How to Eat Your Way to Healthier Skin

11 experts weigh in on gut health, turmeric and why sugar isn't doing your expensive skincare routine any favors

June 26, 2020 7:45 am
How to Eat Your Way to Healthier Skin

Skincare is predicting $180 billion in global spend by 2024. That’s a 30% increase from where it sits right now, but don’t bother betting against it. The industry is a runaway rocket ship; it firmly pushed past makeup sales in 2018, and is now counting on multibillion dollar growth among men, who have recently discovered a wide world or products beyond lip balm and talcum powder.

This success has already birthed, or at least magnified, a number of parallel, “ripple” businesses, which work in tandem with skincare, and share its self-care ethos. According to market research company Datassential, this trend is best exhibited in the recent convergence of beauty and food. Emerging brands like Purely Elizabeth, Sakara, Bare Bones Broth, Coco Luxe and Kalumi best exemplify the so-called “kitchen beauty” renaissance, and have staked claims on the credo that looking good starts with eating better.

We applaud their efforts, and have happily recommended some of their products. But it’s important to remember that many of the ideas and ingredients that these brands are selling are already available to us. In an age when (for some) skincare routines can cost over $200 a month, it’s helpful to revisit these concepts, and cultivate a grasp on how you can optimize your diet to help your skin’s greater cause — preferably without having to rely on more subscription boxes.

To that end, we sourced a panel of 11 expert dermatologists and nutritionists and asked them a variety of questions. What foods are harmful to the skin? What foods are now seen as beneficial? Where do antioxidants fit in? Is turmeric overhyped? Find their answers below, including ruminations on gut health, sulfur and the best food to protect against sun damage.

Spoiler: it isn’t M&Ms.

Sugar isn’t doing your expensive skincare regimen any favors. (Larry Washburn/Getty Images)

The basics

“Skin is the body’s largest organ. When we’re not eating well or chronically stressed, inflamed skin is often the first telltale sign that something’s going on internally. There aren’t any serums, masks, creams or supplements that can take the place of a healthy diet. You can spend thousands on skincare products and supplements, but if you’re eating poorly, your skin will show it.” —Nicole DeMasi, MS, RDN, CDCES, Founder of DeMasi Nutrition

“People who are seriously concerned about optimizing their skincare routines should pay attention to diet: we are what we eat, and the skin shows it. Many dermatologic studies have shown a correlation between diet and common skin diseases such as acne and rosacea. There is also ample scientific evidence showing that our diet directly ages the skin, even leading to wrinkle. Oxidative stress can actually be linked back to certain foods — it occurs when there are too many free radicals in the body’s cells, and not enough antioxidants to balance them.” —Dr. Kemunto Mokaya, board-certified dermatologist based in Knoxville,TN

On sugar, and other culprits

“Sugar is one of the absolute worst across the board when it comes to skin health.” — Kylene Bogden, RD, Love Wellness AdvisorDietician to the Cleveland Cavaliers

“Sugar and high glycemic index foods (anything that converts into sugar quickly, like white bread, potatoes, processed foods) cause a spike in insulin, which leads to inflammation and a process called glycation. The sugar molecules attach themselves to the proteins in collagen and make collagen lose its elasticity, resulting in sagging skin. The spike in insulin can also cause a surge in testosterone, which can contribute to acne breakouts due to increased sebum production.” —Dr. Uzma Qureshi, MBChB, MRCGP, MRCS, medical director of MySkyn Clinic in Yorkshire

“You may have noticed that when you’ve indulged a little more than usual in processed foods, it all shows up in your complexion. Sugar is one of the biggest culprits, and tends to have a major effect on skin: it activates inflammation by binding to collagen, which makes the skin appear stiff and more rigid.” —Jennifer Keirstead, RHN at Mountain Trek Fitness Retreat & Health Spa

“It isn’t talked about enough, but common food senstivies like gluten and dairy can be very hard on the skin for certain people. (I’m one of these people.)” —Heidi Moretti, MS, RD, The Healthy RD

“The two most common things I eliminate with my male patients with skin concerns is cow dairy and trans fats (usually found in fried or processed food). In recent studies, dairy has been linked to increased acne and redness in the face. Your skin is made up of a large percentage of fatty cells, so poor quality fats such as trans fats found in fried foods are linked to poor skin health.” — Michael Robinson, Illinois Association of Naturopathic Physicians, ND, CNS, LDN, Licensed Nutritionist

Cherish collagen

“Collagen is the main structural protein in the body. It’s about 25-35% of the body. Without collagen, we’d be just like a big puddle of skin. If you think about how inflammatory foods react in the body, they actually break down or hinder the use of proper collagen. So, ingesting inflammatory foods is actually doing the exact opposite of what we’re aiming for, when having great skin is our goal. It’s about taking in foods that build collagen, not break it down.” —Dr. Christian Gonzalez, Naturopathic Doctor, Non-Toxic Living Expert, podcaster at Heal Thy Self

… and Vitamin C

“Vitamin C is found in both the epidermal (superficial) and dermal (deeper) layers of the skin. It’s essential in collagen production. Peppers, dark leafy greens and Brussels sprouts are some underrated sources.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Vitamin C is needed in order for collagen synthesis to occur. To help promote collagen production, aim to consume foods rich in Vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwi and strawberries, leafy greens, tomatoes and broccoli.” Alex Turnbull, RD and Gut Council Member for Jetson

Start with antioxidants

“For better skin, a large portion of the diet should include vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. Opt for healthier cooking methods like steaming and boiling. Foods rich in antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals, therefore preventing damage of collagen.” —Dr. Mokaya

“People pay an arm and a leg to rub antioxidants like melatonin, glutathione, and resveratrol onto their skin, but these commercial products are often full of harsh chemicals. Meanwhile, those antioxidants are all available via food which benefits every cell in the body, not just where you rub the lotion. Glutathione is our master antioxidant and is found in greens like Brussels sprouts and asparagus, as well as almonds and walnuts. Melatonin is found richly in Cherries, orange bell peppers and Goji berries. Resveratrol is in dark-colored foods such as blueberries, red grapes and chocolate, as well as peanuts.” —Dr. Robinson

“Anthocyanins are antioxidants in red and purple fruits and vegetables, and are helpful in reducing the inflammation and free-radical damage to the skin from UV light and everyday air pollution. Anthocyanins are commonly found in strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, but cherries have the highest levels of all. So, say hello to summer fruit.” —Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD., board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills

What’s gut health got to do with it?

“Clinical research has shown that blemish-prone skin has a less-diverse skin microbiome. One simple way to increase the amount of good gut bacteria is to include probiotic-rich, fermented foods in the diet. These can include: unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and apple cider vinegar. Increase your high-fiber food intake, as they’re full of prebiotics. Prebiotics contain fibrous carbohydrates that nourish the good bacteria to help it to grow (broccoli, cauliflower, legumes, seeds, garlic, oats and avocado). The more varied your fiber sources, the more microbial diversity is encouraged.” —Keirstead

“There are skin receptors on every organ, as well as inside our GI tract. When these receptors are disturbed and our good bacteria is thrown out of whack, you will see skin issues such as acne, psoriasis, dermatitis and others.” —Bogden

“Many bowel conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, are associated with skin rashes. Improving the healthy bacteria can be done by taking a probiotic supplement, which will add bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium and help foster the presence of “good” bacteria. Fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, kefir, Jerusalem artichokes and natural yogurt will then feed that bacteria so they can multiply.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Depending on the health of your gut bugs and the integrity of your gastrointestinal barrier, you may notice skin issues flare with foods such as dairy or gluten. This occurs when a gut tissue enzyme called transglutaminase cross-reacts with the epidermal tissue’s transglutaminase. Gut tissue transglutaminase is what helps digest gluten, and the same enzyme that processes gluten also exists in the skin! That cross-reaction is what results in issues like hives, eczema and psoriasis.” —Bogden

Fatty fish is your friend

“Omega 3 oils help keep skin hydrated, reduce inflammation and help the skin to repair itself. It also works to create strong cell membranes. You can find it in walnuts, seafood and fatty fish.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines are fatty fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to reduce inflammation in the body and skin. Two to three servings a week can also help reduce LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Adding these fish to the diet will help balance the omega 3-to-omega 6 fatty ratio (the latter of which can actually trigger inflammation). Fish oil supplements also make a fine substitute.” —Shainhouse

Honor thy periodic table

“Zinc, which can be found in foods like oysters, fortified cereals, chickpeas and cashews has been shown to help reduce inflammation and may be beneficial for people who suffer from acne.” —Erin Jensen PA-C, founder of California-based The Treatment Skin Boutique.

“Eating sulfur-rich foods is also super important for glowing skin. Foods like broccoli, cauliflower, onions, garlic, Brussels sprouts.” —Dr. Gonzalez

Food can legitimately fortify the skin against potential sun damage. (Jake Gard/Unsplash)

Don’t just rely on SPF 50

“Foods thigh in beta carotene, meanwhile, can help protect against sun damage. Think carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Specifically, flaxseed contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Ground flaxseeds (a great source of omega-3 fatty acids) will also protect against sun damage and the fortify the skin, by helping to decrease molecules that contribute to inflammation. Also, olive oil, a great source of heart healthy fats, which may have an impact on protecting our skin from sun damage.” —Turnbull

Drinking counts, too

“It is absolutely essential that your body gets enough water. Staying hydrated ensures that nutrients actually reach your skin cells. Avoid sugary drinks and enjoy water or green tea, which is known to be a brilliant source of antioxidants.” —Jensen

“Alcohol is well-known to be dehydrating due to its diuretic effect, and can also trigger rosacea (a skin condition where the face can turn red) in predisposed people, because it dilates the blood vessels. Caffeine, meanwhile, can cause increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) which triggers increased levels of insulin. In turn, this causes increased sebum production and breakouts. Cortisol also ages skin by impairs the skin’s barrier function; it result in excess water loss, which leads to drier skin.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Though not specifically a food, water is essential for keeping our skin healthy. Bodies are comprised of 70% water and it plays a vital role in many functions of the body, including hydrating the skin and encouraging elasticity. If you’re looking for an extra boost of hydration and collagen, try incorporating bone broth into your diet. Not only is it hydrating, it’s rich in collagen.” —Turnbull

A tip for menopausal women

“Menopausal women may want to consider phytoestrogens; these are plant-derived estrogens that can improve collagen, hydrate the skin and calm aggravated skin. They’re in abundance in soya beans, soy products, yams, pomegranates and flaxseeds.” — Dr. Qureshi

Is turmeric really a miracle spice for the skin?

“There hasn’t been enough research for me to confidently comment, but it likely has anti-inflammatory properties that would help in healing throughout the body.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Tumeric contains curcumin. It’s an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory properties and helps reduce oxidative stress in the body. While turmeric is an amazing antioxidant, over-hyping it can lead to over-emphasis on its benefits at the expense of the many other wonderful antioxidants found in other natural spices. Consider clove, cinnamon, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, sage, ginger and yellow mustard seed. Of the list above, clove, cinnamon and oregano have a higher oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC score) than turmeric.” —Dr. Mokaya

Vitamin D is undefeated

“Healthy levels of vitamin D have been demonstrated to prevent skin aging. Skin aging can be viewed at the molecular level, with the shortening of telomeres, caps of genetic material on the free ends of DNA strands. As these telomeres shorten with age, they render the DNA more and more unstable, until the cell dies. One study demonstrated that telomeres were significantly longer in patients with the highest serum vitamin D levels, compared to those with the lowest — the disparity was equivalent to five years of aging. Try to incorporate foods that are high in vitamin D into your diet and supplement with 600-800 IU of vitamin D daily (which is the recommended daily allowance, per both the National Academy of Medicine and the Skin Cancer Foundation).” Shainhouse

Don’t believe in labels

“The problem with labeling certain foods as ‘beauty foods’ is that it over-emphasizes them at the expense of other healthy and beneficial foods. Those foods become a fad, and others, which have their own benefits, are then overlooked. Eating a plant-based, whole-food diet that emphasizes variety should be the revolution — not just focusing on a few “super foods” that made it onto a list.” — Dr. Mokaya

Results may vary. Stick with it.

“Get away from the processed sugar and packaged foods, start to eat tons of dark leafy greens, adequate hydration and real food, and you will start to see a difference within a week or two.” —Bogden

“Skin takes 120 days on average to rejuvenate. So any changes to diet need to be sustained in order to see benefit rather than be sporadic. Skincare is essential as the skin needs help as it ages to maintain youthful qualities.” —Dr. Qureshi

“Overall, long-term consumption of fresh, fermented, minimally processed, whole foods is the key. It isn’t one specific ‘superfood’ that will ultimately be responsible for the health of any bodily system. And just as important to note: treating yourself to substances like sugar can be critical to the enjoyment of life, achieving a sustainable healthy lifestyle and activating your pleasure systems. It’s what you do most of the time that matters. Balance is everything.” Keirstead

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