Arousal comes with all kinds of physical reactions: swelling, hardening, lubricating, shaking, even goosebumps. There's a lot going on in the heat of the moment, so you might not realise you have a sex flush (also called a "sex glow") until someone points it out, or until you're trying to cool down and your skin isn't getting the memo.
Sex flush is the "reddening of skin that becomes visible with arousal," like the kind of redness you might see after a hard workout, says Jess O'Reilly, PhD, resident sexologist at Astroglide. It occurs mainly in the face or chest, adds Jennifer Roelands, MD, board-certified ob-gyn and founder of Well Woman MD, but you might also see it around your genitals "due to the engorgement of the blood vessels there."
Sex flush is a totally normal reaction to arousal (nothing to be embarrassed about!), and it's typically more noticeable on light-skinned people. So why does arousal cause this reaction in your skin, and how can you help it cool down after you're (ahem) finished? Can it ever be a sign of something more serious? We spoke to a few sexual health experts to get the scoop.
Sex Flush: Why Does It Happen?
Sex flush happens when your skin turns pink or red in response to arousal. There's a legit reason behind it, explains Lauren Haines, MSN, APRN, FNP-BC, a nurse practitioner specialising in sexual health for TBD Health. "Sexual arousal and stimulation causes a widening of the blood vessels in your body," she explains, "which allows additional blood flow to delicate sex organs, resulting in improved sensitivity and sensation." Blood vessel dilation happens all over the body, and the increased blood flow can create a red tinge in your skin, she explains. And for what it's worth, "it's super common," Haines adds.
Sex flush should resolve on its own within a few minutes after sex comes to an end. If you want to speed up the process, Dr. Roelands says, try turning on a fan, taking a few deep breaths to calm down, jumping in a cool shower, or just splashing some water on your face. "If the flush doesn't resolve within a few hours and you notice itching, pain, difficulty breathing, or something feels off, you should consult your doctor," Dr. Roelands adds. Importantly, if you experience difficulty breathing or significant redness, pain, and/or severe itching around your genitalia after using a condom, it may be a sign of a latex allergy, she says. In that case, it's best to go to hospital or call a doctor ASAP to treat your allergic reaction.
Sexual Response Cycle
Sex flush is part of what's known as the sexual response cycle, a linear model of sexual functioning that dates back to the 1960s. For context, "more recent studies have shown that sexual responses do not follow a linear pattern but are more circular and fluid," Haines tells POPSUGAR. Newer versions of this model say that psychological factors may also play a role in desire and arousal, she adds.
Still, having a general idea of the sexual response cycle and your body's reactions during each phase may help you understand what turns you on and enhances your experience of sex. Here's the basic outline:
- Excitement: In this phase, you're just starting to get aroused, and your body is responding visibly. Sex flush can start to happen, as well as erection and vaginal lubrication. Your nipples may harden and your heart rate and blood pressure may rise. "This stage is essential to building arousal and pleasure," Dr. O'Reilly says. "Some people find that they prefer to take their time in this stage, as it helps them to relax and cultivate the presence required to further increase arousal and build toward orgasm."
- Plateau: You're getting more excited and aroused in the plateau phase. You might see more physical signs of this, including swelling in the outer third of the vagina, testicles elevating closer to the body, and muscle tension and spasms. "Some people work their way to the plateau phase and then slow down to decrease arousal as they edge their way to orgasm," Dr. O'Reilly says. "Others work their way through plateau as quickly as possible because they're focussed on 'finishing' up with orgasm." Prolonging the plateau phase, she says, might result in "new sensations, heightened sexual tension, and a more intense orgasm when you decide to take yourself over the edge."
- Orgasm: Experiences of orgasm vary between people and even between sexual episodes, Dr. O'Reilly explains — what an orgasm feels like today might not be the same as tomorrow. Physically, you might experience a pleasurable release of sexual tension, muscle contractions in your pelvic region, ejaculation, and dilation of your pupils. While orgasm is often thought of as the "goal" of sex, remember that "sex can be highly pleasurable regardless of whether or not you have an orgasm," Dr. O'Reilly says.
- Resolution: In this final phase, your body starts to return to its unaroused state. Swollen or erect body parts go back to their nonaroused size or colour, and people with penises will likely need some time to recover (aka the refractory period). If you experience sex flush, it will start to dissipate at this point. "Some people call this [phase] the afterglow and bask in the sense of relief and overwhelming calm," Dr. O'Reilly says.
It's important to remember that the sexual response cycle is a simplified representation of our actual experience of arousal and sex, which is unique to each person. In other words, "the sexual response cycle is neither universal nor linear," Dr. O'Reilly says. "You may experience these signs of sexual response to varying degrees (or not at all), and none of these signs fit neatly into specific categories."
As for sex flush, know that as long as it doesn't hang around for hours or come with itching, pain, or difficulty breathing, it's just part of your body's natural reaction to arousal. Embrace all the good feelings that come with it.