We often think of skin as something you take care of on the outside. Special cleansers, lotions, creams, and ointments are often sold as being “essential” for healthy skin. Yes, these are an important part of skin care but, certainly not the only things that are “essential” for healthy skin. Your skin is created and nourished from the inside out. The nutrients you consume on a daily basis greatly affects the way your skin feels and looks.
Now that it’s summertime, we’re especially concerned about how our skin looks. And, it’s a great time to learn about nutrition for skin care. There are some key macro and micronutrients that you need so your skin can be healthy and flourish—and heal (if that’s what your skin needs to do) all year round.
Did you know that your skin is your largest organ? It plays a vital role in your overall health and wellness. Like what? you ask:
It protects what’s inside you by keeping water and nutrients in, while keeping harmful bacteria and viruses out.
It helps you maintain your body temperature.
It makes vitamin D when exposed to the sun.
It’s also full of nerve endings to help you sense the outside world and avoid damage from things that are too hot, cold, or sharp.
What we eat and drink affects all of our vital organs—including our skin. The essential nutrients f are what you need to keep your skin nourished so it can perform its many fundamental roles and look its very best.
Here are some of my top recommendations:
You may not always think about it but, water as an essential nutrient. Water plays many important roles in your body. It’s the main component in your cells and fluids. It allows you to maintain your body temperature. It provides lubrication and shock absorption for your joints. Humans are, in fact, 60% water.
Our skin there are three layers. The outermost layer—the one you see and feel—is called the epidermis. The middle layer is called the dermis and third layer underneath that is your hypodermis. Ever notice when your skin feels rough and dry? Well, it may be that the water your epidermis needs to stay plump and supple is not coming from the inside like it should because you are not drinking enough water. Drinking more water can help skin hydration and may be particularly beneficial if you have dry skin. One clinical study found that when participants who didn’t drink a lot of water increased their intake, their skin became more hydrated and their skin’s “extensibility” (ability to be stretched) improved within 2 weeks.
How much water do you need every day? According to the Mayo Clinic, women should aim for 2.7 L (11.5 cups or 92 ounces) of fluids per day, while men should aim for 3.7 L (15.5 cups) per day. Note that these fluids can come from drinking water or other beverages (alcohol doesn’t count), and can even come from water-rich foods like broth soups, fruits, and vegetables. Sugary drinks add lots of calories so I’d keep those to a minimum.
Another formula to know how much water to drink is to divide your body weight in half. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs, then you need 75 ounces of water a day.
Your personal water needs may be higher if you sweat a lot (from physical activity or living in a hot, humid environment), if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you are prone to urinary or digestive tract conditions (kidney stones, vomiting, diarrhea).
Protein comes from the Greek word proteios which means “prime or first” importance. It is an essential macronutrient that makes up parts of your cells, tissues, organs, muscles, and skin, as well as, immune system antibodies, and the enzymes needed for thousands of reactions (including digestion).
Your skin is made up of several types of proteins. For example, collagen and elastin are very plentiful and build up the structure of your skin. Over time, your body’s ability to produce collagen decreases. Keratin is another important protein in your skin. Keratin makes up the outer epidermis layer giving it rigidity and enhancing its barrier protection.
The recommended daily amount of protein is based on your body weight. For every 20 lbs you weigh you should try to get just over 7 grams of protein daily ( 7 grams =1 ounce). This means a person who weighs 140 lbs needs about 50 g protein/day, while someone who weighs 200 lbs would need about 70 g protein/day. Animal protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Plant-based protein includes soy, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and even vegetables like corn, broccoli, and asparagus.
Essential fatty acids
There are two types of fatty acids that are essential nutrients for our health and our skin. They are omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (linolenic acid). Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are anti-inflammatory and have been linked to many health benefits including improvements in rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, diabetes, heart disease, and psoriasis, to name a few.
A lack of fatty acids is linked to increased water loss from the skin, drying it out and causing weakness in the protective outer barrier.
Sources of essential fatty acids to eat:
Fatty fish (salmon, tuna) and shellfish
seeds (flax, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame)
oils (olive, soy, canola),
leafy vegetables, and avocados.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient and has several functions including making other nutrients more absorbable and available. It is a water-soluble antioxidant vitamin that plays many roles in your body, including in skin health.
A deficiency of Vitamin C (scurvy) results in skin lesions, as well as skin that is easily bruised and slow to heal. This is, in part, because of Vitamin C’s role in stabilizing the protein collagen. Another sign of Vitamin C deficiency in the skin affects hair follicles and can cause “corkscrew hairs.” These are examples of why Vitamin C is so important for skin health.
Every day you should aim for at least 75 mg of Vitamin C. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources particularly, bell peppers, citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits), broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, kiwis, blackcurrants, potatoes, rose hip, and parsley.
Vitamin E is a group of essential vitamins called tocopherols. They are fat-soluble antioxidants that work synergistically with Vitamin C. When given together, vitamins C and E (and zinc) can speed up wound healing. Deficiency of Vitamin E is linked to red, dry skin.
Vitamin E is often applied directly (topically) on the skin to reduce redness and some of the effects of sun damage. Ingesting Vitamin E helps the skin from the inside by protecting collagen and fats from breaking down. One clinical study successfully improved symptoms of dermatitis (skin inflammation) in participants who took Vitamin E supplements over the course of several months.
The daily reference intake for Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) is 15 mg. You can get Vitamin E in vegetables, oils like wheat germ oil, olive oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, tree nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, spinach, broccoli, corn, kiwis, and soy.
Skin care beyond nutrition
While nutrition is essential, and I’ve covered my top 5 recommendations above, don’t forget other important skin care practices that help protect and nurture your skin.
Use gentle cleansers and warm (not too hot) water to keep skin clean
Moisturize after taking a shower or washing your hands
Avoid things that bother your skin such as harsh cleansers, fragrances, and irritating fabrics
If you have allergies or intolerances (e.g., to gluten or pollen), avoid those
Limit your sun exposure and use sunscreen as appropriate
Be physically active
Try to get enough quality sleep
Use a humidifier and wear gloves when the weather is dry and cold
The Bottom Line
The nutrients you consume feed your whole body—including your skin. As your largest organ with many critical roles, your skin needs a variety of different nutrients every single day. Water, protein and essential fatty acids are important macronutrients. While the antioxidant vitamins C and E are among some of the micronutrients your skin needs to heal and stay healthy.
In addition to nutrition, caring for the outside of your skin is also important. Using gentle cleansers, warm water, and moisturizers, and avoiding irritants and allergens will help. If you have any medical concerns with your skin, see your healthcare professional.
For a nutritious approach to skin health, please contact me to see if my program can help you get to the root cause of your concerns and dietary restrictions.
Cleveland Clinic. (2016, March 17). Skin. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10978-skin
Harvard Health. (2018, May). Getting rid of the itch of eczema. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/getting-rid-of-the-itch-of-eczema
Harvard Health. (2018, November). Can a gluten-free diet help my skin? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/can-a-gluten-free-diet-help-my-skin
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (n.d.). Protein. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/
Hodges, A. L., & Walker, D. K. (2017). Skin Care for Women. Nursing for women's health, 20(6), 609–613. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nwh.2016.10.001
Huang, T. H., Wang, P. W., Yang, S. C., Chou, W. L., & Fang, J. Y. (2018). Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil's Fatty Acids on the Skin. Marine drugs, 16(8), 256. https://doi.org/10.3390/md16080256
Keen, M. A., & Hassan, I. (2016). Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal, 7(4), 311–315. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-5178.185494
Mayo Clinic. (2020, October 14). Water: How much should you drink every day? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256
Mayo Clinic. (2020, November 21). Does drinking water cause hydrated skin? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/hydrated-skin/faq-20058067
NIH National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (2019, July). Healthy Skin Matters. Retrieved from https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/kids/healthy-skin#tab-id-2
NIH News in Health. (2015, November). Keep your skin healthy. Retrieved from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/11/keep-your-skin-healthy
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 27). Vitamin C. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, July 31). Vitamin E. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/
Palma, L., Marques, L. T., Bujan, J., & Rodrigues, L. M. (2015). Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 413–421. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S86822
Schagen, S. K., Zampeli, V. A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Discovering the link between nutrition and skin aging. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 298–307. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.22876
University of Michigan Medicine. (2019, August 21). High protein foods for wound healing. Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/abs1199