If you're like most folks, the first place you look for skin care products is a drug or department store. But the latest beauty science buzz says that when it comes to healthy skin, those in the know are spending almost as much time shopping the supermarket shelves as the beauty aisles.
The reason? When it comes to head-to-toe healthy skin, research now shows that the foods you put in your body are as vital as the products you put on it.
"It's definitely true that diet can play an important role in all skin conditions -- not just helping combat wrinkles and lines, but other skin problems as well, including acne, eczema, psoriasis -- even dry flaking or very oily skin," says biochemist Elaine Linker, PhD, co-founder of DDF skin care.
Among the must-have foods for healthy skin: omega-3 fatty acids -- the "good fats" that have recently been credited with increasing heart health as well as helping your skin look healthier. The foods highest in omega-3 fatty acids include seafood (especially tuna and salmon) as well as walnuts, canola oil, and flax seed.
"These fatty acids are responsible for the health of the cell membrane, which is not only what acts as the barrier to things that are harmful, but also the passageway for nutrients to cross in and out and for waste products to get in and out of the cell," says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, a nutritionist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
In addition, McDermott says that since the membrane is what influences the cells ability to hold water, having a nice, healthy barrier yields moister, softer, more subtle, and more wrinkle-free skin.
But according to dermatologist and skin care expert Nicholas V. Perricone, MD, the need for omega-3 fatty acids goes beyond just reinforcing the cell membrane. In his best-selling book, The Wrinkle Cure, he reports foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the body's production of inflammatory compounds -- natural chemicals involved in the aging process, that affect how healthy the skin looks and feels.
Another key to controlling that inflammatory process: Avoiding foods that spike insulin levels, such as simple carbohydrates, including sugar, white flour, and starchy foods. Eat too many of these goodies and Linker says your skin will suffer.
According to Linker, "any food that causes insulin to spike can induce inflammation -- and that can irritate any skin condition influenced by inflammation, which is pretty much all skin conditions, including the way skin ages."
The Food-Vitamin Connection to Healthy Skin
It's hard to walk down any skin care aisle without falling over a cache of vitamin-enriched topical products. Among the most popular are those laced with vitamin A, a nutrient proven to revitalize skin by increasing cell turnover. This is a natural biological process that replaces old skin cells with fresh new ones, and keeps your complexion looking youthful.
As we age, however, old cells get replaced less frequently, so skin looks, feels, and acts "older." While vitamin A skin products can help, experts say A-rich foods -- such as sweet potatoes or cantaloupe -- can do the trick as well, without the risk of skin irritation caused by many topical treatments.
"Eating foods rich in vitamin A or beta-carotene is not going to give you as powerful of cell turnover effect as a prescription vitamin A cream, but these foods do help regulate cell turnover -- essentially by giving skin what it needs to perform as best as it possibly can," says McDermott.
But vitamin A isn't the only nutrient to impact your skin. According to Perricone, antioxidant vitamins A, B complex, C, and E all work to create your skin's "safety net" -- helping to reduce environmental assaults that can damage a skin cell's membrane. This, in turn, affects everything from how much fluid your skin can retain, to how effectively waste products are shuffled in and out of cells.
Perhaps more importantly, however, each time cells undergoes damage, inflammation is created -- and again, your skin pays the price.
"The whole process of skin aging may be the byproduct of inflammation -- that's the whole premise behind not only using antioxidants in skin care products, but also [eating them in foods] as well," Linker tells WebMD. The goal, she says, is to reduce the inflammatory reaction in the body.
So what foods should you include? According to NYU nutritionist Samantha Heller, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are key. Among the most important to having healthy skin, she says, are foods containing the powerful antioxidant known as lycopene. Heller says the best sources include tomato products, guava, watermelon, and red papaya. Other important skin foods to include in your diet, she says are sweet potatoes, blueberries, and strawberries. This potent antioxidant gives these fruits and vegetables their brilliant colors.
If you're also looking for protection from UV damage -- the effects of the sun that can not only age the skin, but also increase your risk of skin cancer -- McDermott suggests foods that combine vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids - such as nuts and whole grains.
"When found together in foods, studies suggest they may play a role in reducing skin damage, and in reducing the production of cancer cells," says McDermott. While she is quick to point out that the research is still in the early stages, she tells WebMD that the results thus far make a compelling case for dietary protection.
Whole Foods and Your Skin
Now if you're tempted to skip some of the dietary considerations in favor of nutritional supplements, don't be so quick to unscrew that bottle cap. While it's clear that certain nutrients can play a role in healthy skin, today, researchers are much inclined to suggest that it's really the total number of components found in whole foods that give skin the most powerful health boost.
"Taking just one nutrient alone will not give you good skin -- you have to have a balance, which is not only essential to the health of your skin, but it prevents an imbalance from occurring -- and an imbalance is what contributes to inflammation," says Linker.
McDermott tells WebMD the need for whole foods may go even deeper than that.
"There are over 1,300 phytochemicals - beta-carotene, for example, is only one of 500 carotenoids -- and the more we find out the more we realize how much we need all the components working together," she says. Whole foods, notes McDermott, "provide the entire consort of micronutrients and phytochemicals needed by the skin for optimum performance," one reason she says variety is the key.
Heller agrees: "There are things you can get from fruits that you can't get from vegetables, and vice versa -- so it's important to vary your diet as much as you can."
When it comes to washing down all those great whole foods, nothing may be quite as beneficial for skin as water. While recent research questioned the need for the traditional eight glasses a day, when it comes to skin health, experts say hydration is still key.
"Bare minimum, the skin needs between 32 and 64 ounces a day of water or other liquid such as herb tea or juice, in order to have proper hydration and help prevent dryness," says Linker.
Heller goes even farther, sticking by the latest Institute of Medicine recommendation that women consume almost 91 ounces of water daily (from food and beverages) and men about 125 ounces.
"One of the tests to see if someone is mildly dehydrated is to pinch the skin on back of hand -- if it doesn't pop back quickly, it can be a sign of dehydration -- which tells you that your level of hydration is directly reflected in your skin," says Heller.
Eight Simple Foods to Boost Skin Health
Whether you are looking to defeat a particular skin problem, or simply wanting to gain -- or keep -- that youthful glow, herein our experts offer a list of eight simple foods that can feed your skin head-to-toe.
- Seafood 3 times weekly. The key is omega-3 fatty acids, and salmon, tuna, and mackerel have the highest amount. If you're worried about toxins in fish, remember the FDA says up to 12 ounces a week is fine -- so three 4-ounce servings are fine. They recommend a variety of fish. In addition, studies show adding fish to your diet can also help reduce the inflammation associated with psoriasis and even eczema.
- Nuts, grains, seeds. A handful of walnuts -- about 1 ounce -- gives you the same amount of omega-3 as 3.5 ounces of salmon. Flax seed sprinkled on cereal or used in muffins also offers a generous supply.
- Olive oil. Your skin needs at least 2 tablespoons of oil a day for proper lubrication -- so if you're watching your diet and cutting down on fatty foods (a good thing) be sure to douse your salad with olive oil daily, or use it in recipes in place of other fats.
- Fruit. While all fruits are great for healthy skin, chose a variety. The recommended serving is two to four per day.
- Vegetables. You just can't enough of these -- and their powerful antioxidant benefits. Try lots of leafy greens, plus squash, pumpkin, and sweet potato for loads of vitamin A.
- Whole-grain cereals and breads. The key here is to use these items to replace white flour and other refined baked goods and cereals in your diet, all of which are linked to an inflammatory reaction that can be harmful to skin.
- Brazil nuts, tuna, and turkey. Studies show these selenium-rich foods can help reduce the inflammation associated with acne breakouts.
- Tea. Be it white, green, or black, studies show the polyphenols found in tea have anti-inflammatory properties that may be beneficial to skin. Plus, one study published in the Archives of Dermatology found drinking 3 cups of oolong tea a day cut eczema symptoms for 54% of those who tried it.