By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
The excitement is focused not only on creams and lotions you put on your skin but what you put into your body as well. Health experts say that vitamins and minerals in all forms play an integral role in a healthy complexion, whether the source is food, supplements, or even a jar of cream.
"Your skin is the fingerprint of what is going on inside your body, and all skin conditions, from psoriasis to acne to aging, are the manifestations of your body's internal needs, including its nutritional needs," says Georgiana Donadio, PhD, DC, MSc, founder and director of the National Institute of Whole Health in Boston.
If you feed your skin from the inside and out, experts say you can't help but benefit.
"There is a lot of important new research showing tremendous power of antioxidants in general, and in some specific nutrients in particular that can make an important difference in the way your skin looks and feels -- and even in how well it ages," says nutritional supplement expert Mary Sullivan, RN, co-founder of Olympian Labs. "When combined with a good diet, the right dietary supplements can help keep your skin looking not only healthy, but also years younger."
So which nutrients do you need to keep your skin healthy and looking its best? According to the experts interviewed by WebMD, plus new information from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the following vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients nourish your skin, whether you take them in supplement form, apply them directly to you skin, or make sure you get enough from the foods you eat.
Vitamins Good for Skin Nutrition
Studies show that the vitamins C, E, A, K, and B complex all help improve skin health and appearance. Here's how.
Vitamin C. Among the most important new dermatologic discoveries is the power of vitamin C to counter the effects of sun exposure. It works by reducing the damage caused by free radicals, a harmful byproduct of sunlight, smoke, and pollution. Free radicals gobble up collagen and elastin, the fibers that support skin structure, causing wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Make sure your diet includes plenty of vitamin-C rich foods (citrus and vegetables, among others), which can replace the loss of the vitamin through the skin. You can also take vitamin C supplements, up to 500 to 1,000 milligrams of per day, according to the AAD. Combined with vitamin E (see below), vitamin C supplements can also protect skin from sun exposure.
You can also try a topical vitamin C cream to encourage collagen production, just as your body does naturally when you are young. The trick here is to use a formulation containing the L-ascorbic acid form of vitamin C, the only one that can penetrate skin layers and do the job.
Vitamin E. Research shows that, like vitamin C, this potent antioxidant helps reduce the harmful effects of the sun on the skin. According to studies published by the AAD, taking 400 units of vitamin E daily appeared to reduce the risk of sun damage to cells as well as reduce the production of cancer-causing cells. Some studies show that when vitamins E and A are taken together, people show a 70% reduction in basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer.
Vitamin E can also help reduce wrinkles and make your skin look and feel smoother. (Be aware, though, that some recent research warns that large doses of vitamin E can be harmful. Stay with 400 international units per day or less to be on the safe side.) Used in a cream, lotion, or serum form, vitamin E can soothe dry, rough skin. When combined with vitamin C in a lotion, it's highly protective against sun damage, says the AAD.
Vitamin A. If your vitamin A levels are up to snuff from the foods you eat, adding more probably won't do much more for your skin. That said, if those levels drop even a little below normal, you're likely to see some skin-related symptoms, including a dry, flaky complexion. That's because vitamin A is necessary for the maintenance and repair of skin tissue. Without it, you'll notice the difference. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamin A.
Topical vitamin A is the form that makes a real difference in your skin. Medical studies show a reduction in lines and wrinkles, good acne control, and some psoriasis relief, all from using creams containing this nutrient. The prescription treatment is called Retin A, and it's used primarily as a treatment for acne. The less potent, over-the-counter formulations are sold as retinols and used as anti-aging treatments.
Vitamin B Complex. When it comes to skin, the single most important B vitamin is biotin, a nutrient that forms the basis of skin, nail, and hair cells. Without adequate amounts, you may end up with dermatitis (an itchy, scaly skin reaction) or sometimes even hair loss. Even a mild deficiency causes symptoms. Your body makes plenty of biotin, and the nutrient is also in many foods, including bananas, eggs, oatmeal, and rice.
Creams containing B vitamins can give skin an almost instant healthy glow while hydrating cells and increasing overall tone at the same time. Niacin, a specific B vitamin, helps skin retain moisture, so your complexion looks more plump and younger looking in as little as six days. It also has anti-inflammatory properties to soothe dry, irritated skin. In higher concentrations it can work as a lightening agent to even out blotchy skin tone.
Vitamin K. As the nutrient responsible for helping blood clot, it won't do much for your skin from the inside. But studies presented to the AAD in 2003 show topical vitamin K does work well to reduce under eye circles as well as bruises. When combined with vitamin A in a cream or serum, vitamin K can be even more effective for those dark circles.
Most health experts agree that most of us don't need to supplement our mineral intake. This is even more true if you drink spring water, which often contains healthful, natural supplies of important minerals. Studies show that washing your face with mineral water can help reduce many common skin irritations, and the mineral content may help some skin cells absorb the moisture better.
Selenium. Scientists believe this mineral plays a key role in skin cancer prevention. Taken in supplement form or in a cream, it protects skin from sun damage. If you do spend any time in the sun, selenium could reduce your chance of burning, lowering your risk of skin cancer. The best dietary sources of selenium include whole-grain cereals, seafood, garlic, and eggs.
Copper. Still another important mineral is copper. Together with vitamin C and the mineral zinc, copper helps to develop elastin, the fibers that support skin structure from underneath. While a copper deficiency is rare (doctors caution that supplements can be dangerous), topical applications of copper-rich creams can firm the skin and help restore some elasticity, according to some study results.
Zinc. The third skin-friendly mineral is zinc, important if you have acne. In fact, sometimes acne itself is a symptom of a zinc deficiency. Taken internally or used topically, zinc works to clear skin by taming oil production and may be effective in controlling the formation of acne lesions or help those already on your skin to clear sooner. Food sources of zinc include oysters, lean meat, and poultry.
Some of the more exciting new skin research looks beyond vitamins and minerals to other nutrients that when taken internally or applied topically can have remarkable effects on your skin.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid. A powerful antioxidant, hundreds of times more potent that either vitamin C or E, alpha-lipoic acid may turn out to be a super boost for aging skin. What makes it so special, say skin experts, is its ability to penetrate both oil and water, affecting skin cells from both the inside and the outside of the body. Most other antioxidants can do one but not both.
More specifically, explains Mary Sullivan, alpha-lipoic acid, like vitamins C and E, neutralizes skin cell damage caused by free radicals. Some studies show it can repair the damage to skin's DNA, thus reducing the risk of cancer. Health experts say it also helps other vitamins work more effectively to rebuild skin cells damaged by environmental assaults, such as smoke and pollution. You can take a daily alpha-lipoic acid supplement or use creams that contain the antioxidant.
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DMAE. Another powerful antioxidant, this nutrient has one of the strongest appetites for free radicals. It works mostly by deactivating their power to harm skin cells. It also helps stabilize the membrane around the outside of each cell so that assaults from sun damage and cigarette smoke are reduced.
According to Sullivan, DMAE also prevents the formation of lipofucsin, the brown pigment that becomes the basis for age spots. As with alpha-lipoic acid, you can take DMAE in supplements and in topical creams.
Hyaluronic Acid. Made by the body, this nutrient's main job is to lubricate joints so that knees, elbows, fingers, and toes all move smoothly and easily. But now doctors say it also plays a role with skin cells, acting as a kind of glue that helps hold them together, keeping skin looking smoother and younger. Another plus is its ability to hold water, up to 1,000 times its weight, which means more moisture in each skin cell.
Top skin care lines now include creams with hyaluronic acid. Sullivan and others also believe it's equally powerful taken in supplement form, though more research is needed to prove effectiveness. The nutrient isn't readily available in food.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). If your skin is dry, prone to inflammation, and frequently dotted with white heads and black heads, you may be lacking essential fatty acids, nutrients that are crucial to the production of skin's natural oil barrier. Without an adequate supply of EFAs, the skin produces a more irritating form of sebum, or oil, which can result in problems.
The solution, say skin experts, may be to balance two of the key EFAs, omega-3 and omega-6. While most folks get plenty of omega-6s (in baked goods, cooking oils, poultry, grains, and many other foods), omega-3s are often lacking. They're found mostly in cold-water fish, including salmon, sardines, and mackerel, flaxseed, and flax and safflower oils. Taking supplements, such as fish oil capsules or evening primrose oil, may also help keep your skin smoother and younger-looking.
Skin Nutrition: The Bottom Line
Most people can get all the nutrients their skin needs from a multivitamin and a healthy diet, says dermatologist Rhoda Narins, MD, of NYU's School of Medicine.
"You should get your basics in a multivitamin, and if you want to reap the benefits of all these other nutrients, get them in food, or use topical preparations," she says.
To some extent, Georgiana Donadio of the National Institute of Whole Health agrees: "It's not a matter of running out and spending a lot of money on vitamins. The idea is to use them in a very intelligent way that's healthful to you. But don't ever think they are the whole answer to dealing with a health problem, particularly aging skin."
Sullivan adds this skin advice: "The best approach is to drink plenty of water, use gentle products to cleanse your skin, always wear a sunscreen, and eat a balanced diet - then you can augment that care with nutritional supplements."
Published March 2005.
SOURCES: Georgiana Donadio, PhD, DC, MSc, founder and director, National Institute of Whole Health, Boston. Mary Sullivan, RN, executive vice president and co-founder, Olympian Labs, Scottsdale, Ariz. Rhoda Narins, MD, professor of dermatology, NYU School of Medicine, New York; president, American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons. American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting, New Orleans, February 2002. American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting, San Francisco, March 2003. The American Academy of Dermatology.