Food and your skin: The inside out story

Nowadays, just about every skin care product contains some sort of exotic fruit, from coconut to kiwi. Likewise, scroll through any beauty magazine and you’ll find lists of household items like oatmeal and egg whites, recommended for DIY facials. Are they truly beneficial or just a silly marketing scheme? On the opposite end, how much does the food we consume have an impact on how our skin looks and feels?

Keep reading as we sink our teeth into this issue.

Skin care remedies that taste oh so good

While celebrities, beauty bloggers, and skin care aficionados have long raved about the benefits of using food products on the skin to boost its appearance, others suggest approaching with caution.

Dr. Jason Rivers, a Vancouver-based certified dermatologist, says that while almost every vegetable or fruit has been attributed with skin health benefits, there’s very little data to support these statements.

“Tannins in tea may help to soothe and reduce swelling under the eyes. Tea tree oil may diminish acne lesions but only in relatively mild disease. Oatmeal lotions applied to the skin or oatmeal powder used in the bath water may reduce itch, soothe and moisturize the skin. Alpha hydroxy acids—found in apples and other citrus fruits—used in relatively high concentrations (35-50%) may produce a visible improvement to the skin.  However, anything applied to the skin for a prolonged period may also cause skin irritation,” says Dr. Rivers.

The bottom line is everyone’s skin will react differently to various skin care remedies, whether found in the fridge or bought on the shelf. For instance, while some swear by using mayonnaise in the winter months to help hydrate scaly skin, others find it causes acne breakouts given it’s primarily fat and oil. Likewise, while cinnamon is alleged to be an effective exfoliant, for many it can cause rashes and blisters.

Dr. Rivers says the best way to determine whether a product or ingredient will work for your skin type is to apply a small amount of the substance to an area of the face the size of a postage stamp, once daily for a week. If redness and scaling develop, it’s best to avoid it. Depending on the patient, some areas will be more prone to reactivity than others.

“You are what you eat!”

You might remember this phrase as something your parents used to help stop you from a chips and candy binge, probably with limited success; maybe it was whispered to you from a concerned friend who insisted that eating chocolate and other junk food causes pimples. Regardless of where you might have heard it, does you are what you eat bear any truth?

Certain foods play an important role in the health of our skin, just like they do to any other organ in the body, says Dr. Rivers. Too much of a something in our diet can be just as harmful as too little.

“Vitamin deficiencies may lead to conditions such as scurvy (vitamin C) and pellagra (vitamin B).  Mineral deficiencies can result in acrodermatitis enteropathica (zinc deficiency), and hair loss (iron deficiency).  The development of drug and food allergies can manifest as rashes and urticaria (hives). The skin truly is a window to our inner selves,” says Dr. Rivers.

Sadly, no single kind of food will cure it all. For the most part, a balanced diet can prevent skin diseases, infections, and general irritation. Dr. Rivers also suggests limiting alcohol and caffeine while increasing water intake, and always remembering to wear sunscreen.

If you’re looking for some healthy additions to your diet, start with the list below:

  • Say yes to nuts and seeds. Walnuts, chia, and flax seeds contain a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation and dryness, common in skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
  • Stock up on oily fish and yogurt. Salmon, mackerel, and herring are all good sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
  • Dairy has been anecdotally associated with an increase in acne breakouts, though there is a lack of strong evidence proving causation. However, switching to non-dairy alternatives may prove beneficial for some people’s skin.

Like all matters in life, there are lots of opinions about what’s best for the health of your skin—some of it useful, some of it harmful.  Make sure to schedule regular appointments with your dermatologist to avoid confusion and to better understand how food affects the skin—whether it’s what you’re putting on your body or what you’re putting in it.

The information in this article has been reviewed by a certified dermatologist.