I like to think that I’m teflon when it comes to most insults, but there is one word that cuts deep, deep, deep into my very soul:


The Chinese call it “黃臉婆”.

The literal translation is “yellow-faced woman”, though I will argue that replacing “woman” with “hag” is more accurate and better captures the biting essence of the phrase.

As a child I found the insult baffling, because us Chinese people are, as you know, yellow. But the “yellow” in 黃臉婆 isn’t about skin color — it refers to a pale, sickly tinge of yellow commonly associated with illness and aging, otherwise known as a sallow complexion.

Sallow skin is wan and lackluster. It is the absolute opposite of a radiant, healthy glow. Sallow skin is everything you do not want for your face, but frighteningly common among East Asians given our natural skin color.

[Side note: a sallow complexion can be the result of actual illness, but frankly I’m not qualified to discuss that. I’m pretty sure I flunked the science portion of NSAT; I have no business talking about serious medical stuff.]

If, like me, you sometimes wake up looking a little more pale and yellow than usual, here are a few things you can do:

Color Correction

Fixing your sallowness problem can be as simple as knowing your basic color wheel. I know, I know — we’ve all seen those Instagram people who took “paint with all the colors of the wind” a little too literally.

Color correcting doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though.

You just have to pick the color opposite the one you’re trying to camouflage. Green cancels out redness so it works for active pimples and rosacea. For brownish dark circles and old acne marks, go with peach.

If you want to get rid of that sickly yellow tone, you need purple.

No, it will not make you look like Grimace. (If it does, you’re probably using too much.)

One option is to color correct with a primer, giving you a more neutral canvas before you go in with the rest of your makeup. A lot of Korean brands offer purple primers, thanks to the aforementioned East Asian penchant for sallowness, but most mainstream Western brands now offer them as well. From ELF to Chanel, there’s a purple primer for every budget.

Another option is to use a tinted finishing powder, like HOURGLASS Ambient Lighting Powder in Mood Light.


Understand Undertones

If you’re looking a little sallow, the last thing you want is to enhance the yellow tinge even more.

You can neutralize that sallow complexion by using makeup with cool or blue undertones. A blue-based red lipstick like NARS Dragon Girl (my personal favorite), for example, can do wonders and brighten your sallow skin ASAP. It works so fast it’s like turning a light bulb on.

Avoid anything warm-toned or yellow-based like orange or peach lipstick. Same goes for blush. Opt for brighter pinks or lavenders to combat the sallowness.

I know it goes entirely against conventional wisdom. We’ve all seen the countless articles about sticking to yellow-based color makeup for warm undertones. When dealing with sallowness, however, going the reverse route is the best course.

NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Dragon Girl

Neutral Foundation

Here’s the thing: just because you’re Asian, doesn’t automatically mean you have warm undertones. I figured that out the hard way, after extensive and expensive trial and error.

A lot of makeup artists and sellers will automatically reach for the warmer shades when they get Asian customers. I had the great fortune to come across a much more astute sales associate, thank goodness, and finally learned that I had neutral undertones, leaning slightly warm.

All those years of using warm shades made me look either sallow or outright orange, and neither is a good look. Although I do still lean warm, choosing a foundation shade with neutral undertones made my skin look more balanced overall.

The next time you go foundation shopping, ask to try out both the warm and neutral shades. Don’t go a shade lighter or deeper; the key here is to focus on the undertones, not your surface color. More importantly, apply it on your face. Not your arm or neck or chest. Face.

Of course the best way to avoid sallowness — as long as it’s not the side effect or symptom of an actual illness — is to keep your skin healthy. Maintain a solid skin care routine, eat well, get enough sleep, and drink enough water.

But I will be the first to tell you that life happens, and you get stressed out, and you eat a lot of Royce chocolate, and you sometimes have to stay up till 2 AM watching Beastmaster on Netflix, and it’s okay. There’s always makeup.

Featured image by rawpixel on Unsplash