The skin is the largest organ in the body, with an estimated total area of 20 square feet. It is one of the first defence barriers for the body, protecting you from the elements, from harm or bacteria hoping to infiltrate its walls.
Healthy skin is vital in a number of functions that contribute to your overall health and well-being. We’re often marketed many products which claim to be the go-to when it comes to good skincare and health, but there’s one practice that is often overlooked and contributes highly to the health and appearance of the skin: diet.
Let’s look at the skin in more detail to understand how diet can affect how it functions.
What does the skin do?
The skin is made up of only three layers that all play vital roles in keeping us healthy:
- Epidermis - the outer, waterproof layer that you can see gives you your skin tone and contains hair follicles, sweat glands and strong connective tissues, acting as your first line of defence.
- Dermis - the second, inner layer of soft tissue containing blood cells and nerves that allows us the sense of touch, and contains the most amount of an important protein, collagen.
- Subcutis - the base layer contains a layer of fat and tissue protecting the muscles underneath the skin and regulating body temperature.
The skin has many functions and is constantly working and evolving 24 hours a day. These functions include:
- Providing a defence barrier between your internal body and harmful bacteria from the environment.
- Regulating your body temperature through control over the sweat glands and blood vessels.
- Protecting against sun damage by producing the natural pigment melanin, found in the outer layer of the skin.
- Allowing you to recognise the sensation of touch, including heat, pressure, pain and cold.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does give an indication that your skin is much more than what you see on the surface. It can provide a warning of any imbalances or internal inflammation. You will notice that when you feel your best and in good health, your skin will most likely appear glowing, youthful and clear. When you are unwell, your skin can become congested, dry and irritated.
It’s important to note that we are discussing best practice for healthy skin in general, and those who suffer from skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea or psoriasis may need further medical support, alongside nutritional therapy to manage their condition.
In the case of healthy skin, however, there are some simple routines you can practise to help improve the appearance of the skin, but it’s important to understand how and why we should care for skin from the inside too.
Eating for healthy skin
Most importantly, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet with a variety of foods you love that your body loves too, plus a few treats here and there, is the simplest way to maintain healthy, glowing skin.
The skin naturally reflects the body's internal needs, including what nutrients it requires. If your diet is lacking in key vitamins, it’s likely that the skin will start to show this. It may look discoloured, dry and spots can start to appear.
Nutritional therapist Chloe Manlay notes that as far back as the 1930s, there has been a link between nutrition and skin health. “While the temptation may be to try and fix the problem externally with expensive skin treatments and miracle promising products, the answer, like most things in life, can be found deeper within."
The relationship between skin health and the digestive system is not a new one. As far back as the 1930s scientists suspected a link between gut and skin health, and research has now confirmed the importance of this relationship.
- Chloe Manlay on why the answer to glowing skin is found in your belly.
Key considerations for healthy, glowing skin through diet include:
Protect your collagen
An important part of skin health is maintaining a suitable level of collagen in your diet. Collagen is the protein that helps with the skin’s elasticity, hydration and strength and can be diminished by many lifestyle choices and modified foods.
Free radicals - molecules with unpaired electrons - are one of the most common threats to skin damage, which trigger inflammatory actions that break down and leave the skin dull and uneven. Foods that are rich in antioxidants can help to neutralise free radicals and prevent cell damage, these include red peppers, spinach, broccoli and blueberries.
Increase your zinc intake
Foods rich in zinc are important for maintaining healthy, glowing skin because zinc is vital for helping cells make protein, and is a key ingredient in effective wound healing. Zinc is an anti-inflammatory mineral and is helpful for individuals who suffer from acne, by reducing scarring and inflammation. Consider introducing whole grains, poultry, milk-products and oysters to your diet as they contain a high zinc count.
Consume essential fatty acids
Working to keep your skin moisturised by supporting its natural oil barrier, essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 are key in helping the skin keep that glowing look. As the body can’t produce essential fatty acids, you have to get them from your diet. Cold-water fatty fish, olive and flaxseed oil, avocado and parsley are all good sources of essential fatty acids.
“Fat is essential for good health because it creates the barrier to protect our skin and stops it drying out,” explains dietitian Sophie Medlin in Happiful's article How good nutrition can help your skin. "People who have a very low-fat diet, or try a crash diet like juicing, can often suffer from dry, irritated skin."
Reduce your sugar intake
Reducing your added sugar intake is one of the best ways to maintain healthy-looking skin. Sugar has a profound effect on the skin. Consuming sugar activates inflammation in the body, causing breakouts as it's an active component in the development of acne.
Sugar plays havoc with your collagen functioning and can permanently attach itself to the collagen, causing it to become stiff and inflexible, leaving the skin dull and prone to ageing.
Nutritional therapist Chloe, notes that stimulants disrupt both your skin and digestion health.
“Stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine wreak havoc for your skin and digestion. They are inflammatory and cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, pulling on our stress hormones which takes energy away from digestion.
"Sugar is a key player in premature ageing of the skin. It attaches to proteins in the bloodstream, forming larger molecules called advance glycation end products (or AGEs), that damage both collagen and elastin contributing to sagging and wrinkles. According to a 2007 study in the British Journal of Dermatology, these effects increase at 35 and continue rapidly as you age.”
Lifestyle and healthy skin
We are of course all unique, so your skin type, requirements and best practices will be different, but there are a few further golden rules that can help keep a healthy and fresh complexion and work towards managing the ageing process, which does take its toll on the skin.
The primary effect alcohol has on the skin is dehydration, resulting in dry patches of skin and a grey complexion. If you do drink alcohol it’s important to maintain a healthy intake of water (six-eight glasses a day) to keep your skin looking fresh.
There is strong evidence linking smoking and premature skin ageing. It's believed that this is a result of the toxins in cigarettes breaking down collagen. Smoking can also constrict the blood vessels in the skin, reducing the supply of oxygen to the skin.
Practice a daily skincare routine
Keeping your skin clean is important to help prevent skin conditions, breakouts and infections. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but starting with a cleanser and suitable moisturiser will set you up for a good routine.
As Caroline Hirons, advanced aesthetician, skincare blogger and author of skinCARE: The ultimate no-nonsense guide, says, “Our skin is the biggest organ in your body, and it deserves a bit of attention. But that doesn’t mean we all need to be scientists."
Get into a few good habits with a daily routine and you’ll soon see the benefits. A routine is the foundation of everything.
- Caroline Hirons
Maintain a healthy, restful sleep routine
Restful sleep allows the body to restore and repair itself and is an important process of collagen reproduction. A bad night's sleep decreases the moisture levels in your skin and lowers the complexion Ph balance, resulting in dull, dry skin.
Always apply SPF
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays, which in excess may cause cancer and premature ageing of the skin. We should always protect the skin from overexposure by using protective sunscreen, containing at least SPF30.
As we’ve discussed, there are a variety of ways diet can support healthy glowing skin. Sometimes, lots of information can be confusing and overwhelming, so we’ve broken it down into key sections above. If you’d like to speak to a nutrition professional to support your skin, do reach out to a therapist or dietitian online or in your local area via the advanced search tool.