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Our skin is the largest organ in the body and is often what we notice first about others. What we eat can have big effects on our skin but there may be a difference between adequate nutrition to support healthy skin and optimal nutrition for best possible skin health. It’s also really important to mention all the other factors that affect our skin – genetics, age, weather, smoking and so many more – which are likely to have much more of an impact on our skin than what we eat if we already have a varied, balanced diet, but more on that below.
Some micronutrients have EU health claims attached to them, meaning we have enough evidence to say ‘yes, we definitely need these for healthy skin’. These are:
Vitamin A - supports integrity of the immune system, which supports skin health so that it can mount resistance to infection. We get vitamin A from animal products (liver, whole milk, cheese), dark green leafy veg and orange-coloured foods like carrots and sweet potato.
B vitamins (2, 3 and 7) – their contribution relates to having enough of them which contributes to normal skin maintenance. B vitamins are found in a wide range of foods from dairy and eggs to meat and green leafy veg.
Vitamin C – this is found in relatively high concentrations in the skin where it acts as a cofactor for enzymes involved in collagen synthesis, as an antioxidant and has been reported to protect against environmental pollutant and UV damage. Vitamin C is found in many fruit and veg such as citrus fruits, berries, peppers, tomatoes and green veg.
Copper – acts as a free radical scavenger, in healing and repair of tissues and in the formation of red blood cells. Copper is found in shellfish, legumes, brazil nuts and cashews, cocoa and liver.
Iodine – is essential for formation of thyroid hormones which are involved in maintenance of the integrity of connective tissue. Iodine is found in milk and dairy products, some fish and shellfish and some cereal products.
Zinc – plays an integral role in pathogen destruction, forms part of many enzymes and is involved in intracellular signalling. It’s found in shellfish, meat, eggs, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
There are also many others such as vitamin D, E and K and selenium which we know have roles to play in keeping our skin healthy.
We need fat in our diet. They’re essential components of cell plasma membranes and the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are important for skin structure, wound healing and providing anti-inflammatory functions. Omega-3 is found in oily fish, flaxseed, chia seed and certain oils; omega-6 is more common, found in safflower, sunflower and sesame oils as well as some nuts.
Fats also aid absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D, K) and there is some early evidence that long chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) can be effective at reducing UV damage (Storey et al. 2005).
Sufficient hydration can sometimes get overlooked; water is essential for all processes in our body to perform correctly. We lose water constantly and even small levels of dehydration can result in dry, tight skin that is less resilient and more prone to damage. Excessive alcohol consumption can also have negative effects on the skin. We have some evidence that alcohol intake correlates with skin inflammation; partly as alcohol intake leads to increased general inflammation in the body but it can also have a drastic impact on the functioning of the liver, needed to detoxify the blood.
It's perfectly possible to get enough of all the above nutrients from a balanced and varied diet. I'd always recommend a food first approach as adding supplements to an already poor diet won’t provide you with the additional benefits that come from a varied diet. Those who're likely to see the biggest benefits to their skin are those with a restrictive diet who potentially miss out on certain skin-friendly nutrients or those who don’t drink enough water. Now to discuss the supplements targeted at improving skin to see if there’s any substance to their many claims!
For lots of us nutrient deficiencies can be corrected through slight tweaks to the diet, but in certain cases supplementation is essential (gut conditions, pregnancy/lactation etc). Once we’ve achieved sufficient nutrient intake though is there anything we can do to optimise our skin health through additional nutrient intake?
The range of nutraceuticals (orally consumed nutrition products which provide supposed health benefits) available today is baffling! Although there’s a lot of active area of research in this area there’s still a way to go to determine long-term benefits; much marketing of products goes beyond where the evidence is at, termed ‘belief beyond the evidence’. Below are some popular supplements which I’ll take a deep dive into the evidence for.
Although we can get phytonutrients from many plant foods - tea, coffee, fruits, vegetables, pulses, seeds etc – there’s LOADS of research investigating supplementation. For example, evidence shows high green tea intake (1 litre/day) can potentially temporarily increase blood flow to the skin and enhance free radical scavenging ability. High dose of catechins (the active component of green tea) can more easily be achieved with oral supplements and has been shown to reach the skin (Megow et al. 2017). However, only one placebo-controlled trial has shown beneficial effects of catechins for protection from UV light (Heinrich et al. 2011), which really isn’t enough to prove anything.
The outer layer of the skin is around 25% unsaturated
fats which are highly susceptible to oxidative damage meaning, in theory, increasing levels of antioxidants in the skin should protect against skin damage. However, at high doses antioxidants may have the opposite effect to what we want and the current evidence for general health isn't as promising as previously hoped. Supplementing with carotenoids has been shown to
increase skin concentration; although a diet high in fruit and veg can achieve this too. There has been much research into their benefits for UV protection and skin health, although there just isn’t enough good quality evidence for tangible benefits currently.
In certain populations it may be hard to achieve the appropriate PUFA intake. Vegetarian and vegan diets for example can have very low intakes of EPA and DHA. Supplementary PUFAs have been suggested to help reduce skin inflammation, increase blood flow and reduce skin redness. There’s some evidence to support this although large-scale, randomised, controlled trials (RCTs) are needed to determine the extent of any beneficial effects.
Though there have been several successful studies completed in animals, the evidence for collagen drinks making real changes to skin health in humans isn’t convincing. We’re perfectly capable of getting enough protein from our diet and as these drinks are often VERY expensive I’d steer well clear.
IV vitamin infusions have become increasingly popular in recent years; suggested to help with everything from hangovers to skin lightening. There have been no clinical trials supporting these claims and we know very little about safe doses of micronutrients delivered straight into the bloodstream. As there’s also currently no regulation for IV treatments provided by clinics in the UK, it can safely be said that opening a vein to get vitamins and/or minerals is unnecessarily extreme and dangerous.
Probiotics get a lot of attention for being the ‘cure-all’ for a load of disorders and conditions. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) haven’t approved any health claims for them. An imbalance in the gut microbiota has been associated with chronic skin conditions, like roseacea, and there is emerging research that probiotics may protect against UV damage (Friedrich et al. 2017). Although they’ve been shown to increase gut microbial diversity, which is thought to be beneficial to health in general, more studies building on current knowledge of the gut microbiota are needed for us to really know what’s going on.
Diet is never going to be the soul answer to getting our skin in better condition. When it comes down to it we don’t have to do anything much fancier than just eating a wide range of different foods, with plenty of fruit and veg and make sure we drink enough water! As we mention in our recorded video, it’s groundbreaking no?!
Storey et al. (2005). Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid reduce UVB- and TNF-alpha-induced IL-8 secretion in keratinocytes and UVB-induced IL-8 in fibroblasts. J Inv Derm. 124(1), pp. 248-55.
Megow et al. (2017). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Green Tea Beverages on the in vivo Radical Scavenging Activity in Human Skin. Skin Pharm Physio. 30(5), pp. 225-233.
Heinrich et al. (2011). Green Tea Polyphenols Provide Photoprotection, Increase Microcirculation, and Modulate Skin Properties of Women. J Nutr. 141(6), pp. 1202-8.
Friedrich et al. (2017). Message in a Bottle: Dialog between Intestine and Skin Modulated by Probiotics. Int J Mol Sci. 18(6).