Skin health and conditions
Our skin is the largest organ of the body, with an estimated total area of 20 square feet. The skin is a natural barrier against the elements, helping to regulate our body temperature while giving us the sensation of touch, cold and warmth. It acts as an indicator of what is going on inside us. The skin naturally reflects any imbalances or internal inflammation. You will notice when you feel your best, for example if you are in good health the skin will most likely appear glowing, youthful and clear. When we are unwell however, our skin can become congested, dry and irritated.
There are some simple routines you can practise to help improve the appearance of skin; your well-being and diet can affect your skin hugely. While there are plenty of topical skincare products available to help improve appearance, it is important to care for your skin on the inside too. For example, eating a diet that lacks the necessary nutrients or not keeping hydrated can increase the risk of skin conditions.
This factsheet explores the role nutrition has to play in skin health, including essential vitamins, the best food for healthy skin and how a nutritionist can help you tackle skin concerns.
The skin is made up of only three layers - the outer layer is the epidermis, the second, an inner layer of soft tissue called the dermis, and a base layer called the subcutis. The base layer includes a seam of fat the body uses as a fuel reserve in case of food shortage; this also works as insulation and protects us from minor injury.
The epidermis layer is constantly growing and repairing itself. We shed the dead skin cells and regenerate new ones daily; as a result, it is quick to show any internal imbalances or deficiencies. Our skin is a vital organ, so it is important to take care of it. Consider your lifestyle and diet, this could be affecting your skin more than you think.
Treat your skin right
There are a number of factors that can affect our skin health. The skin should appear fresh and radiant; but lack of skincare and protection can leave our skin looking dry and deflated. Many troubling skin conditions can be a result of the following:
The time for our body to restore and repair itself, sleep is a natural occurrence and an important process for the skin. Lack of sleep can change your skin’s appearance almost immediately. Ensuring you get plenty of physical activity throughout the day will promote sleep, improving your overall health and well-being.
Drinking above the recommended amount of alcohol can cause your skin to become dehydrated, resulting in a dry, grey appearance. Being aware of your alcohol intake and drinking the recommended six to eight glasses of water a day can keep your skin looking fresh.
Keeping your skin clean is important to help prevent skin conditions, breakouts and infections. Be sure to use a suitable moisturiser and cleanser morning and night, to get rid of any dirt collected throughout the day.
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays, which in excess may cause cancer and premature ageing of the skin. To avoid this, we should protect our skin from overexposure by using a protective sun cream containing SPF.
There is strong evidence linking smoking and premature skin ageing. It is believed that this is a result of the toxins in cigarettes breaking down collagen, a protein that supports skin strength. Smoking also constricts the blood vessels in the skin, reducing the supply of oxygen to the skin.
Nutrition: the effects
Eating a balanced diet is important for preventing skin conditions and keeping skin healthy. This is because your skin naturally reflects your body's internal needs, including what nutrients it requires. If your diet is lacking key vitamins, it is likely that your skin will start to show this. It may look discoloured, dry and spots can start to appear.
If you're experiencing the following skin conditions, you may find it helpful to assess what you're eating to see if your diet could be at fault:
- flaky, dry skin
- dull-looking skin
- premature lines/wrinkles.
Skin conditions like these are best tackled both internally and externally. So, as well as making changes to your diet and lifestyle, you could also benefit from consulting a dermatologist.
Healthy eating - is your diet damaging your skin?
When it comes to healthy eating, there are certain vitamins and nutrients that you should look to include if you want to improve the health of your skin. To ensure you are eating a well balanced diet containing the best foods for skin health, it is advisable to speak to a nutritionist. Take a look below for some of the key nutrients and vitamins for healthy skin.
Zinc is very important for maintaining healthy skin, especially for acne sufferers. The skin contains about 20% of the body’s zinc, if the skin is lacking in this, acne is often a symptom.
Foods rich in zinc:
- whole grains.
If you’re suffering inflamed or dry skin, upping your intake of essential fatty acids may help. EFAs contribute to the moisture of our skin and also help to repair it. The body can't produce these, so they are an essential part of your diet.
Foods rich in EFAs:
- nuts and seeds
- vegetable oils.
Selenium is a mineral that helps the skin maintain its elasticity and firmness. The mineral has also been found to help reduce sun damage.
Foods rich in selenium:
- whole grains
Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that converts into vitamin A in the body, helping to grow and repair body tissues. It is thought that beta-carotene can help prevent premature ageing as it helps to reduce environmental damage.
Foods rich in beta-carotene:
- sweet potato
The best foods for better skin
So we have established the important nutrients that can help our skin look healthy and clear. But what foods are the most beneficial? Following a balanced diet will naturally clear your skin and there are plenty of healthy food options to choose from, foods are especially rich in the vitamins our skin needs include:
Packed full of B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene and vitamin E, the key vitamins for healthy skin. Avocados also contain healthy fats, which helps to hydrate the skin. Try it on toast with a poached egg for a tasty breakfast.
Rich in antioxidants, berries are a quick and easy source of vitamin C. Top your yoghurt with berries, add them to a smoothie or enjoy with nuts as an afternoon snack.
Carrots contain high levels of beta-carotene, helping the body produce skin-saving vitamin A. Snack on carrot batons or if you are feeling brave, try carrot juice, and add some apple and ginger for an extra tasty kick.
Somewhat of a celebrity in the health food world, kale is well loved for a reason as it is rich in vitamins. In terms of boosting skin health, kale is great as it contains beta-carotene. Join the trend - add some to a smoothie, enjoy with your salad or cook up some kale crisps.
If you suffer from dry skin, salmon should become a regular feature in your diet. Rich in EFAs, salmon helps to restore moisture from the inside out. Try grilled salmon with vegetables for your evening meal or have smoked salmon with your eggs in the morning.
Another great source of essential fatty acids, walnuts are great for improving skin's elasticity. Walnuts also contain copper, a mineral that promotes collagen production. Walnuts are a great topping to your breakfast muesli or enjoy them as an afternoon snack.
What not to eat
When adopting a balanced diet, ensuring you are eating the right amount of vitamins for healthy skin is important. Consider what may be damaging your skin and reduce any foods or drinks that could be harmful. Such foods include:
Too much salt has been linked to skin conditions such as acne. It can also cause tissues to swell, making your face appear puffy. Get in the habit of checking food labels to see how much salt you are consuming. Pre-packaged foods and sauces often contain high levels of salt. Instead of using salt to add flavour, experiment with herbs and spices.
An excess of alcohol can dehydrate the body, making skin dry and irritated. Aim to stick to the recommended guidelines and try to have at least two alcohol-free evenings a week. Drinking plenty of water will boost hydration levels and detox the body.
Similarly to alcohol, consuming too much caffeine can dehydrate your skin. Instead, swap your morning coffee for herbal tea.
Refined carbohydrates and sugar
White bread, sugary foods and fizzy drinks all cause insulin spikes, leading to inflammation throughout the body. This results in a collagen and elastin break down, which can cause premature ageing. Digested sugar also attaches itself to collagen in a process called glycation, which can aggravate acne related conditions.
Swap refined carbohydrates for complex carbohydrates like brown rice and vegetables, and satisfy your sweet tooth with vitamin-rich fruit instead.
A very common skin condition is acne. It is characterised by blackheads, whiteheads and sore, red spots that appear on the skin. Most often occurring during puberty, acne can also develop when a person reaches early adulthood. Acne is caused by the oil-producing glands in the skin being particularly sensitive to testosterone. This sensitivity overworks the glands, producing excess oil. While there is not a cure for acne, there are a number of treatments available, including:
- ointments or creams
- oral antibiotics
- contraceptive pills.
There is little evidence that our diet can play a part in acne. However, there is a trend between break-outs and poor diet. An excess of sugar, like chocolate or junk food, or too much alcohol can affect the skin and people often find their skin health lacking. Following a balanced diet will improve your overall health and skin appearance.
An inflammatory skin condition. Eczema is used to describe the way the upper layer of skin changes. Redness, blisters, crusting and pigmentation are some of the symptoms. Eczema affects both sexes, usually developing in the early stages of life. While most common in children and often clearing up before puberty, it can continue into adult life. Eczema is hereditary and the most common symptom is itchy skin. This itchiness can disrupt sleep and result in irritability. This condition can worsen when in contact with dust or hot temperatures, when suffering from infection, dry skin and sometimes stress. Treatments available include:
- steroid creams
- antibiotics and antiseptics.
Food allergies have been found to aggravate eczema - if the allergy symptom includes itchiness or irritation, it can result in an eczema flare up. A balanced diet is important for skin health, make sure to consult your GP or nutritionist if you are looking to cut out certain foods from your diet.
A common skin condition affecting about two per cent of the population. While the usual rate of which the skin develops and sheds is three to four weeks, in psoriasis, this is dramatically increased to a rate as little as three or four days. Sufferers of psoriasis often find the main problem to be its red, scaly appearance. The skin can harden, itch and split, becoming very painful. Treatments available include:
- vitamin A or D gels.
While the relation between diet and psoriasis has been discussed, there is yet to be any scientific evidence to support the notion. Sufferers of psoriasis have said that avoiding certain foods have seemed to help improve the condition. It has often been advised that psoriasis sufferers try to avoid manufactured foods containing lots of additives and preservatives, as these may cause heightened sensitivity or irritation.
A skin condition most common in middle-aged women. While not fully understood, rosacea is believed to be linked to the tendency of ‘flushing’. The blood vessels in the skin dilate too easily, resulting in persistent redness on the face, followed by small red sores and spots. This skin condition seems to be angered with an excess of exercise, change of temperature, spicy foods, stress and too much alcohol. Symptoms of the condition can consist of skin sensitivity, a stinging or burning sensation and flushing. The often permanent change in complexion can result in anxiety, embarrassment or depression. Many GPs suggest protecting the skin daily with sunscreen and using non-soap cleansers. Other treatments may include:
- oral antibiotics
- metronidazole or azelaic acid gels.
Though not a proven cause of rosacea, poor diet and certain lifestyle choices are factors seen to worsen the condition. Consider what may be making your rosacea worse and try making small changes in your diet - if you do not feel confident about implementing changes independently, you may benefit from the expertise of a qualified nutritionist. A nutritionist can offer you the support and advice needed to understand nutrition and how this can help keep the skin healthy.
How can a nutritionist help with skin health and conditions?
If you are struggling with a skin complaint, your GP or dermatologist will often be your first port of call. However, as what you put into your body can have a direct impact on your skin health, a nutritionist can also help - looking at overcoming the problem from inside and recommending the right food for healthy skin. A nutritionist can assess your diet and suggest which food for healthy skin to eat more of and which foods to limit. They can also work with you to create a meal plan to improve symptoms and rebalance the skin. For more information for adopting a healthier way of eating, please look at our balanced diet page.
Content reviewed by registered nutritionist, Melody Mackeown. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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