by Marie Veronique
We are increasingly aware of the link between health and beauty, and in no place is it more apparent than in the skin: When your skin glows with health it, and you, are automatically beautiful. This intuitive reaction to a lovely complexion is biologically hardwired; healthy skin is a profound attractant, one that we are instinctively drawn to. It’s no wonder then that we spend so much money and time on gadgets, gimmicks and expensive spa outings that promise to return our skin to a Shangri-la state of skin glow. However, these quick fixes quickly fade and you’re back to where you started. Why? Because skin beauty - that glow I was talking about - is predicated on skin health, which is itself a product of overall health. If we are healthy our skin will show it, whereas if we are struggling with health problems our skin will show that. In fact, our skin can be an excellent barometer of our health in general. Happily, as we learn more about the connection between health and beauty, not only are our notions of beauty evolving, so is our ability to support and sustain it.
The Path to Skin Health: Internal and External Approaches
While your road to skin health may encompass long-term projects like changing your diet and refurbishing your gut microbiome, you’ll be happy to know that there are also a number of proven easy fixes available to you. In terms of general health, one of the simplest of them takes a page out of your regular health-care routine: Oral supplements like Vitamin C, E and Omega-3 essential fatty acids supply our bodies with needed nutrients that may be missing from even a well-balanced diet. To support your overall health, it is good idea to supplement daily with these basics.
Here’s the catch: The skin also needs many of these same micronutrients, but the gastrointestinal supply route is not the most effective skin delivery system. Achieving optimal skin health therefore requires adding another supply route - dermal delivery. Supplementation via topicals is a much more efficient way to improve skin health than ingestion because micronutrients delivered dermally target skin tissue.
A prime example of the Dermal Delivery Principle is Vitamin C - a nutrient that is necessary to basic good health. We are one of the few mammals that does not make its own Vitamin C, so we have to get it from our diets - even then, it’s extremely difficult, especially in an era of pollution and plastic-based food additives. Vitamin C is one nutrient almost everyone is deficient in, simply because body needs it for so many things: from combating free radical assault to aiding in iron absorption, and at the end of the day there is often not enough left over for the skin to make collagen. While preventing wrinkles may be a priority for you, Mother Nature doesn’t see it as a big deal. But, She will be much more willing to cooperate if you do the following:
- Take Vitamin C orally (paired with Vitamin E) to satisfy your bodily needs
- For a nice thick dermis and well-functioning epidermis use a well-formulated Vitamin C serum designed to penetrate to the dermis. Well-formulated is the operative word here: getting a serum that actually delivers to the skin is very, very tricky. Things to look for are: penetrability; stability; good concentration that doesn’t cause irritation; combination with Vitamin E to reconvert Vitamin C to its antioxidant form, and with other ingredients like ferulic acid for an antioxidant complement.
There are more quality formulations appearing on the market to choose from all the time. Powdered forms should be avoided - don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will get benefits from Vitamin C by mixing l-ascorbic acid powder with a liquid and then applying it to your face. The Vitamin C simply crystallizes on the skin’s surface and with no penetration you get no activity, except to maybe irritate your skin.
Retinol (Vitamin A)
Here is an interesting example of a vitamin where oral supplementation is not recommended, as it is oil-soluble and tends to store in the liver. As for getting it from food—you can eat beta-carotene rich foods all day; but not only can too many carrots turn your skin orange, none of the beta-carotene in your food converts to retinoic acid and goes to retinoic acid receptors on skin cells to effect changes like increased collagen production and sebum regulation. In fact, those retinoic acid receptors are only activated by topical applications of retinol.
So, while you don’t need oral supplementation of Vitamin A, your skin benefits enormously from topical retinol applications—an overwhelming body of research attests to topical retinol’s ability to improve skin quality across a number of parameters, from reversing photoaging damage by normalizing skin cell development to resolving serious acne issues by regulating sebum production. A well-formulated retinol topical, preferably one that also contains Vitamin C, is a crucial part of improving and maintaining skin health.
Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
Mentioning excellent research takes us into the new era of skin care products containing niacinamide (Vitamin B3). One of the latest developments to take place in skin formulation recognizes the role played by Vitamin B3 in protecting mitochondria, i.e., the structures located in the cell’s cytoplasm outside the nucleus responsible for energy production. Mitochondria are of particular importance to cell health, as they function primarily to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy of the cell. You can compare them to the lungs of the cell, in that they drive cell respiration. As we age, our skin suffers from a decline in mitochondrial function that is especially pronounced in epidermal keratinocytes. It turns out that applying topicals containing at least 5% niacinamide results in increased skin cell protection, longer cell life, improved barrier function and a more robust ECM (extracellular matrix)—all of which leads to a healthier skin.
As for internal B3 supplements, the latest buzz is that everyone over age 30 should take NAD, because "it may be possible to reverse mitochondrial decay with dietary supplements that increase cellular levels of a molecule called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide)."
Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6
Essential fatty acids play a critical role in maintaining skin health. Omega-6 improves structural integrity and barrier function, while both Omega-3 and Omega-6 give rise to potent signaling molecules, eicosanoids, that regulate inflammatory responses in the skin. Both topical and oral supplementation delivers EFAs to the skin, and both types of supplementation are highly recommended.
Oral Supplements: Consuming oils rich in Omegas 3 and 6 can change the fatty acid and eicosanoid composition of the epidermis. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in the diet is ideally 2:1, but since that ratio is more like 5 or even 6:1 in modern diets, it is recommended that people take Omega-3 supplements to correct the imbalance. Fish oils like cod or salmon are especially good as they contain large amounts of EPA—which is only found in fatty fish like sardines, cod, mackerel and salmon. Eating sardines once or twice a week is also great way to get high quality Omega-3s of the EPA type.
Topical supplements: You can think of topical applications of EFAs as a form of weather proofing for your skin. The top barrier layer of skin, the stratum corneum, functions as a moisture regulator. When weather is a challenge it needs all the help it can get from EFAs, which aid it in maintaining barrier integrity. To combat cold weather dryness, generously apply oil blends rich in EFAs before you go out and again when you’re back inside, where heating sucks moisture out of the air and your skin. EFAs are just as important when it’s hot and sunny, because they help attenuate UV light. Omega-3, especially of the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) type, helps diminish erythema or skin swelling from too much sun exposure. Look for an oil blend that contains Omega-6 EFAs like sunflower or safflower oil, and Omega-3s like kiwi seed and chia seed oil. Apply morning and night, or more often as needed.
Most of time there is no need to limit the amount of properly formulated oil blends you apply to your skin, because as a general rule oils do not cause breakouts. They can in fact diminish breakouts, especially in cases where an Omega-6 deficiency is causing sebum to build up and get stuck in the pores. Individuals who have sensitivities to certain oils (coconut oil is comedogenic for many people for example) or who are sensitive to components of essential oils like linolool, should pay special attention to product labels.
Beta carotenes are pro-Vitamin A precursors that play an important role in maintaining healthy skin, but, as with other forms of Vitamin A, caution should be exercised when using them. The most highly colored members of the carotenoid family, like carrot seed oil, astaxanthin and lycopene, owe their excellent antioxidant properties to their very high carotenoid content. Topical applications of a carotenoid like astaxanthin, besides acting as a powerful antioxidant, helps to attenuate UVA light. Oil blends containing astaxanthin or lycopene in small amounts can be applied daily. In large amounts, similar to what happens when eating too many carrots, carotenoids can discolor your skin.
If you are fair skinned and prone to sunburn you can also take astaxanthin orally—it’s highly recommended you start taking astaxanthin about two weeks prior to that Hawaiian vacation, for example.