Our skin is the largest of our organs and does an incredible job at protecting us from the environment and invading microbes as well as keeping us hydrated and our body temperatures stable. So shouldn’t we do everything we can to look after it?
When we think of good skin care, most of us would probably think of the various cosmetic products that work on the very surface layer of the skin, but the cells that make up this layer have already come to the end of their lives. So why not think deeper down and nourish the skin cells from the moment that they start their lives? Skin cells (like all cells) need a good blood supply to take advantage of the nutrients we consume and to remove waste products. As skin cells develop, they push toward the surface, dry out and flake off. This turnover takes around a month, so a little patience is required to see the full benefits of good nutrition to skin health.
For centuries plant extracts have featured in the preparation of skin care products suggesting that we’ve long associated the benefits of plant properties for enhancing our skin’s appearance. Today, supplements, known as “nutricosmetics”, have become widely available and purport to promote a youthful appearance, often describing their magical properties as “anti-oxidant”. Words like carotenoids, tocopherols, flavonoids, essential omega-3 fatty acids, proteins, among others are used to describe the source of these products’ potency, but some of these can be toxic if we take them as supplements in large dosages (1). However, all of these nutrients can be found in the foods we eat, and therefore good nutrition can influence the look and texture of our skin.
So let’s look at some basic rules to help promote healthy skin:
1) Watch your added sugar intake.
This is not as easy as you might imagine, because a staggering amount of the foods we eat contain hidden sugars. That is, sugar that has been added during the manufacturing process and includes ready meals, premade sauces, ketchups, tinned products and soups. Ideally, we would go back to home-cooking from scratch, but realistically that might not always be practical. Therefore, we should try to ensure that added sugars make up the maximum of 10% of our daily calorie intake (2), which is about 6-12 teaspoons (or one single 330ml can of fizzy pop) and therefore it’s advisable to really limit how much processed food we consume and cut down (or preferably cut out) sugar-sweetened drinks, and keep cakes, sweets and biscuits as occasional treats.
Why? Because refined sugar has been linked with problems in repairing collagen and elastin, the “scaffolding” of our skin, by making fibres stiffer and lose elasticity. This may enhance the visible signs of aging and make some skin conditions worse. Refined sugars have also been implicated in increased inflammatory responses and a concept known as “oxidative stress”, which impacts on our skin’s ability to repair itself (3).
2) Consider increasing the amount of “good fats”.
Not all fats are bad, some are essential to our health and that does include a very small amount of saturated fats. Ideally, we should be aiming to get most of our fat requirements from oily fish and vegetable sources (such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado oil, walnut oil). Trans fats (such as hydrogenated vegetable oils) are being used less and less in manufacturing in the UK thankfully, but when you see them, avoid them! Eating fish at least twice a week and snacking on almonds and walnuts instead of crisps and cereal bars will increase the good fats in your diet, and benefit your skin.
Foods high in good fats are also high in vitamin E, zinc and selenium
Oil rich foods such as avocado are good sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that protects us from the damage caused by the environment. Nuts, seeds, and fish are good sources of the minerals selenium and zinc, which are important immune supporters.
3) Aim for a wide range of colourful vegetables and fruits
The colour in fruit and vegetables is provided by compounds called “phytonutrients” such as carotenoids, which some studies show to have an antioxidant effect (3) (4)– that is, they help fight free radicals that can be damaging to the skin (such as air pollution, sunlight, smoking, alcohol etc.).
Fruits and vegetables are good sources of the vitamins A and C, which are sometimes called antioxidant vitamins. Vitamin A and its precursor, beta-carotene, promotes repair and maintenance of the skin and vitamin C protects against free radicals. Vegetables such as carrots, squashes, peppers, sweet potato, tomatoes, and aubergines are great sources of these phytonutrients. Berry fruits like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants are fantastic with breakfast cereal or with low fat yoghurt (not zero fat, as you need a little fat to carry some of these nutrients into the blood) and good sources of phytonutrients and vitamin C.
4) Keep hydrated and reduce alcohol intake
Keep well hydrated by drinking plenty of water or non-caffeinated teas throughout the day. Keeping hydrated simply means drinking enough so that your urine remains lighter than straw coloured throughout the day. Alcohol consumption can quickly dehydrate our skin, and so sticking within health guidelines (14 units for women and 21 units for men spread over the week) can help prevent this. If you like a tipple, try and switch to red wine, which contains “polyphenols” that may help maintain good skin health (5).
5) Get plenty of rest and relaxation
OK, so sleep isn’t a nutrient, but it is rejuvenating and helps the body utilise nutrients to repair the skin; this means reducing stimulants such as tea, coffee and caffeinated drinks, or keep them for morning only beverages. Likewise, keeping stress levels down will also help sleep, and improve skin health. Many skin conditions can flare-up during stressful situations or when we get insufficient sleep.
6) But also get plenty of exercise!
If you are female with troublesome cellulite, then exercise maybe your answer. Cellulite is caused by disordered fat cells that lie beneath the skin. Female skin is thinner than male and, as we get older, our skin naturally thins. In females, as the skin thins their fat cells push toward the surface causing this lumpy texture. Regular exercise will help keep this at bay; you only need to look at female athletes with good muscle tone to see this.
7) We need the sun, but keep it limited
Avoid regular and long exposure to the sun or tanning beds, because these do promote skin aging. We do need the sun, for one thing it helps us make vitamin D, which itself is important for good skin health (6). However, we can get the appropriate amount of vitamin D just by exposing our skin to the sun for around 10-20 minutes each day (less for pale skin, more for dark), which for most people will be enough time to get the benefits of the sun rays without burning.
Final word on fruit and vegetables
A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology showed how skin coloration determined by the vegetables we eat affected our attractiveness to the opposite sex (7). Many people might not realise that vegetables can affect our skin colour, and it’s down to the carotenoids behind the red/orange/yellow pigmentation of various fruits and vegetables. So vegetables really do make you sexy!
1. Schagen SK, Zampeli VA, Makrantonaki E, Zouboulis CC. Discovering the link between nutrition and aging. Dermato Endocrinology. 2012 July; 4(3): p. 298-307.
2. World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.
3. Danby FW. Nutrition and aging skin: sugar and glycation. Clinics in Dermatology. 2010 July; 28(4): p. 409-411.
4. Linnewiel-Hermoni K, Khanin M, Danilenko M, Zango G, Amosi Y, Levy J, et al. The anti-cancer effects of carotenoids and other phytonutrients in their combined activity. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics. 2015 February.
5. Fisk WA, Lev-Tov, H.A. , Sivamani, R.K.. Botanical and phytochemical therapy of acne: a systematic review. Phytotherapy Research. 2014 February; 28(8).
6. Taylor EJM, Yu, Y. , Champer, J. , Kim J. Resveratrol demonstrates antimicrobial effects against propionibacterium acnes in vitro. Dermatology and Therapy. 2014 September; 4(2): p. 249-257.
7. Murzaku EC, Brosnick T, Rao BK. Diet in dermatology: Part II. Melanoma, chronic urticaria, and psoriasis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2014 December; 71(6).
8. Lefevre CE, Perrett DI. Fruit over sunbed: carotenoid skin coloration is found more attractive than melanin coloration. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2014; 68(2).
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.