8 Essential Nutrients for Healthy Skin

By Austin K. Vitelli and Elizabeth A. Klump

Vitamin A

Topical Vitamin A (tretinoin) has been proven to, at least partly, “revers[e] the structural damages of excessive sunlight exposure and may be useful in decelerating the photoaging process.” In other words, it can reverse signs of aging in the skin.1 However, having plenty of vitamin A in your diet can also prevent acne, according to a study published in Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology.2 In general, vitamin A can help repair damaged skin tissue.

There are a variety of tasty and widely available fruits and vegetables loaded with vitamin A. Carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, and spinach are all hearty sources of vitamin A. For example, a cup of raw sliced carrots has more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance. And beef liver (if you’re into that kind of thing) has close to 100 percent of your daily dose in just three ounces.

B Vitamins

Vitamin B is actually a complex of several vitamins: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folic acid (B9), and cobalamins (B12). The name arises because it was once considered a single vitamin, like vitamin C or D. The B complex plays various important roles in the human body, but some B vitamins affect the skin more than others. For example, one study showed that a year of treatment with niacinamide (a form of B3) significantly lowered the risk of common, non-melanoma skin cancer in high-risk patients.4 Niacinamide regulates cell metabolism and regeneration, and it is also used in topical products as an anti-aging agent.5,6 In some studies, improvement of skin elasticity, erythema, and pigmentations after three months of topical niacinamide treatment was observed.7 Biotin (B7) has also gained commercial popularity for its claimed benefits to hair and nail growth, but research supporting this is limited. An older study does suggest that biotin might be effective as an antioxidant for the prevention of chronic skin photoaging, but this study was done in mice.8

            Symptoms of a deficiency in the B complex depend on what type of vitamin B you lack, and can range from fatigue and confusion to anemia and a compromised immune system. Signs of deficiency can also manifest in the skin, including redness, itchiness, scaliness, and pigmentation abnormalities.

            Vitamin B1 is abundant in pork and almonds. Yogurt, cheese, and asparagus are full of B2. Chicken, turkey, and salmon have lots of B3. For folic acid (aka folate or B9), look for anything that’s leafy and dark green. Vitamin B6 is found in potatoes and leafy greens as well. Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified foods and animal proteins, including meat, eggs, and dairy products. Egg yolks are a hearty source of biotin, and grains contain a lot B3, which has been found to help tre

Vitamin C

            Vitamin C plays a significant role in protecting skin against sunburn, though its effectiveness in this capacity seems greatest in topical formulations. In a meta-analysis on the effects of vitamins C and E on photoprotection of the skin, researchers reported that while topically applied vitamin C induced significant photoprotective effects, oral administration, even at high doses in humans, did not produce the same effects.10 Another study, published in Cancer Biotherapy and Radiopharmaceuticals, found that vitamin C helped prevent UV- induced cell death in skin cancer cells.

                Even though topical vitamin C is where most of the benefits lie for skin health, ingested vitamin C is one of the safest and most effective nutrients you can put in your body.11 Benefits include immunologic surveillance as well as protection against cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, and eye disease. Oranges, grapefruit, and pineapples are great sources of vitamin C, as are red, yellow, and green peppers, papaya, kiwi, and guava. Did you know that guava has more vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable?

Vitamin E

Vitamin E has been shown to prevent wrinkles and improve the texture and elasticity of your skin. It also prevents UV radiation damage, making vitamin E especially important during the warm months when you are exposed to the sun for longer periods of time. One study reported that having the correct intake of vitamin E (as well as vitamin A) reduces oxidative stress (an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants) and improves skin quality.12 A meta-analysis from the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology reported that topical vitamin E is effective in reducing erythema, sunburn cells, and photocarcinogenesis, and that high doses of oral vitamin E reduce chronic UV-B-induced skin damage.13 Another study, published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, revealed a topical combination of vitamins C and E achieved significant photoprotection of the skin.1

Unlike some of the other vitamins, you won’t find a single food that contains 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E. However, there is a variety of foods that can give you a good start in reaching the recommended daily allowance, including almonds, spinach, sunflower seeds, and sweet potato. Palm oil and olive oil also contain Vitamin E, and are in a variety of products and can be used in cooking.

Selenium

There is conflicting research on the impact selenium has on preventing skin cancer, but there is research that suggests it might have a positive effect.15 A 1996 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is one of the original studies that prompted positive discussion over the mineral’s health impact.16 While selenium treatment did not protect against development of basal or squamous cell carcinomas of the skin, results from this study did suggest that supplemental selenium might reduce the incidence of, and mortality from, carcinomas in several other sites of the body. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that works with vitamin E and helps your body recycle vitamin C.

                Selenium-rich foods include fish, such as yellowfin tuna, halibut, and canned sardines. Brazil nuts, chicken, turkey, and eggs are also good sources of selenium. And if anyone ever needed yet another good reason to eat spinach, it’s a good source of selenium too!

Linoleic Acid

Linoleic acid (part of the omega fatty acids group) plays a critical role in normal skin function and appearance, particularly in structural integrity and barrier function.17 Dietary supplementation and topical application of linoleic acid reduces the photodamage caused by UV exposure, extrinsic signs of aging in the skin, and inflammatory skin responses. Dietary supplementation can also alleviate symptoms associated with skin sensitivity and inflammatory skin disorders.17

While consuming too much of any vitamin can have negative effects on your body, it’s very important to avoid taking too much linoleic acid. According to a meta-analysis that examined the effectiveness of replacing dietary saturated fat with omega 6 linoleic acid for prevention of heart disease,18 the investigators found that replacing saturated fats with linoleic acid actually increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease, though they stated more research needs to be conducted to clarify and confirm their findings.

Linoleic acid is present in a lot of processed foods, such as potato chips, salad dressing, and packaged sandwich meats. But healthier sources of linoleic acid include vegetable oils and nuts (e.g., pine nuts, pecans, and Brazil nuts) and certain types of cheeses, such as blue, brie, and Swiss.

Copper

Copper maintains and repairs aging skin by providing it with essential fatty acids and vitamins. Copper works together with iron and zinc to develop the fibers that support the understructure of the skin.19

One of the best food sources of copper is beef liver ( ). But dark chocolate, dried apricots, and lentils are all rich in copper, along with cooked turnip greens and asparagus. For something more unusual, try making something with blackstrap molasses, which is slightly more bitter than regular molasses and is packed with copper and many other vitamins and minerals.

Zinc

Out of all the tissues in the body, the skin contains the third highest amount of zinc.20 Zinc deficiency can manifest in the skin as acne, eczema, xerosis (dry, scaly skin), seborrheic dermatitis (a scalp condition that causes scaly patches, red skin, and stubborn dandruff), alopecia (thin and sparse hair), and impaired wound healing.20,21

Oysters probably have more zinc than any other food—just three oysters contain more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Other seafood, such as crab and lobster, have high levels of zinc as well. If you prefer meat over seafood, go for lamb or beef short ribs. Pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, cocoa powder, cooked chickpeas, and cooked mushrooms round out the wide variety of foods that will give you enough zinc for the day.

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