Healthy Skin Basics 2: How Food Affects Skin

Now that you understand the basics of skin health, the best thing you can do is to start a skin-healthy diet today! By eating the right foods you can begin to minimize, and even prevent, common skin problems.

Skin is built from the inside out. Day to day and year to year, skin draws its healthy glow from good nutrition. Even though acne and wrinkles have different causes, and occur at different times in your life, nutrition can help minimize or prevent both of these problems and enhance your skin’s natural beauty.


The best defense against the free radical damage of oxidation is a diet rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Research suggests that certain antioxidants — vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene) — nourish and protect skin to extend its youthful appearance.

Topical preparations of these antioxidants — applied to the skin in a cream or ointment — have been shown to help protect the skin against radiation from the sun and even reverse some of the damage that may already have occurred. They may even help prevent skin tumors. Some — such as the vitamin A prescription medications tretinoin (Retin-A, Renova) and isotretinoin (Accutane) — are common treatments for acne and wrinkles.

Antioxidant-rich foods also can help.

Vitamin C, naturally found in the skin, is involved in collagen production and protects cells from free radical damage. Scientific studies found that when lab animals ate vitamin C–fortified food, their skin was better able to fight off oxidative damage. Because vitamin C is destroyed by exposure to sunlight, spending even a short time in the sun can leave skin depleted. It is important to replenish your skin’s vitamin C stores by eating plenty of vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.

BEST FOODS FOR VITAMIN C:Guava, bell peppers (all colors), oranges and orange juice, grapefruit and grapefruit juice, strawberries, pineapple, kohlrabi, papaya, lemons and lemon juice, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, kidney beans, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cabbage (all varieties), mangoes, white potato, mustard greens, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, snow peas, clementines, rutabagas, turnip greens, raspberries, blackberries, watermelon, tangerines, okra, lychees, summer squash, persimmons

Vitamin E helps protect cell membranes and guard against UV radiation damage. Some research suggests that vitamin E may work in combination with vitamin C to provide an extra boost of anti-aging skin protection. However, because some studies have raised questions about the safety of vitamin E supplements, these nutrients should come from your diet, not from potent pills. I recommend you stick with food sources (and the small amount found in a multivitamin).

BEST FOODS FOR VITAMIN E:Almonds and almond butter, sunflower seeds and sunflower butter, wheat germ, hazelnuts, spinach, dandelion greens, Swiss chard, pine nuts, peanuts and peanut butter, turnip greens, beet greens, broccoli, canola oil, flaxseed oil, red bell peppers, collard greens, avocadoes, olive oil, mangoes

Selenium is an antioxidant mineral that helps safeguard the skin from sun damage and delays aging by protecting skin quality and elasticity. Dietary selenium has been shown to reduce sun damage, and even to prevent some skin cancers in animals. Be sure to get your selenium from food, though, and not from supplements. The Nutritional Prevention of Cancer Trial found that people with a high risk of nonmelanoma skin cancers who took selenium supplements actually had a 25 percent increased risk of squamous cell carcinomas.

BEST FOODS FOR SELENIUM:Brazil nuts, tuna (canned light), crab, oysters, tilapia, whole wheat pasta, lean beef, cod, shrimp, whole wheat bread or crackers, wheat germ, brown rice, skinless chicken or turkey, cottage cheese (fat-free, 1% low-fat), mushrooms, eggs

Beta carotene, another nutrient critical for skin health, is converted to vitamin A in the body to aid in the growth and repair of body tissues, including your skin. Beta carotene also acts as an antioxidant that may protect against sun damage. In extremely high doses, straight vitamin A from supplements can be toxic, so I never recommend taking it this way. However, ample beta carotene from food is entirely safe.

BEST FOODS FOR BETA CAROTENE:Sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, butternut squash, turnip greens, pumpkin, mustard greens, cantaloupe, red bell pepper, apricots, Chinese cabbage, spinach, lettuce (romaine, green leaf, red leaf, butterhead), collard greens, Swiss chard, watercress, grapefruit (pink, red), watermelon, cherries, mangoes, tomatoes, guava, asparagus, red cabbage


Your skin contains about 6 percent of all the zinc in your body. This mineral is necessary for protecting cell membranes and helping to maintain the collagen that keeps skin firm. People with severe zinc deficiencies can develop redness, pustules, scaling, and lesions. (There’s a pretty picture!) In addition, there are microscopic changes in the structure of skin cells themselves. On top of that, zinc is critically involved in skin renewal — which means that if you want to keep your skin fresh and as youthful as possible, be sure to include zinc-rich foods in your menu.

BEST FOODS FOR ZINC:Oysters, lobster, lean beef, crab, ostrich, wheat germ, skinless chicken or turkey (especially dark meat), lean lamb, clams, mussels, pumpkin seeds, yogurt (fat-free, low-fat), pork tenderloin, starchy beans (such as black, navy, pinto, garbanzo, kidney), lentils, black-eyed peas, soybeans (edamame), lima beans, pine nuts, cashews, peanuts and peanut butter, sunflower seeds and butter, pecans


Healthy fats known as omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cell membranes so that they are effective barriers — allowing water and nutrients in, and keeping toxins out. Omega-3s have also been shown to protect skin against sun damage. In a study of skin cancer in sunny, skin scorching southeastern Arizona, people who ate diets rich in fish oils and other omega-3 fats had a 29 percent lower risk of squamous cell skin cancer than those who got very little omega-3s from food. Not too shabby — grill some fish, prevent some cancer.

BEST FOODS FOR OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS:Wild salmon (fresh, canned), herring, mackerel (not king), sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, Pacific oysters, chia seeds, ground flaxseed, walnuts, butternuts (white walnuts), seaweed, walnut oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybeans (edamame)


It is so basic, but I can’t emphasize enough how important water is for skin’s health and beauty. Water helps your body flush away toxins, allows the smooth flow of nutrients into cells, and keeps your organs functioning at their best. Plus, cells that are well-hydrated are plump and full, which means that your skin will look firmer and clearer (but not “fat”). Recommendations vary, but according to the Institute of Medicine, the average requirement for women is 9 total cups of fluids from water and other beverages per day. For men, it bumps up to 13 cups.

Although liquids are the main source of water, many foods have such high water content that they contribute to overall hydration. The following foods are at least 75 percent water (by weight) and should regularly be included as part of a healthy skin regimen:

Fruits: Apples, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, cranberries, grapefruit, grapes, kiwi, lemon, limes, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, raspberries, strawberries, tangerines, watermelon

Vegetables: Artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, bell peppers (all colors), rhubarb, spinach, squash, tomatoes, turnips


Another good option for hydration is tea. Teas contain natural compounds known as polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties. In animal studies, polyphenols helped prevent sun-related skin cancers and improve immune functioning. When applied to the skin in the form of ointments and creams, topical green and white tea extracts have been shown to protect skin cells against damage from harsh ultraviolet rays.

Although there are no definitive human studies about the effects of drinking tea for skin health, tea — green, white, or black, caffeinated or decaffeinated — is always a better choice than soda, fruit juice, or sugary coffee concoctions.

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