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Last updated March 21, 2020. 9 minute read

Vitamins for healthy skin: poring over the research

Just because you eat certain foods does not mean you’ll see the same results that a particular study observed. A healthy diet is a great foundation, and if you suspect there’s an underlying issue, your healthcare provider can help you get to the root of what nutrients you specifically need more of.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

We use “skin deep” as a negative way to say something is superficial, but that’s doing skin—the largest organ of your body—a great disservice. There’s nothing simple about your skin, and, though it may sit closer to the outside world than your heart or lungs, this complex organ is deeply connected to the core of your health—or lack thereof.

Vitals

  • A healthy diet is a good foundation for healthy skin.
  • Certain vitamins and minerals may help improve your skin quality.
  • Some nutrients may help protect your skin from damage from ultraviolet (UV) light.
  • Vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants in your body may help prevent wrinkles by combating inflammation and cellular damage.

Dry skin may just be a temporary effect of changing weather, but it can also indicate nutritional imbalance and point to a lack of enough healthy fats in the diet. Certain vitamins and minerals play a hand in keeping your skin hydrated, elastic, and full. Others have a direct hand in wound healing and blood flow, which can affect bruising, the development of varicose veins, and even whether you get a healthy flush on your cheeks. Since they play such an important role in overall skin health, a complexion short of glowing skin may be a visual clue to an underlying vitamin deficiency.

Vitamins and nutrients for healthy skin

There are, of course, skin conditions that need attention from experts such as dermatologists. But one of the foundations for healthy skin, just like other systems of your body, is a healthy diet. Getting all essential vitamins is important since deficiencies can cause or exacerbate skin issues.

It’s important to note, though, that just because you eat certain foods does not mean you’ll see the same results that one study observed. A healthy diet is a great foundation, and if you suspect there’s an underlying issue, your healthcare provider can help you get to the root of what nutrients you specifically need more of.

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Vitamin D

Most of us know by now that our bodies can create vitamin D from direct sunlight that hits our skin, earning this nutrient the nickname “the sunshine vitamin.” But it’s less well-known that this process comes full-circle, benefitting the skin as well. Vitamin D is used in the body to create new, specialized cells through differentiation, some of which are skin cells (Nair, 2012). This isn’t an excuse to bask in UV rays without sunscreen, though. Medical experts do not recommend any time spent in direct sunlight without the protection of sunscreen, despite its involvement in vitamin D creation. One study found as well that the topical application of calcitriol (active vitamin D3) reduced skin inflammation and irritation in people with psoriasis (Gold, 2009).

Can be found in: The two forms of vitamin D are found in different foods: Vitamin D2 is mostly in plant sources and fortified foods, and D3 is mostly in meat and dairy products. Increase your intake of oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring), beef liver, egg yolks, and mushrooms to get more of the Ds into your diet. You can also turn to fortified foods as sources of the vitamins, which may be especially helpful for vegetarians and vegans. A supplement may be a good addition to a diet rich in these foods since approximately 40% of adults in the United States don’t get enough (Forrest, 2011).

Vitamin C

This well-known vitamin offers perhaps the trendiest benefit for your skin on this list: It supports your collagen production. Collagen and elastin fibers give skin that much-coveted supple structure, and this perky appearance may be associated with youth because our skin is high in vitamin C naturally. This internal scaffolding naturally breaks down as we age, but vitamin C can help counter this loss to some extent. Vitamin C plays an essential role in the production of collagen, but it also helps protect our skin from photodamage specifically caused by UV rays, which may, in turn, help prevent skin cancer (Pullar, 2017).

Can be found in: You can boost your dietary intake of vitamin C through citrus fruits and other select fruits and vegetables. Although vitamin C deficiency is rare in the United States, you can also support your levels with supplements. There are also plenty of skincare products with formulations that include vitamin C to help promote collagen synthesis, such as anti-aging creams.

Vitamin E

Protection from sun damage is a common theme among the top vitamins for skin, and vitamin E is no exception. This phytonutrient (plant chemical) may help protect your skin from damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) light (Evans, 2010). Research suggests that vitamin E may have both anti-tumor and photoprotective properties, but some of its biggest benefits in dermatology come from its status as a “free radical scavenger” (Keen, 2016). Systems on our bodies naturally produce free radicals, and they need to be in balance with antioxidants to avoid causing cellular damage, leading to inflammation. All of this contributes to this vitamin’s ability to help protect against skin cancer and speed wound healing (Keen, 2016).

Can be found in: Nuts, spinach, whole grains, olive oil, and sunflower oil are particularly rich sources of vitamin E. Your body needs fat in order to properly absorb this vitamin, and combining sources (such as olive oil on a spinach salad or grains dressed with sunflower oil) can help. Supplements can also be taken, though meeting your needs through diet alone is possible, especially since this vitamin is added to some fortified foods. You’ll also find vitamin E in many anti-aging skincare products, and it’s generally added along with vitamin C, since they may be more effective together in fighting sun damage that may lead to skin cancer (Lin, 2003).

Vitamin K

Vitamins K1 (phylloquinone) and K2 (menaquinones) do more than contribute to your heart and bone health. They also have a direct impact on the health of your blood vessels, which can impact not only bruising but also the development of varicose veins. Vitamin K helps maintain the structural integrity of collagen and elastin fibers, and K2 is involved in the elasticity of blood vessels (Maresz, 2015). Additionally, according to one study, vitamin K can speed wound healing time when applied topically compared to Eucerin cream (Pazyar, 2019).

Can be found in: You’ll need to go to separate food sources for your vitamin K1 and vitamin K2 needs. Leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli, asparagus, soybeans, red or green grapes, and yogurt are all good sources of vitamin K1. You can up your dietary intake of vitamin K2 with chicken breast, ground beef, egg yolks, and hard and soft cheeses, but the most potent source is natto, a type of fermented soy (Schwalfenberg, 2017). Supplements are also an option for increasing your levels of these vitamins, though people taking blood thinners such as warfarin (brand name Coumadin) should speak with their healthcare providers before adding them to their regimen.

Healthy fats

Adequate dietary intake of healthy fats is associated with increased skin hydration (Boelsma, 2003). Low levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been linked to dry skin (Mel, 2014). Additionally, a study that looked at dietary fat in Japanese women’s diets found that higher levels of this nutrient were associated with increased skin elasticity (Nagata, 2010). Some sources of healthy dietary fats, like avocado, are particularly helpful since they combine multiple skin-boosting nutrients. Avocados specifically are rich in healthy fats as well as vitamins A and E, two vitamins with antioxidant properties that may help protect your skin from free radical damage (FoodData Central, n.d.).

Can be found in: Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are particularly potent sources of two types of omega-3s. Vegans and vegetarians can reach for walnuts, which boast alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another of the omega-3 fatty acids. When it comes to skin health, avocados are food options for increasing your intake of multiple essential vitamins and minerals at once.

Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids. A complete protein is simply one that has all nine essential amino acids. We talk about amino acids and protein generally when we think about building lean muscle mass. But amino acids also build proteins such as collagen and keratin, which influence how our hair, skin, and nails look. One 2019 study found that people eating a higher protein diet along with an early breakfast had less severe skin issues (Garg, 2019).

Can be found in: Omnivores can get plenty of protein through meats such as pork, chicken, and beef, dairy products, and eggs. People on a plant-based diet can get protein through pumpkin seeds, brown rice, peas, legumes, and soy products. Not all of these are complete proteins, but recipes that combine a couple of sources can ensure the meal provides all essential amino acids.

Vitamin A

Retinol is the golden child of skincare, especially at the moment, but many people (skincare fanatics included) don’t know that retinol is a type of vitamin A. When applied topically, this nutrient has been shown to successfully reduce the appearance of wrinkles by supporting the compounds that make up the underlying structure of your skin and boosting collagen production just like vitamin C (Kafi, 2007). When consumed, this vitamin can also act as a powerful antioxidant, preventing free radical damage. This damage associated with oxidative damage, since it’s also connected to inflammation, may speed the creation of fine lines. That’s why foods and actions that fight inflammation are integral parts of anti-aging regimens (Ganceviciene, 2012).

Can be found in: You can get vitamin A through dark leafy greens, broccoli, avocado, squashes, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Animal sources include eggs, beef liver, and milk. You can find dietary supplements for vitamin A, but it’s also extremely common in skincare products as a topical treatment.

Zinc

Zinc deficiencies are associated with skin problems such as lesions and impaired wound healing, which is why getting enough of this nutrient is crucial (Mel, 2014). But that’s far from the limits of this mighty mineral. Zinc has been shown to help with a wide variety of dermatological issues, and getting enough may help get and maintain clear skin. It may help with infections including warts, pigment issues such as melasma, inflammatory issues such as acne and rosacea, and acrodermatitis enteropathica, a condition characterized by skin inflammation, hair loss, and diarrhea due to a genetic disorder that causes zinc deficiency (Gupta, 2014).

Can be found in: Turn to meat, shellfish, and legumes such as chickpeas and lentils for quality food sources of zinc. The mineral is also found in nuts and seeds, dairy, eggs, and whole grains.

Selenium

Selenium is mostly known for benefitting your thyroid and metabolic function, but it’s also important for the overall health of your skin. This trace mineral is also an antioxidant and, as such, can help fight oxidative stress (McKenzie, 2000). We tend to associate oxidative stress with the aging of our internal 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 (Nguyen, 2012). As we age, we also lose some of our inherent antioxidant mechanisms, which also accelerates this imbalance. But we can replace some of them, bringing antioxidants and free radicals back into equilibrium, through dietary intake of food sources of antioxidants, such as selenium-rich foods (Addor, 2017; Petruk, 2018).

Can be found in: Meat and eggs are excellent sources of selenium, and you can find this mineral in fish such as yellowfin tuna, ham, pork, beef, and turkey. Dairy products like cottage cheese also contribute to your daily intake. But vegans and vegetarians can easily meet their needs with Brazil nuts, the most potent food source of selenium.