Changes to the color of your skin can be a worrisome discovery, whether this discoloration is noticeable all over or limited to certain areas such as your hands or feet. Yellow hands is one such discovery, with a variety of potential causes, including one that is considered harmless -- your diet. However, see your doctor for any such skin color changes, as yellow hands and skin are sometimes related to a serious medical condition.
A condition called carotenemia is characterized by yellow pigmentation of the skin, caused by elevated levels of beta-carotene -- a pigment found in yellow, orange and green plants and a substance the body converts to vitamin A. Since carotene is one of the pigments that adds tone to the skin, a buildup of beta-carotene in the body adds excess yellow to the skin tone. A common reason for carotenemia is related to prolonged and excessive intake of foods rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes and spinach. Dietary carotenemia tends to be most noticeable in the palms of the hands and the soles on the feet, as well as the nasolabial folds, or the skin folds that run from the nose to the mouth.
Infrequently, carotenemia is caused by a medical condition. According to a March 2003 review in “International Journal of Dermatology,” conditions including diabetes, high blood fats, hypothyroidism, liver disease and kidney disease uncommonly cause carotenemia. This secondary carotenemia is believed to be caused by faulty metabolism. For example, significantly increased blood fats can bind the carotenoids and prevent normal excretion via sweat, urine and stool. Also liver enzymes and the thyroid hormone are responsible for conversion of carotenoids to vitamin A, so liver disease and hypothyroidism can lead to excess carotenoids in the tissues. Seeing a doctor to manage these conditions can help improve the associated skin discoloration.
Jaundice is a term that describes the yellowing of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes. It is caused by a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow pigment that is formed when red blood cells are broken down. Bilirubin can build up if the liver is diseased, damaged or overwhelmed, or if there are problems with the tubes that carry digestive fluids from the liver. Any bilirubin that can’t escape the body starts to show through the skin as a yellow pigment. People with jaundice also typically experience other symptoms including fever, weight loss, darker or brownish urine, pale or yellow stools and abdominal pain. If jaundice is the cause of the yellow hands, the skin all over the body can be yellow. Also, jaundice will cause the whites of the eyes to have a yellow hue -- something that is not present if the discoloration is due to carotenemia.
Before talking to a doctor, it's a good idea to investigate if the yellow skin is caused by a stain. For example, tanning lotion is known to discolor the skin, or paint from tools or other objects can rub off on sweaty or wet skin. If there are no obvious external sources of the color, yellow hands can be a sign of excess dietary beta-carotene or an uncommon indicator of certain medical conditions. Rarely it is caused by genetic disorders or drug side effects. If you have any yellowing of the skin, or if you have jaundice or any other symptoms of liver disease, contact your doctor right away.