You've finally made the commitment -- you're on a weight loss program. And you're starting to see some results.
But if you're like many dieters, you may also see something you weren't expecting: skin problems! While switching to a lower-fat, lower-calorie eating plan is good for your body, don't be surprised if your skin doesn't think so -- at least for the first few weeks.
"In the beginning, even a healthy diet can stress your system, and there is no question that it's stressful enough to impact your skin," says David Goldberg, MD, director of Skin Laser and Surgery Specialists of New York/New Jersey and a clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.
One of the most common problems is a condition loosely defined as "dieter's acne" either breakouts that occur for the first time, or an acne condition that worsens when you begin a new eating plan.
"Part of it has to do with the overall change in the kinds of foods you are eating, which can stress the system initially," Goldberg says. "But I also think it's related to the whole process of dieting, which can be very stressful. ... And there's no getting around it, your skin will show how you feel."
When we're stressed, a cascade of hormonal activity takes place, some of which can influence our skin. For those who have never had skin problems, this activity may be enough to initiate a breakout. If you start your diet with an oily complexion and occasional breakouts, Goldberg says, dieting can make it seem worse -- at least at first.
The good news: It's only temporary.
Once your body adjusts to your new, healthier food intake, and you emotionally accept dieting as a positive force in your life, Goldberg says, stress levels generally go down and your skin will calm down as well.
"The important thing is not to get stressed about your skin, which can only make the breakouts last longer," says Goldberg.
In the meantime, he recommends keeping skin clean, wear as little makeup as possible, and try an over-the-counter drying solution containing either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
When Dieting Ages Skin
Acne may be a problem you face at the start of your diet. But if you stick with your weight loss plan long enough, you may notice more lines and wrinkles, particularly on your face and neck.
Fat helps keep skin taut. And as we begin to lose that underlying support, our skin may react by looking looser and, possibly more wrinkled. This is particularly true if you're over 35 when you start to lose weight.
"As we age, we don't make as much collagen, and what we do make isn't quite as good as what our body produced when we were younger," says esthetician Susie Galvaz, owner of Face Works Day Spa in Richmond, Va. With less fat to support the skin from underneath, and less collagen to hold moisture and water, Galvaz warns, lines and creases can follow.
"It's not uncommon for women to lose weight and gain years on their face, particularly if they lose weight quickly, or if they don't take care of their skin while dieting," says derma-surgeon Rhoda Narins, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center in New York.
But a slimmer body doesn't have to mean a more lined face, Galvaz says.
First, make sure you lose weight slowly. This gives your skin time to adjust to the loss, and that may reduce some of the droops and drops. Galvaz also believes that firming creams are a must. And, she says, don't wait until lines and wrinkles appear to start using them.
"As soon as you begin your diet, begin using firming creams on your face, and keep on using them while you're losing weight and you will definitely see a positive result," says Galvaz, a dieter who has lost 120 pounds herself.
Dermatologist Amy Newburger, MD, says the two best skin firming ingredients to look for are vitamin C and copper peptides.
"Both have been shown to stimulate collagen production," says Newburger, director of Dermatology Consultants of Westchester, N.Y. "But, make sure you select not only the L-ascorbic form of vitamin C, but that it's stabilized and offers a delivery system that can drive it down into the skin."
One of the most effective delivery systems is liposomes. These are tiny spheres that are used to encapsulate ingredients (like vitamin C) that on their own are too large to get into the deepest layers of the skin. Because liposomes can penetrate skin layers, they enable the vitamin C to reach the cells where collagen is produced.
And no, you don't have to spend a lot for these products. Newburger recommends products from the Neutrogena Visibly Firm Copper Serum line and Avon's Clearly C Vitamin C serum Â which you can get for under $20.
To keep the collagen you are making from breaking down, Newburger also suggests serums containing "pentapeptides" -- chains of amino acids that help inhibit collagen breakdown and may promote its production. Her recommendations include the Olay Regenerist line of products, most of which sell for under $20, and Avon Ultimate Cream, for around $30.
"If you're dieting, these ingredients can make a difference in how your face looks after all the weight is lost," says Newburger.
Galvaz says her own favorites are the new creams containing Matrixyl, a combination of pentapeptides and collagen that she says helps to bind moisture in the cells.
It can also help to take some of these ingredients internally [and not just apply them to the face], says Newburger. She suggests 1,000 milligrams daily of ester C (a form of vitamin C that may be easier to tolerate) along with 5 micrograms each of copper and zinc. All three, she says, play an important role in collagen production. (Don't forget to check with your doctor before adding any supplement other than a daily multivitamin/multimineral to your regime.)
Galvaz also suggests adding supplements of vitamin E and evening primrose to your regimen, and says to be sure to take them at night. (Keep in mind that herbal supplements like evening primrose are not regulated by the FDA; it's a good idea to ask your doctor about them first.)
"Our body does its most intensive skin-repair work at night, and I've found that taking these supplements in the evening appear to accelerate their effects, particularly in making skin appear plumper and more moist," Galvaz tells WebMD.
Skin Problems Don't Stop at the Neck
While protecting the skin on your face is important, dieting can also take its toll on the complexion of the skin on the rest of your body. Among the biggest problem many dieters experience is dry, flaky skin. This is particularly true, experts say, if you're on a very low-fat diet.
"Part of the outer layer of skin is made up of fatty acids or lipids, and if you don't have appropriate fat intake, you won't make the normal amount of fatty acids," Newburger tells WebMD.
When that lipid layer is reduced, she says, skin can't hold moisture as well.
The solution: Compensate by using a moisturizer that enforces the skin's lipid barrier from the outside.
"An ordinary body cream that simply makes your skin soft isn't going to help," says Newburger. "You have to use a product with a high concentration of lipids, which can help replenish from the outside what you're lacking on the inside."
Ingredients to look for include sterol, cholesterol, lecithin, avocado oil, or soy.
"Plant lipids like soy are particularly good because they have a component similar to cholesterol which is perfect for sealing in moisture and really protecting dry skin," says Newburger.
Additionally, she says, soy products can plump the skin, which makes it look smoother.
What can also help: Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or other oily fish. Or, says Newburger, take a fish oil supplement. "And it can be a synthetic supplement so there are no concerns about mercury," she says.
Additionally, Narins says, making sure that you're drinking enough fluid can help offset some dry skin problems.
"If you were used to drinking lots of soda and juice every day, and suddenly cut down, you may find that you aren't getting as much liquids as your body requires, and that can result in dry skin," Narins tells WebMD.
The solution here is the simplest of all: Drink more water.
"Don't overdo it, but if your skin is dry and you are feeling thirsty, then you do need to consume more fluids," says Narins.
Finally, all our experts agree that dieters should be extra careful to apply a generous amount of sunscreen when spending time outdoors. "Even though you will, hopefully, be getting more fruits and vegetables in your diet, still, when you are cutting your food intake you may not be getting the full antioxidant protection your skin needs to fight off the damaging effects of the sun," says Newburger.
If dryness is a problem, look for a sunscreen that contains a moisturizer. If you use a self-tanner, which can be drying to the skin, choose one with a built-in moisturizer as well.