They say beauty is only skin deep, but those three dermal layers play an important role in your overall health, so it's important to eat a diet that supports them.
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As a barrier against environmental pathogens, ultraviolet light and mechanical injury, the real beauty of our skin lies in the fact that it protects our bodies from potential harm, according to November 2021 research in StatPearls.
"A diet lacking in nutrients will certainly be reflected in your skin," says Enrizza P. Factor, MD, clinical dermatologist and researcher for My Vitiligo Team. But, staying hydrated and eating the right foods can go a long way in keeping your skin fresh and revitalized.
There's a lot of information out there about how to eat for healthy skin. To make things less overwhelming, we asked dermatologists which nutrients they make sure to get in their diets to support clear, healthy skin.
You may hear some refer to protein as "the building blocks of life." That's because the macronutrient is comprised of 20+ amino acids that are used to build and repair the tissues in our bodies, including our muscles, bones, hair and skin, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Proteins are fundamental for promoting and maintaining elastic skin," says Laura Geigaite, dentist and cosmetic dermatologist. "Your body converts proteins into amino acids and reprocesses them to create other proteins such as skin-supporting keratin and collagen."
Keratin is a protein found in your skin's outer layer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It keeps those cells healthy by protecting them from stress-related damage. Collagen is what gives skin its structure and helps it stay smooth and supple as you age, which means fewer wrinkles, per the Cleveland Clinic.
2. Vitamin C
While it's typically associated with immune health, vitamin c benefits your skin in a number of ways, too. This powerful vitamin protects skin cells from age-related damage and is super important if you want to stay glowing for years to come.
"Vitamin C has antioxidant properties that fight free radical damage to promote an even skin tone and ward off those age-defining fine lines and wrinkles," Geigate says. That's because vitamin C plays a role in collagen production, which as we mentioned, gives skin its firm structure.
- Foods high in vitamin C, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruit and tomatoes
3. Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in foods like salmon, walnuts and flax seeds. They're most known for their heart-and-brain-protecting properties, but they also play a role in skin health, according to the NLM.
Omega-3s have been linked to protection from sun damage, according to an older July 2011 review in Experimental Dermatology, but more research is needed.
"These essential fatty acids have moisturizing properties and are beneficial for skin repair and its overall elasticity. Omega-3s may also help with certain skin conditions," Dr. Factor says.
Research has indeed linked deficiencies in omega-3s to inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, though the role they play in preventing skin disorders still needs to be studied, per a July 2016 review in Dermatology Practical and Conceptual.
- Foods high in omega-3s, like fatty fish, chia seeds and avocado.
4. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant. Its main purpose is to fight harmful free radicals and protect cells from damage, much like vitamin C, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Vitamin E plays a huge role in your skin's health," Dr. Factor says. "It fights off free radicals that can cause sagging and wrinkles and has been linked to skin cancer prevention."
Vitamin E's antioxidant properties may help delay skin aging and improve hyperpigmentation, according to a January 2021 review in Nutrients. What's more, it's said to be even more effective when combined with vitamin C.
- Foods high in vitamin E, like almonds, pumpkin and leafy greens such as collards and spinach
5. Vitamin A
Retinol or retinoic acid (aka vitamin A) is necessary for vision, cell growth, reproduction and immunity, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also has antioxidant properties that ward off skin damage.
"Vitamin A plays a critical role in skin repair and maintenance," Dr. Factor says. "Beta-carotene, a carotenoid and pre-cursor to vitamin A, has antioxidant properties that reduce skin damage from overexposure to the sun."
Once carotenoids are absorbed, they accumulate in the outermost skin layer (epidermis) where they can provide a direct line of defense against damaging ultraviolet rays, according to an August 2019 review in Antioxidants.
- Foods high in vitamin A, like collard greens, sweet potato, cantaloupe and red peppers
The body only needs a small amount of selenium, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But the mineral is still essential for thyroid health and DNA and cell protection.
"Selenium is an antioxidant that plays a role in your skin's firmness and elasticity," Dr. Factor says. "It also increases the absorption of vitamin E, which may help promote glowing, healthy skin."
- Foods high in selenium, like brazil nuts, walnuts, tuna, whole grains and brown rice
Other Healthy Skin Tips
Our diet plays a major role in skin health, but it's not the only factor.
According to the National Institutes of Health, you'll be closer to achieving that healthy glow if you also:
- Bathe in warm — not hot — water and use mild cleansers.
- Avoid sun exposure for extended periods and use sunscreen.
- Don't use tanning beds or sunlamps.
- Stay hydrated.
- Limit stress.
- Get enough deep sleep.
- Talk to your doctor if you notice changes to your skin, especially things like a rash or mole that changes size or color.
- Stat Pearls: "Anatomy, Skin (Integument), Epidermis"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Keratin"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Collagen"
- International Journal of Cosmetic Science: "Effect of vitamin C and Its Derivatives on Collagen Synthesis and Cross-linking by Normal Human Fibroblasts"
- Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine: "Efficacy of Vitamin C Supplementation on Collagen Synthesis and Oxidative Stress After Musculoskeletal Injuries: A Systematic Review"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Omega-3 Fats - Good for your Heart"
- Dermatology Practical and Conceptual: "Diet and Eczema: A Review of Dietary Supplements for the Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Vitamin E"
- Nutrients: "Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Selenium"
- Mayo Clinic: " Vitamin A"
- Antioxidants: "Do We Utilize Our Knowledge of the Skin Protective Effects of Carotenoids Enough?"
- National Institutes of Health: Keep Your Skin Healthy