Skin colour changes during experimentally-induced sickness

Audrey J. Henderson, Julie Lasselin, Mats Lekander, Mats J Olsson, Simon J. Powis, John Axelsson, David I. Perrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)
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Skin colour may be an important cue to detect sickness in humans but how skin colour changes with acute sickness is currently unknown. To determine possible colour changes, 22 healthy Caucasian participants were injected twice, once with lipopolysaccharide (LPS, at a dose of 2 ng/kg body weight) and once with placebo (saline), in a randomised cross-over design study. Skin colour across 3 arm and 3 face locations was recorded spectrophotometrically over a period of 8 hours in terms of lightness (L), redness (a) and yellowness (b) in a manner that is consistent with human colour perception. In addition, carotenoid status was assessed as we predicted that a decrease it skin yellowness would reflect a drop in skin carotenoids. We found an early change in skin colouration 1-3 hours post LPS injection with facial skin becoming lighter and less red whilst arm skin become darker but also less red and less yellow. The LPS injection also caused a drop in plasma carotenoids from 3 hours onwards. However, the timing of the carotenoid changes was not consistent with the skin colour changes suggesting that other mechanisms, such as a reduction of blood perfusion, oxygenation or composition. This is the first experimental study characterising skin colour associated with acute illness, and shows that changes occur early in the development of the sickness response. Colour changes may serve as a cue to health, prompting actions from others in terms of care-giving or disease avoidance. Specific mechanisms underlying these colour changes require further investigation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Early online date12 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


  • Skin colour
  • Inflammation
  • Lipopolysaccharide
  • SICKNESS response
  • Spectrophotometry
  • Carotenoids
  • Blood


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