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There are many ways your car can break down, so only worrying about the tires and the oil is pretty silly. But that’s kind of what we do with our skin. Our skin is the largest organ of our bodies, and yet we only pay attention to it when we get acne or wrinkles. Or maybe occasionally if it itches. But, like your car, there are a lot of ways the health of your skin can be compromised—so it doesn’t make much sense to only worry about one or two.
Fortunately, many skin concerns can be addressed, at least partly, through the same solution: a healthy diet. Read on to learn more about some of the best foods with nutrients that can protect and support our skin from the inside out.
Foods for healthy skin
While some nutrients found in certain foods may help protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) light damage, the effect is far lower than that of sunscreen. So there’s never an excuse for you to skip applying sunscreen before spending time outdoors. But if you want to support the overall health of your skin from the inside, consider adding more of these foods to your weekly diet.
Please note that just because a specific nutrient is present in a food, that does not mean the food will necessarily have a beneficial effect on your skin (especially if you are not otherwise deficient in that nutrient). We present some of the research below that may relate to some foods, but we encourage you to investigate the research on your own as well. Additionally, even if they do not have beneficial effects on the skin, many foods listed below can be part of an overall healthy diet.
1. Fatty fish
Fish haters have no excuse to scroll past, thanks to fish oil supplements. Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and fish oil supplements are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Some omega-3 fatty acids can help improve inflammation via anti-inflammatory properties—this may especially benefit people with skin conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema) and acne (Balić, 2020).
2. Orange and yellow fruits and veggies
The color of the fruit and vegetables you throw in your grocery cart affects a lot more than how Instagrammable your meals appear. Many colors of produce are a visual cue for some essential nutrients.
In the case of orange and yellow produce, such as citrus fruits and carrots, the color points to the beta-carotene inside. Beta-carotene is a phytonutrient that gets turned into vitamin A and has powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help protect your skin cells from UV radiation from sunlight. Beta-carotene may improve sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles, and the overall health and appearance of your skin (Souyoul, 2018).
Red and yellow bell peppers have an additional bonus, though: a high amount of vitamin C. Vitamin C is not only another potent antioxidant, but it is also essential for the production of collagen (Souyoul, 2018).
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Tomatoes boast two skin-boosting nutrients: lycopene and vitamin C. Lycopene is actually just one of several carotenoids, a class of yellow, orange, or red plant pigments that also includes beta-carotene and lutein. Tomatoes have all three, and they all help protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) light damage (Souyoul, 2018).
Vitamin C helps maintain the internal structure that makes our skin look firm and youthful by playing an essential role in collagen production. But, like lycopene, it may also help protect our skin from photodamage, specifically caused by UV rays (Pullar, 2017).
Berries of all types (e.g. blueberries and blackberries) are packed with antioxidants, compounds that balance free radicals in your body. These free radicals come from natural chemical reactions in the body. High levels of free radicals can cause oxidative stress, a condition that damages cells and has been linked to several chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease). Oxidative stress is also linked to aging (Liguori, 2018).
Since oxidative stress is linked to so many health conditions, we tend to associate the aging it causes with our organs—but our skin is also an organ. That means oxidative stress not only ages our internal organs, potentially causing chronic diseases, but also causes inflammation and aging of our skin, leading to wrinkles and skin cancer. As we age, we also lose some of our inherent antioxidant mechanisms, which also accelerate this imbalance. But we can replace some of them, bringing antioxidants and free radicals back into balance, by eating foods rich in antioxidants, like berries (Addor, 2017; Petruk, 2018).
Broccoli is a nutritional powerhouse, and its benefits extend to almost every system of the body—your skin is no exception. This cruciferous vegetable packs three noteworthy nutrients that benefit the largest organ of your body: zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
If you’ve read any articles online about how to improve your skin, you’ve seen the word “retinol” a lot. Retinol is another word for vitamin A. We can get this important nutrient through our diets, thanks to food sources such as broccoli and produce with beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the body or through topical applications.
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Zinc isn’t to be underappreciated when it comes to your skin, either. In fact, zinc has been shown to help with inflammation and protection against oxidative stress. It also is involved in the skin’s wound healing process (Souyoul, 2018).
6. Nuts and seeds
Many nuts and seeds boast high quantities of skin-enhancing nutrients already discussed, making them good foods to add to your diet for better skin.
Sunflower seeds also pack large amounts of skin-friendly nutrients into each serving. One serving provides roughly half of your daily vitamin E needs, which can help protect your skin from sun damage (NIH, 2021). They also provide selenium, which may have anti-inflammatory properties. This trace mineral is also an antioxidant and, as such, can help fight oxidative stress (Souyoul, 2018).
You probably don’t need another excuse to indulge in avocado, but these fatty fruits may also benefit your skin. They’re rich in vitamins A and E, two vitamins with antioxidant properties that may help protect your skin from free radical damage. For glowing skin, try to work avocado into more meals. Don’t forget that this versatile fruit works just as easily in sweet recipes like smoothies as it does in savory ones like avocado toast.
Soy gets a bad rap for increasing estrogen in the body, but it actually contains a category of compounds called isoflavones that can either mimic or block the hormone in your body—and the research is strong that they may greatly benefit your skin. Studies suggest that isoflavones may protect your skin via antioxidant properties and improve skin thickness, elasticity, firmness, and appearance (Duchnik, 2019).
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9. Dark chocolate
Cocoa is high in antioxidants, compounds you have to thank for many of this beloved treat’s benefits. It may help improve your skin and protect against UV damage (Zugravu, 2019). Dark chocolate also contains caffeine, which may also protect against oxidative stress from harmful UV rays (Li, 2018).
When it comes to chocolate, quality does matter, though. Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids and try to find a bar that keeps added sugar as low as possible.
10. Green tea
Green tea contains catechins, antioxidant chemicals made by plants—they’re the source of many of green tea’s health benefits. Like other antioxidants, catechins can help protect your skin from sun damage and also prevent the inflammation and wrinkles that may develop due to oxidative stress (Souyoul, 2018). These green tea compounds may improve skin hydration and help your skin retain moisture in addition to decreasing wrinkle formation (Kim, 2018).
11. Red wine
Red wine is well-known for resveratrol, along with other antioxidants that may have possible anti-aging benefits. Resveratrol has antioxidant properties that can help your body balance free radicals (Snopek, 2018). However, alcohol, even red wine, needs to be consumed in moderation—excess alcohol can cause inflammation (Barr, 2016).
- Addor, F. A. S. (2017). Antioxidants in dermatology. Anais Brasileiros De Dermatologia, 92(3), 356–362. doi: 10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175697. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5514576/
- Balić, A., Vlašić, D., Žužul, K., Marinović, B., & Bukvić Mokos, Z. (2020). Omega-3 versus omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory skin diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 21(3), 741. doi: 10.3390/ijms21030741. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31979308/
- Barr, T., Helms, C., Grant, K., & Messaoudi, I. (2016). Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 65, 242–251. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.001. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26375241/
- Duchnik, E., Kruk, J., Baranowska-Bosiacka, I., Pilutin, A., Maleszka, R., & Marchlewicz, M. (2019). Effects of the soy isoflavones, genistein and daidzein, on male rats’ skin. Postepy Dermatol Alergol, 36(6), 760–766. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87280. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31998007/
- Kim, E., Hwang, K., Lee, J., Han, S. Y., Kim, E. M., Park, J., et al. (2018). Skin protective effect of epigallocatechin gallate. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 19(1), 173. doi: 10.3390/ijms19010173. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29316635/
- Li, Y. F., Ouyang, S. H., Tu, L. F., Wang, X., Yuan, W. L., Wang, G. E., et al. (2018). Caffeine protects skin from oxidative stress-induced senescence through the activation of autophagy. Theranostics, 8(20), 5713–5730. doi: 10.7150/thno.28778. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30555576/
- Liguori, I., Russo, G., & Abete, P. (2018). Oxidative stress, aging, and diseases. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 13, 757–772. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S158513. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5927356/
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021). Vitamin E- Health Professional. Retrieved on Oct. 5, 2021 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional
- Petruk, G., Giudice, R. D., Rigano, M. M., & Monti, D. M. (2018). Antioxidants from plants protect against skin photoaging. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018, 1–11. doi: 10.1155/2018/1454936. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30174780/
- Pullar, J. M., Carr, A. C., & Vissers, M. (2017). The roles of vitamin C in skin health. Nutrients, 9(8), 866. doi: 10.3390/nu9080866. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28805671/
- Snopek, L., Mlcek, J., Sochorova, L., Baron, M., Hlavacova, I., Jurikova, T., et al. (2018). Contribution of red wine consumption to human health protection. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(7), 1684. doi: 10.3390/molecules23071684. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29997312
- Souyoul, S. A., Saussy, K. P., & Lupo, M. P. (2018). Nutraceuticals: A review. Dermatology and Therapy, 8(1), 5–16. doi: 10.1007/s13555-018-0221-x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29411317/
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2020). Randomized parallel control trial checking the efficacy and impact of two concentrations of retinol in the original formula on the aging skin condition: Pilot study. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 19(2), 437–443. doi: 10.1111/jocd.13040. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31222977/
- Zugravu, C., & Otelea, M. R. (2019). Dark chocolate: to eat or not to eat? A review. Journal of AOAC International, 102(5), 1388–1396. doi: 10.5740/jaoacint.19-0132. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31200790/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.