leaving the skin smoother and more radiant. The glowing skin is instant- and often results in a sale.

You can get glowing radiant skin without having to purchase an expensive skin care products. Here are some dermatologist-recommended- toners to exfoliate your skin and get rid of any dullness:

Ingredients to get Glowing Skin

Ingredients that can be used to exfoliate dull skin to make it glow are:

  • Enzymes like pumpkin or papaya enzymes
  • Polyhydroxyacid
  • Jojoba beads
  • Retinoids
  • Sugar is a strong exfoliator but can be very harsh on the skin

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid are a popular exfoliating ingredient that can be used to treat dull skin. AHAs can be found in masks, creams that are used overnight, or in toners.

Here are some creams with hydroxyacids that can be used overnight:

Best Products to Treat Dull Dry Skin

These are the products that I recommend to my patients who have dull skin and want it to glow.  If you are going to be shooting video, you may not want you skin to glow too much, which some beauty writers call "glass skin".  So these products are best when you are not planning to be videoed in the next 24 hours. (Or you can apply facial powder to reduce the shine under bright lights that occurs when skin is as smooth as glass.)

Exfoliating Cleansers

These smooth the skin and give a glow that should last 1-2 days.

Hydroxyacid creams

AHAS can smooth skin but do not use them when beginning a new retinoid cream.

This are low strenght:

These are medium strength

These are high strength for rough dull skin on the body:


Here are some exfoliating masks that can be used 2-3 times a week to make dull skin glow:

Natural Ways To Treat Dull Skin

Honey, natural enzyme exfoliants, and oils are the best organic and natural ways to make dull skin glow.

Best Skin Care Routine For Dull Skin

Heaped up dead skin cells on the skin’s surface do more than cause dull skin- they also prevent penetration of important skincare ingredients. Proper exfoliation will encourage better penetration of the repairing and nourishing ingredients dry skin needs.

There are many ways to exfoliate dull skin, however, it is best to know your skin type because sensitive skin types can get irritated from over exfoliation.  Inflammation can lead to hyperpigmentation and more dehydration. 

 So- the best way to treat dull skin addresses the causes of dull skin by using  the right skincare routine for your skin type. If you consistently use the best skincare for your skin type, dull skin will be in your past but not your future.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

How to get rid of dull skin naturally?

Using sugar mixed in honey or a skin care oil such as jojoba or almond oil is a home remedy to exfoliate the skin. Pumpkin and papaya have enzymes that help exfoliate skin too.

How to get glowing skin overnight?

Use an exfoliator and then cover with a humectant containing moisturizer and "slug that in" using an occlusive moisturizer or oil on top. Wash wash with a creamy cleanser in the am so you do not strip away and skin lipids.

What are the best tips to treat dull skin?

Exfoliants are the key to glowing skin. But- do not over-exfoliate. Only use 1 or two exfoliating products per day (and retinoids like retinol count as an exfoliating product).You can use exfoliating scrubs, masks and toners but make sure your daily skin care routine has the correct exfoliants and moisturizers for your Baumann Skin Type to keep skin healthy and glowing.

Why is my skin so dull and lifeless?

If your skin is dull, sallow, and lifeless, you are are the wrong skin care routine for your Baumann Skin Type, or you just began retinoids and you need to be patient.

Best References and Scientific Publications on Dull Skin:

  1. Baumann L. Dry skin in Ch. 12 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. So-Ling, C., & Li, L. (2001, July). A multi-layered reflection model of natural human skin. In Proceedings. Computer Graphics International 2001 (pp. 249-256). IEEE.
  3. Gajinov, Z., Matić, M., Prćić, S., & Đuran, V. (2010). Optical properties of the human skin/Optičke osobine ljudske kože. Serbian Journal of Dermatology and Venereology, 2(4), 131-136.
  4. Jiang, Z. X., & DeLaCruz, J. (2011). Appearance benefits of skin moisturization. Skin research and technology, 17(1), 51-55.
  5. Draelos, Z. D. (2014). Cosmeceuticals: efficacy and influence on skin tone. Dermatologic clinics, 32(2), 137-143.
  6. Masaki H, Doi M. [Function of Sacran as an Artificial Skin Barrier and the Development of Skincare Products]. Yakugaku Zasshi : Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan. 2019 ;139(3):371-379.
  7. Vlorensia, H. H., Abdullah, H., Martinus, A. R., & Ikhtiari, R. (2020). The Effect of a Moisturizing Cream with Saccharide Isomerate and Ceramide on Increasing Skin Hydration.
  8. Hartini, H., Vlorensia, H. A., Martinus, A. R., & Ikhtiari, R. (2020). The effect of a moisturizing cream containing saccharide isomerate and ceramide on reducing transepidermal water loss in eczema. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Health Informatics and Medical Application Technology (ICHIMAT 2019) (pp. 411-417). SCITEPRESS‐Science and Technology Publications, Lda.
  9. Scott, L. N., Bergfeld, W. F., Belsito, D. V., Hill, R. A., Klaassen, C. D., Liebler, D. C., ... & Heldreth, B. (2021). Safety assessment of saccharide esters as used in cosmetics. International journal of toxicology, 40(2_suppl), 52S-116S.
  10. Kanlayavattanakul, M., & Lourith, N. (2021). Natural polysaccharides for skin care. In Polysaccharides of Microbial Origin: Biomedical Applications (pp. 1-23). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  11. Albuquerque, P. B. S., de Oliveira, W. F., dos Santos Silva, P. M., dos Santos Correia, M. T., Kennedy, J. F., & Coelho, L. C. B. B. (2022). Skincare application of medicinal plant polysaccharides—A review. Carbohydrate Polymers, 277, 118824.

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