The key to healthy skin lies beyond which soap you use. It depends on what you eat, whether you exercise, how much stress you're under and even the kind of environment in which you live and work.
All of these things affect how fast your skin ages, and thus how it will look, by influencing certain processes that lead to oxidation and inflammation. Sounds complicated, but it really is not.
Basically, complex chemical processes in your body produce unstable molecules called free radicals. Think of them as Skin Enemy No. 1. Left to their own devices, they go on to damage otherwise healthy cells in a process called oxidation. This is the same process that turns an apple brown or changes a copper roof from reddish gold to blue-green, so you can just imagine the way it can affect your skin. Sun, smoking, air pollution and poor diet all speed production of these free radicals.
Luckily, your body also produces antioxidants, molecules whose job it is to sweep up those free radicals before they can do any serious harm. How you take care of yourself—including what you eat—can increase production of these valuable molecules, literally saving your skin.
Nutrition and Your skin
Women have been using foods as facial treatments for centuries, making masks of egg whites and olive oil, putting cucumbers over their eyes to reduce swelling. But did you know that the food you put in your mouth can affect the health of your skin more than anything you could put on your face?
Although studies find certain individual foods can help you maintain healthy skin, your overall diet—as well as your weight—matters most. For instance, if you're overweight and/or you eat a diet high in processed foods, including white bread, cookies, ice cream and packaged dinners, and low in fiber and fresh fruits and vegetables, you have a higher risk of developing a condition called insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.
In this condition, insulin, a hormone that "unlocks" the cell so glucose, or fuel, can get in, doesn't work very well. Thus, all this glucose builds up in your bloodstream instead of disappearing into cells where it's supposed to go. This, in turn, damages skin. How? By reacting with the protein fiber network (i.e., collagen and other proteins) that make skin resilient. This reaction creates harmful waste products called advanced glycosylation endproducts, or AGEs, those free radicals mentioned earlier. Fibers stiffen, skin loses it elasticity and you become more vulnerable to wrinkling, sagging and damage from ultraviolet (UV) light.
But eat a varied and nutritious diet, and it's amazing what can happen to your skin. In one study, researchers from Monash University in Australia found people who ate the most fruits, vegetables and fish had the least amount of wrinkles. However, the researchers found, diets high in saturated fat, including meat, butter and full-fat dairy, as well as soft drinks, cakes, pastries and potatoes (called "high-glycemic" foods), increased the likelihood of skin wrinkling. Coincidentally, these high-glycemic foods are also implicated in insulin resistance.
So, if you want to follow a skin-healthy diet, make sure you pack your diet full of these nutrients:
Vitamins E and C. Studies find these vitamins can help protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun, particularly in supplement form. Meanwhile, vitamin C is a valuable nutrient in collagen synthesis, the protein that helps hold skin together and give it tone. If you do supplement, don't exceed 400 IU of vitamin E because it could increase the risk of bleeding. Best food sources: vegetable oils, margarine, eggs, fish, whole-grain cereals and dried beans for vitamin E; citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers and leafy green vegetables for vitamin C.
Essential fatty acids. Several studies find that the amount of poly- and monounsaturated fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, in your diet can minimize sun and aging damage to your skin. Best food sources: cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. For healthy mono fats, stick with olive oil and nuts.
Tea. Tea, particularly green tea, is an excellent source of antioxidants called polyphenols. That may be why one Arizona study found that the more hot tea people drank (particularly tea with lemon) the less likely they were to develop squamous cell skin cancer.
Vitamin A. Another powerful antioxidant, vitamin A forms the basis for a slew of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter skin products that contain retinoids. One study found a strong connection between vitamin A levels in the blood (an indicator of the amount in the diet) and skin dryness; the more vitamin A, the moister the skin. You shouldn't supplement with vitamin A, and it's hard to get enough via food, but it's easy to get vitamin A's precursor—beta-carotene—which is converted to vitamin A in your intestine. Best food sources: orange, red and yellow fruits; vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe; and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.