Does what you eat hurt your skin?
It’s not just what you put on your skin that matters.
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Almost everyone can relate to the experience of purchasing a skincare product that promises major improvements to receive only so-so results. While it’s true that what you apply to your skin topically has an effect, it’s worth looking inward the next time you’re affected by a skin woe, like redness or dryness. This is because your diet can play a major role in your skin’s health, according to Dr. Alexander Zuriarrain, a double board-certified plastic surgeon with Zuri Plastic Surgery and Elizabeth Gunner, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian.
How does your diet positively impact your skin?
A common worry when it comes to skin health is premature aging, including seeing signs of fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, or an overall dull appearance. One factor that can cause premature skin aging is being in a state of oxidative stress, which occurs when the body is unable to regulate its amount of free radicals, or atoms missing electrons that “rob” electrons from your healthy skin cells. Without proper regulation, free radicals can cause damage to the skin, such as dark spots and broken blood vessels, Zurairrain says.
Where your diet comes into play: By regularly eating foods that are high in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, you can reduce the effect of free radicals on your cells, says Gunner. In addition to produce that contain vitamins and minerals to decrease oxidative stress, Gunner recommends consuming protein from lean meats or plant-based foods, as “proteins are the base of our cells” and act as “the building blocks of skin tissue.” Lastly, consuming probiotics (living microorganisms found in fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi) and prebiotics (fibers found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that stimulate good bacteria growth) that support your gut health has also been linked to maintaining the skin’s health.
How does your diet negatively impact your skin?
Any food can cause a negative skin reaction if your body has an intolerance or allergy to it. But when it comes to universally unfavorable foods for the skin, refined sugar is at the forefront. This refers to the white sugar you bake with or that’s added to soda and candy, as well as sugars that have been extracted and reduced from foods like beets and corn that normally contain other nutrients like fiber or vitamins. Eating refined sugar triggers rapid blood sugar spikes that cause insulin increases linked to acne.
However, Gunner doesn’t recommend cutting such sugars out altogether. Instead of taking away foods, she recommends focusing on creating balanced plates, which include a mix of healthy fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. “As long as you’re creating those balanced meals and snacks when you are eating, you should be OK when it comes to skin health and overall bodily health,” Gunner says.
How can you tell if your diet is the source of skin irritation?
Unless you’re experiencing an allergy or food intolerance, it would most likely take repetitive eating habits over a long period of time to trigger significant, visible changes in the skin. “Diet and health and wellness overall [is] a bigger picture,” Gunner says. “It’s not what you eat once a day, it’s you eating that thing once a day for weeks, for months, for years.”
If your skin appearance isn't what you'd like and you know your diet could use a little cleaning up, try shifting away from refined sugars and see if you experience improvements over weeks or months. But if you notice a rash or skin irritation consistently after consuming a particular food, you may want to seek allergy testing from a doctor.
What should you do if you suspect your diet is causing skin irritation?
If you experience sudden or prolonged skin changes without external changes such as a new skincare routine, a good next step is speaking to a doctor about how your diet may be affecting your skin, Zuriarrain says. “It would be important to make certain adjustments to their diet, but to do so in a guided fashion under the care of a physician or diet professional.”
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