Writer Lizzie Pook put a handful of blushing cures to the test in a bid to banish her red face - here’s what she learned.
It was like a scene from a film – one of those perky high school dramas where the camera spins off-kilter and characters loom like ghouls, throwing their heads back in laughter and pointing mockingly at the poor, awkward protagonist. In reality, I was at work when Mike, my grey-haired colleague stood up and announced that my top was “distractingly low-cut today”. Even before he’d finished the sentence, the flush erupted on my chest, and grew like a hot, blooming poison ivy rash across my neck, ears, chin and cheeks. “Well there’s no need to go red!” he hooted, with glee. (Sneaky pro tip: don’t ever be the person who points out when someone is going red.)
Even thinking about it now makes the sweat blossom under my arms and the heat rise in my cheeks. Sure, it was eight years ago, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that strangulating feeling of shame. It’s been a problem for longer than that, though, this propensity for redness. I was a chronic blusher for most of my 20s, burning a hot red when I accidentally locked eyes with a stranger or if I was forced to assert myself in public.
I hate the way my face gives away my feelings. I’ve slathered myself with cheap, green-tinged make-up to try to counteract the particular shade of scarlet that comes with voicing my ideas in work meetings (it doesn’t work, unless you’re striving for the pallor of Gollum on a low day). My wardrobe is filled with high-necked clothes for meeting new people (100% foolproof) and I have mastered the art, when having my opinions challenged, of being very interested in the floor for just as long as it takes for the redness to subside. Even now, I never leave the house without a thick coat of foundation and an ocean of concealer. But my blushing has never been confined to my face – the tops of my arms often give me away – and it doesn’t only happen when I’m embarrassed. In fact, these days I’m not a particularly ‘embarrassable’ person – but those of you who blush when you’re angry, or simply when others might expect you to go red, will know how exasperating it is to feel like your body is betraying you, whatever emotion you are feeling.
It’s well known that blushing occurs when an emotional trigger causes our glands to release adrenaline. The hormone’s effect on the nervous system causes the capillaries that carry blood to the skin’s surface to widen, creating a blush effect. But the jury is still out as to exactly why some of us flush tomato-red if our shopping bags burst on the bus, while others – my identical twin sister, for example – remain unafflicted.
In fact, so baffling is blushing that Charles Darwin dedicated a whole chapter to it in his book The Expression Of Emotions In Man And Animals. He pointed out that blushing makes “a person suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least service to either of them”. Which is just about the truest thing I’ve ever read. But experts do posit some contributing factors – anything from the thickness of our skin to our colouring. “Everyone blushes, but it’s generally more visible in lighter skin types than darker skin types,” says Dr Sweta Rai, dermatologic surgeon at King’s College Hospital. “This is simply due to the contrast of the red showing up more against white skin than brown or black skin.” We are all, however, susceptible to that stifling, creeping sense of heat that thwarts our confidence and makes us question our own authority. What is certain is that extreme blushing can have a profoundly debilitating effect.
As well as cosmetic and psychological measures – such as the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) methods I use in meetings to convince myself that no-one will judge me for going red – there is even a more extreme surgical solution. It’s called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy and involves cutting the nerves that cause the facial blood vessels to dilate. Yikes.
Much, of course, has been said about the link between blushing and social anxiety – not to mention self-worth and self-esteem. It’s probably no coincidence that my blushing was at its most crippling when I was at my most fragile, directly after my dad died in 2004, when I was 19 years old. I don’t remember having any issues with confidence before that. But as I walked down the aisle at his funeral, a husk of a young woman under the gaze of a hundred mourners, a creeping blush commandeered every inch of my face, like invasive ivy. And it never really went away. “Blushing is often linked to social anxiety, the central concern of which is about how we will be perceived by others,” says Professor Robert J. Edelmann, a patron of Anxiety UK and emeritus professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Roehampton University.
“Someone who is socially anxious may fear or avoid social encounters and is likely to be plagued by negative thoughts such as: ‘What will they think of me?’, ‘What will I say wrong?’ and, worst of all, ‘I’ll blush’.” For me, blushing was always tied in with a sense of shame and an ingrained tendency to constantly apologise – for having an opinion, for being present, for not being smarter, funnier or prettier – and, indeed, many experts argue that if people blush when they receive a compliment, it reveals a deep sense of being undeserving of it.
There are, however, some surprising upsides to blushing. Professor Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley analysed the behaviour of different species that live in groups, from elephant seals to chimpanzees, and found that openly showing some kind of embarrassment at having done something potentially unwise or risky – such as sneakily going for another animal’s food and being caught – is pretty common in the animal kingdom. It’s a de-escalation technique, designed to deflate possible tensions by openly being submissive and admitting that you were wrong. In short, it helps us on an evolutionary level to show our embarrassment in an obvious way.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study co-authored by Professor Keltner found that people who are easily embarrassed are perceived to be more trustworthy. Researchers also found that men and women who blush easily reported higher levels of monogamy, while others argue that blushing is a sign of empathy and social intelligence. So really, it’s not all bad. Still, in 2010, when my blushing got too much – when I’d pray on an hourly basis that my complexion wouldn’t betray my true feelings or make me look weak in front of my peers – I realised I had to do something about it. My first step was seeing a Harley Street hypnotherapist, who sat me down, mumbled at me for an hour about how my limbs were feeling “ever so heavy” and how I “certainly wouldn’t blush again”, and then packed me off into the street. It was all rather perfunctory, I thought – as the hypno-fog lifted from my brain and the numbness crept out of my limbs.
But the thing is, I think it worked. It can’t have hurt that in the same week I visited a therapist for CBT, who graciously introduced my brain to the lack of rationality behind my catastrophizing thoughts and the flaws in my absolute certainty that everyone around me thought I was a fraud when I constantly flushed red. After all, would I think that about someone else? No. Gradually, over the following months and years, the blushing lessened. I learned to employ certain trains of thought when I felt a blush coming on, such as arguing back against the negative thoughts until they started to quieten and slip away altogether. When out in public I realised that trying to blush on demand was a pretty sure-fire way of ‘tricking’ my face out of flushing red. I became more emboldened in social situations, in work meetings and when meeting new people. Amazingly, the less I cared about whether I blushed or not, the less it happened. There are other things that can help us chronic blushers, too: avoiding alcohol, spicy foods and preservatives.
And, of course, it’s always better if others can avoid the temptation to comment on our rising colour (cheers). Over the years, I’ve also discovered a bounty of products to quieten even the reddest of faces. I rely on lashings of Urban Decay Naked Skin Weightless Complete Coverage Concealer, £16.10, on my cheeks and chin, and always use foundations with yellow tones to counteract the red hue. The Ordinary’s Serum Foundation, £5.70, is a saviour and comes in an impressive range of shades. Add to that a mattifying powder (mine’s Laura Mercier’s Translucent Loose Setting Powder, £32) and you’ve got a good anti-blushing arsenal right there. Avene Thermal Spring Water Spray, £13, is a great – for all skin-tones – cooling mist for calming hot faces and Darphin’s Intral Redness Relief Recovery Cream, £50, conceals things with a convincing (for once) light green tinge.
Ultimately though, blushing will always be a part of my life. I still burn red across my chest, the tops of my arms and my neck in even the most innocuous situations and I still would never approach someone I admired if I saw them in public (I would burn brighter than a thousand suns). But somehow, coming to terms with the fact that most people really don’t care, or notice, if I blush has been empowering.
And if my blushes mean I’m kinder and generally a good human being, then I’ll take that – red face or not.
Fight the flush
From light blushes to chronic facial reddening, Stylist’s beauty team picks the ultimate weapons:
If you blush: Fairground candy floss
Clinique Even Better Glow Light Reflecting Makeup, £28, 50.
This foundation acts as a BB cream, providing just the sheer amount of coverage that’s needed for minimal blushers.
If you blush: Foam shrimps
Oxygenetix Oxygenating Foundation, £45
This aloe-gel-based formula covers a multitude of skin problems, including (helpfully) mid-level blush cheeks. You can also use it to help heal sore, sensitive skin.
If you blush: Norwegian lobster
Mac Studio Fix, £27.
With medium to full coverage, this buildable liquid foundation controls oil, shine and redness. It also provides a natural matte finish, which is handy for those of us who shine like a beacon.
If you blush: Fine aged Merlot
Cover FX Natural Finish Foundation, £18.
Recommended by top dermatologists for red skin and rosacea, this solution can be built up (and up and up…) for full coverage – hiding even the angriest blushes.
Images: Lizzie Pook