Your skin is the first thing people see when they look at you. Strangely enough, it's considered the largest organ in the human body -- right up there with the intestines, lungs, and liver. It serves many purposes, including acting as our first defense against germs and the environment, and converting sunlight to vitamin D. The layer of fat under the skin's surface helps ensure that the important fluids inside our bodies stay inside our bodies.
The ironic thing about skin is that when people are young, their biggest concern about their skin may be how to get a tan. But as we get older, our top skin priority becomes preventing wrinkles -- and the No. 1 way to do this, of course, is NOT to tan.
(Since I am the kind of person who doesn't tan but only turns different shades of pink, I figured out at a young age that sun worshipping just wasn't in my genetic code. My younger sister did tan as a teen and young adult. And I have to say, I do seem to have fewer wrinkles.)
So when does it become crucial to start taking care of your skin? It's probably earlier than you think. Mark G. Rubin, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology of the University of San Diego, believes that not smoking and avoiding the sun starting in your teens will pay off later.
"Since prevention plays a big role in skin aging, the sooner you start the better," he says. "By the time you see changes you don't like in your skin, a lot of damage has already been done."
If you think about it, what we're basically trying to do is delay the normal aging of skin, which ages as all organs do. The best way to slow the aging of many things in the human body, on a cellular level, is to keep body cells from oxidizing. And the best way to keep your body from needlessly oxidizing, experts say, is to avoid smoking and to eat a diet rich in antioxidants (more on this below).
On a physical level, the best way to slow the appearance of skin aging is to keep skin well-hydrated with a nice layer of lipid (fat) beneath the skin to protect the internal moisture. Some experts say you can do this in part by eating a healthy diet that includes some "smart" fats (omega-3s and monounsaturated fat), drinking plenty of water, and having a good skin-care regimen to condition the skin and minimize moisture loss. It's all about keeping the skin healthy from the inside AND the outside.
"Your skin is a reflection of your underlying health, so good nutrition, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, staying hydrated, etc., all play a role in creating better-looking skin," says Rubin.
G.G. Papadeas, DO, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, adds "no excessive drinking" (of alcohol) to this healthy lifestyle list.
So what foods should you choose to boost your chances of having healthy skin? Read on for a list of skin-friendly nutrients and the foods that are richest in them.
Many dermatologists believe that the major antioxidants (vitamin A, C, and E) can help decrease the risk of sun and other environmental damage by disarming wrinkle-causing "free radicals" -- unstable molecules that damage cells.
Vitamin A. A recent study of healthy men and women in the Netherlands found a significant link between the level of vitamin A in the blood and skin condition. Getting your carotenoids (phytochemicals that your body converts to vitamin A) from foods is your safest bet, because you're far more likely to get too much vitamin A from supplements than from foods rich in carotenoids.
Top food sources of vitamin A include carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, mangoes, spinach, cantaloupe, greens, kale, Swiss chard, and tomato-vegetable juice.
Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a potent topical (that is, on-the-skin) antioxidant, but only in its active form -- the same form you get from food. Of course, including vitamin-C rich fruits and vegetables in your daily diet is a good thing to be doing for your health, anyway.
Top food sources of vitamin C include orange juice, grapefruit juice, papayas, strawberries, kiwis, red and green peppers, cantaloupes, tomato-vegetable juice, broccoli, mangoes, oranges, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, cauliflower, and kale.
Vitamin E. More research is under way on the possible benefits of vitamin E as an ingredient in products that you rub on the skin, but for now it seems to benefit the skin most as a skin conditioner.
Food sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, olives, spinach, and asparagus. But it's difficult to get much of this vitamin from foods, so many people take a supplement. (Be sure to take no more than 400 international units per day so you don't ingest too much.)
2. Choose 'Smart' Fats
Heart- and joint-friendly omega-3 fatty acids may be skin-friendly too. The omega-3s from fish may help to guard against sun damage, according to a few recent studies on fish oil supplements.
Anti-aging expert Nicholas Perricone, MD, author of The Wrinkle Cure, has advocated a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3s for better skin, says Rubin, "and there is some scientific data to support that type of diet."
While there's certainly more to be learned about the benefits and risks of fish-oil supplements, it makes sense to increase your intake of foods high in omega-3s.
Top food sources of omega-3s include fish, ground flaxseed, walnuts, and brands of eggs that are higher in omega-3s. Switching to a higher omega-3 cooking oil, like canola oil, can help increase your intake, too.
The Dutch study noted above for its findings about vitamin A also found monounsaturated fats to be associated with favorable skin pH (the balance between acidity and alkalinity that is important for healthy skin).
Top food sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, almond oil, hazelnut oil, avocados, olives, almonds, and hazelnuts.
3. Eat Whole Foods
Wilma Bergseld, MD, head of clinical research in dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said in the Environmental Nutrition Newsletter that she makes a point of telling her patients to eat a healthy diet of whole foods. She noted in the newsletter that the same diet that protects against heart disease and cancer is good for the skin.
Researchers at Monash University in Australia may have helped to prove Bergseld's point with a recent study. The researchers looked at the diets of about 450 people age 70 and up from Australia, Greece, and Sweden. They found that those who ate a diet containing more "whole foods" -- vegetables, fruits, legumes, eggs, yogurt, nuts, oils rich in monounsaturated fats, multigrain bread, tea, and water -- had less wrinkling and premature skin aging than those whose diets were rich in whole milk, red meat (particularly processed meats), butter, potatoes, and sugar.
The researchers believe this may have to do with the antioxidants, phytochemicals, and monounsaturated fats that a "whole foods" diet contributes.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.