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Beauty

Why your skin looks dull—and what you can do about it

Let's get glowing.

On the left: A squeeze tube of makeup concealer with a background of its color swatches. On the right: A person applying white cream to their cheeks and smiling into the camera. Credit: IT Cosmetics / Shiseido

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You'll know dull skin when you see it: dryness, flakiness, dark circles, and a "sleepiness" about your face even when you’ve been getting ample shuteye per night.

Before getting into how to fix dullness, let's take a closer look at why it occurs in the first place. “There could be increased congestion [or] decreased translucence, which can happen when dead skin cells build up,” says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “A buildup of dead skin cells can contribute, as can dry skin. Skin with an impaired skin barrier tends to become dry and irritated and may look dull.”

So how do you know if your skin is "congested" or your skin barrier is compromised? One indicator is the season: In the winter, when the weather in many places is drier and colder, the skin may lose its moisture and therefore its protection from the elements. As a result of drier skin, you may see more texture or flakiness—i.e., congestion. Now, onto tips and products that can help reverse or conceal a dull complexion.

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1. For concealing dark circles: IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Undereye Illumination Concealer

On the left: A squeeze tube of makeup concealer with a background of its color swatches. On the right: Two concealer tubes sit at the top of a pink background and a hand with a tiny amount of concealer on one finger rests below the tubes.
Credit: IT Cosmetics

Instantly brighten your under-eyes with the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Undereye Illumination Concealer.

Dark under-eyes are not something most people strive for and they're frustrating when you know you're keeping good sleep habits. The trouble is that sleep isn't the only reason for dark circles. “Genetics play a large role because dark circles are often the result of shadowing caused by our bone and fat structure,” says King, adding that our facial contours determine where shadows fall.

So, what should you be looking for to alleviate the darkness? “Many products that advertise that they help reduce the appearance of under-eye circles have reflective materials in them that reflect the light and therefore decrease the dark appearance,” King says. One example of this that can temporarily help is a light-reflective concealer, like the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Undereye Illumination Concealer. Squeeze a small amount of formula onto your ring fingers, rub them together to warm up the product for a smoother application, dab gently under your eyes, and blend with your fingers, a makeup brush, or a makeup sponge.

Get the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Undereye Illumination Concealer from Sephora for $28

2. For improving under-eye discoloration: SkinCeuticals AOX+ Eye Gel

A small, dark brown bottle of eye gel on a white background.
Credit: SkinCeuticals

Brighten up your under-eyes with the SkinCeuticals AOX+ Eye Gel.

While concealing dark circles can boost your confidence in your skin, tackling the source of the darkness is better for long-term results. King recommends eye products containing antioxidants: “The antioxidant interferes with the production of pigment and will therefore brighten dark circles, improve pigmentation, and also prevent free-radical damage from UV light exposure."

For this, try the SkinCeuticals AOX+ Eye Gel, a vitamin C gel that claims to reduce circles, fine lines, and texture. To use the gel, apply it in the morning along the orbital bone, or perimeter of your eye, and around the eyebrow area, avoiding your eyelids.

Get SkinCeuticals AOX+ Eye Gel from Dermstore for $95

3. For reducing signs of aging: SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads

A navy blue box and a packet of exfoliating pads side by side on a white background.
Credit: SkinBetter Science

Introduce anti-aging, exfoliating ingredients to your skin with the SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads.

Skin is supposed to age—it’s a beautiful thing worth embracing. But when dry skin cells don't shed away as readily, fine lines and wrinkles can appear more pronounced than they are. King suggests using retinoids, as they can "increase the turnover of skin cells, reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores, increase collagen production, and decrease discoloration."

One product she recommends is SkinBetter Science's AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads, which contain retinoids and a combination of lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids to exfoliate the skin. Use one pad nightly on clean skin and gently sweep it in circular motions, avoiding lips and eyes. If you've never used a retinoid before, you may need to build up a tolerance by using a pad once or twice a week at first and increasing usage over several weeks.

Get the AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads from SkinBetter for $105

4. For brightening the complexion: St. Ives Radiant Skin Face Scrub For Dull Skin

On the left: A pink squeeze tube of a skin scrub. On the right: A person wearing a robe and a towel on their head holds up the scrub bottle to cover their eye.
Credit: St. Ives

Slough off dead skin cells causing dullness with the St. Ives Radiant Skin Face Scrub For Dull Skin.

Chemical exfoliants using retinoids or acids can keep your skin looking clear and bright, but may be too intense for those with sensitive skin. But that doesn't mean ditching exfoliation altogether—just choosing a better-suited product. “Regular gentle exfoliation increases the radiance of the complexion by helping to remove dull dead skin cells, increasing cell turnover and increasing the thickness of the skin,” King says.

She recommends the St. Ives Radiant Skin Face Scrub For Dull Skin because it gently exfoliates with lemon peel, citrus extracts, and walnut shell powder while hydrating the skin with glycerin. To use it, massage it over damp skin in small circles and rinse.

Get St. Ives Radiant Skin Face Scrub For Dull Skin from Amazon for $4.74

5. For boosting moisture: Charlotte Tilbury's Magic Serum Crystal Elixir

On the left: A white bottle of serum and its dropper are side by side on a blue background. On the right: A closeup on the dropper and a pool of white serum underneath it.
Credit: Charlotte Tilbury

Add a boost of moisture to your skin with the Charlotte Tilbury Magic Serum Crystal Elixir.

Once you’ve addressed the buildup of skin cells causing flakiness, seal the deal—er, your skin barrier—with a moisturizing serum. King sings the praises of Charlotte Tilbury's Magic Serum Crystal Elixir because it contains glycerin, lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, and polyglutamic acid, which are all humectants that help create an immediate plumping effect. Plus it includes shea butter that locks in moisture and niacinamide that evens the skin's tone and texture. King also notes that the serum has a subtle iridescent finish that's "not enough to look shiny or glittery, but enough to make the skin look luminous," helping to further rid your skin of a dull appearance.

Get Charlotte Tilbury's Magic Serum Crystal Elixir from Sephora for $80

6. For promoting circulation: Baimei Gua Sha & Jade Roller Set

On the left: A gua sha stone and jade roller lay side by side. On the right: A closeup on the larger side of a jade roller.
Credit: Baimei

Massage your skin using the Baimei Gua Sha & Jade Roller Set.

Using jade rollers, gua sha tools, and even ice rollers has become a popular trend in recent years for boosting the skin's health. The jury is still out on the long-term benefits of using these tools, but they can feel cooling on the skin and help boost circulation, thanks to the massaging motions. King says that blood and lymphatic circulation are key factors in promoting livelier-looking skin, as the way blood vessels are distributed under the skin can add to discoloration and—you guessed it—dullness.

To try the trend, snag the bestselling duo from Baimei that contains a jade roller and gua sha tool. Gently glide the roller from the center of your face outward toward your hairline in the morning to help reduce puffiness and increase circulation. Use the wider end for larger surface areas like cheeks and forehead and the smaller tip to access curved areas like the under-eyes or nose. You can use the gua sha tool, which is better suited than the roller for hugging the skin tighter around your face's curves, in the same way—gliding the tool from the center of the face outward.

Get the Baimei Gua Sha & Jade Roller Set from Amazon for $12.90

7. For protecting your skin: Shiseido Urban Environment Oil-Free UV Protector

On the left: A closeup of a person's hand tipping a bottle of sunscreen upside down to pour formula into the other hand. On the right: A person applying white cream to their cheeks and smiling into the camera.
Credit: Shiseido

Keep your skin protected from the sun with the Shiseido Urban Environment Oil-Free UV Protector.

In the daytime, protecting your skin with sunscreen is vital, regardless of how much you may adore the look of tanned skin. (Go with a sunless self-tanner for that effect.) "Tanning is a defense mechanism used by our cells when their DNA is becoming damaged,” King says. Sun exposure leads to a decrease in collagen, the protein responsible for plumpness and elasticity, and the result is dullness, discoloration, and fine lines and wrinkles.

To keep avoid these negative effects, use a daily SPF, like the Shiseido Urban Environment Oil-Free UV Protector, a waterproof sunscreen that claims to protect against pollution with rose apple leaf extract and reduce oiliness with peony root extract.

Get Shiseido Urban Environment Oil-Free UV Protector Broad Spectrum Face Sunscreen SPF 42 at Sephora for $35

8. For livening up your look: Huda Beauty Power Bullet Matte Lipstick

On the left: A line of bullet lipsticks next to each other. On the right: A person closing their eyes with a light shining on them while wearing one of the lipsticks.
Credit: Huda Beauty

Liven up your whole face with a pink or nude tone of the Huda Beauty Power Bullet Matte Lipsticks.

Wearing makeup that brightens your look can distract from dull skin woes, particularly as you wait for new skincare products to do their thing. And lipstick can liven up any makeup look or even a bare face. Before choosing one, Los Angeles-based makeup artist Monika Blunder recommends finding out whether your skin has cool or warm undertones.

One trick is to take a look at the veins on your wrist and assess whether they look blue, indicating cool undertones, or appear greener, which point to warm undertones. Choose a cool-toned lipstick—think a pink-red over an orange-red—if you have cool undertones and a warm tone if you have warm undertones. “For a brightening effect, I like to stay close to a pink or coral nude, and I make sure to keep it a similar tone as my blush so everything looks brighter overall,” Blunder says.

For a cool pink-nude, try the well-reviewed Huda Beauty Power Bullet Matte Lipstick in the dusty rose shade named "Joyride." From the same line, go with the muted peach-nude shade called "Interview" if you have warm undertones.

Get the Huda Beauty Power Bullet Matte Lipstick from Sephora for $25

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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