by Marilyn Walls, M.S.
This article was originally published in June 2015
From diet to skin care products, consumer choices help achieve healthy, radiant skin.
Skin is more than a pretty package. Skin protects the body’s tissues, regulates temperature and synthesizes vitamin D. Important components of the immune system reside in the skin. Skin is also the largest organ of elimination, a portal for releasing toxins.
As the largest organ of the human body in surface area and weight, any discussion of skin covers a vast scope, from childhood eczema and teenage acne, to dry skin or a beautiful glow. Environmental pollutants, stress, sleep, genetics and nutrition all influence the face we show the world. Good nutrition can be the foundation of healthy skin, nourished to work well and look good.
There are no quick fixes for skin problems. Healing from the inside out requires time. This is true especially for skin: desquamation, the natural process of cell turnover from new cell birth to the sloughing of dead cells, takes approximately 28 days. This process takes longer as we age, and, after 50, cell turnover can slow to three months. Often people are disappointed to use a new product for several weeks and see no improvement, not realizing that true results will take at least a month.
What we put in our bodies
Skin reflects what’s going on in the body, so better food choices can support skin well-being. Antioxidants protect skin cells from harm and may decrease signs of aging. Flavonoids supply those antioxidant powers. Found in plants, flavonoids protect against free-radical damage in the body. Flavonoids also strengthen the walls of veins and capillaries, supporting better circulation to the skin for a nourished and brighter complexion.
There are thousands of flavonoids, distinguishable by their rich colors in fruits and vegetables. “Eat a rainbow” is a simple way to add a variety of flavonoids to our diet. What a lovely realization: by including more fruits and vegetables in our diets, we help heal our skin.
Antioxidants for skin health include vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, selenium and zinc. Vitamin C is a potent skin guardian. Besides offering DNA protection, vitamin C is involved in every step of making collagen. Collagen makes up the connective tissue that holds our bodies together, giving firmness and elasticity to skin. Conversely, the results of diminishing collagen can be sagging skin, fine lines and wrinkles. Not only is vitamin C essential for building collagen, it’s destroyed in the process, requiring continual replenishment. Vitamin C’s antioxidant abilities can limit both UV damage to skin and inflammatory responses.
Observational studies of human skin found higher amounts of vitamin C from the diet were associated with better skin appearance, especially with decreases in wrinkling. The Linus Pauling Institute says “oral supplementation with vitamin C effectively increases vitamin C levels in the skin.” Papaya, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, citrus and kale supply vitamin C. When adding vitamin C foods, remember that vitamin C is degraded by long-term freezing, high heat and the microwave. As a water-soluble nutrient, vitamin C is vulnerable to deterioration in cooking and processing. Vitamin C is included as an ingredient in topical skin care products, where it can brighten skin and improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation from sun damage.
If supplementing with vitamin C, the most effective support for damaged skin comes from a combination of vitamin C and vitamin E. Vitamin E is an abundant antioxidant naturally in skin and may prevent UV-induced free-radical damage. Food sources of vitamin E include tofu, spinach, nuts, pumpkin seeds, avocados, fish and olive oil. Vitamin E also has been used topically as a skin moisturizer.
Silica is a trace mineral that strengthens connective tissues. Lower levels of silica in the body may lead to decreased elasticity in the skin and a diminished ability to heal. Leeks, green beans, garbanzo beans, strawberries, mangoes, asparagus and horsetail herbal tea supply silica.
Selenium is another antioxidant that can protect against UV risk. It is anti-inflammatory and supports thyroid health. Symptoms of hypothyroid include dry skin, confirming the need to look at skin as a reflection of the whole body and its conditions.
Zinc also is important for healthy skin. It supports wound healing, can lower inflammation, helps the body process fatty acids and may decrease scarring. Good sources of zinc include wheat germ, oats, eggs, beef, lamb, ginger, seafood, amaranth, cashews, mushrooms, beans and dark chocolate.
Skin problems arise from a variety of causes, including food and chemical sensitivities, as well as digestive issues. Food allergies often manifest in skin conditions.
Because skin is the largest organ of elimination, the liver finds skin a convenient dumping ground for reactions to allergens, stress, pollutants, synthetics and other toxins. Supporting the liver internally with an herb, such as milk thistle, may be a necessity for skin healing. Drinking enough water or coconut water not only helps hydrate the skin, but it also flushes toxins out of the body.
Inflammation inhabits any list of causes of skin difficulties. Red or troubled skin: think inflammation. Once again omega-3 essential fatty acids are touted as anti-inflammatory foods. Salmon, fish oils and flax seeds are just a few sources of omega-3s. Additionally, oils rich in omega-3s moisturize from the inside out. They nourish dry skin by replenishing absent fats, leaving skin soft and supple. Evening primrose, hemp, black currant and borage oils contain GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), which is particularly restorative for the skin when taken internally.
Skin problems may begin early in life. Many babies suffer with eczema, but eczema is not limited to the young. It may be exacerbated by food allergies or reactions to topical synthetic ingredients. Finding those triggers can help alleviate the discomfort. A gentle calendula cream may be effective for eczema and other skin rashes. Young children’s skin problems are often improved by removing dairy, gluten or other allergens from their diet.
Acne is often the bane of teenage years but can continue into adulthood. Angela Frechette, an instructor and esthetician at the Euro Institute of Skin Care in Bellevue, says acne is a complicated subject treatable in different ways, depending upon how the condition presents. In teen years, the two most common causes are hormonal and dietary. Greasy fats such as potato chips, sugary soda pops and processed foods are perpetrators.
A landmark overview of research published in 2013 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics carried out over 50 years found that eating foods with a high glycemic index (GI), such as sugar and milk, aggravated and sometimes triggered acne. High-GI foods are thought to aggravate acne because they trigger hormonal fluctuations. Milk in particular may affect acne because of the hormones it contains.
“At the Euro Institute, we take a holistic perspective and treat acne with plant-based extracts,” Frechette says. “We focus on healing acne with products that contain lavender and chamomile while balancing oil production with extracts such as ylang ylang. We work to detoxify the skin with treatment masks and supplementation. It’s important with this condition to treat both internally and topically.”
Argan and other nut oils, botanical extracts or essential oils can be found in natural skin care products. These ingredients have therapeutic value. Besides offering stress-relieving aromas, lavender is antimicrobial, blue chamomile anti-inflammatory, and ylang ylang balancing. Since many oils come from developing countries, look for sources that are certified Fair Trade or from grower co-ops that raise the crops traditionally.
Because oily skin can be a precursor for blemishes, products to reduce oils are thought to be the answer. But if the products chosen are too drying or too abrasive, the skin will work harder to replace those natural oils, resulting in more sebum than before. It’s good to remember that some oils, such as lavender and clary sage, actually decrease the skin’s oiliness. Internally zinc might protect against acne and other issues, such as psoriasis and eczema. Adults may find that a detox or supplementation with burdock root helps. Burdock root promotes the elimination of wastes, especially from the skin.
Sadly, scarring may be a consequence of some conditions. To diminish scarring, the antioxidants in rosehip oil and the essential oil helichrysum (also called immortelle) are powerful allies. Helichrysum can stimulate new cell growth, calming acne, scar tissue, bruises and rosacea.
Skin care routines
A basic skin care practice should include cleansing, a mist or toner and a moisturizer. Products with synthetic ingredients can irritate rather than comfort skin. Careful reading of labels is required.
Estheticians tell clients not to use bar soap for facial cleaning. Many bar soaps contain harsh ingredients, such as lye. Frechette explains, “Most bar soaps over time can contribute to a breakdown of the natural barrier of our skin. Look for cleansers that will not over-strip the skin.”
Toners or mists can rehydrate the skin. “They usually contain ingredients such as aloe vera or glycerin, which work to bind water to the skin,” says Frechette. Retaining water to the skin gives a smooth, glowing complexion and aids in filling in fine lines. Generally, an alcohol-free toner is recommended as alcohol can further strip the skin after cleansing.”
Choose or make mists with botanicals or essential oils that reduce inflammation or add antioxidants to nourish the skin. While toners are recommended after cleansing, they’re a refreshing bonus during the summer. Keep in the refrigerator for a cooling facial spritz on a warm afternoon. Take a mist along to a hike or concert on a sunny day, because hot weather dries the skin. If mists contain oils, less moisturizer may be needed in the last step of skin care.
Cleansers, mists and moisturizers usually are created for specific skin types. Dry, aging skin particularly needs moisturizers. Talk to anyone working in the health and body care departments at PCC for knowledgeable guidance about selecting these products.
Patiently nurturing skin both within and without promises better health in addition to an enhanced appearance. It’s worth the effort.
Marilyn Walls, M.S., is a nutrition educator at PCC and teaches free Walk, Talk & Taste classes at our stores.