- Skin dryness occurs as a result of changes in the epidermal barrier, the outermost layer of skin.
- The most predominant nutritional deficiency associated with dry, flaky skin is lack of essential fatty acids, such as omega-3.
- Vitamin E-rich foods provide antioxidant and inflammatory protection that improves skin’s moisture.
- Restoring beneficial gut bacteria by way of probiotics and prebiotics helps decrease water loss from the skin, thereby improving dry skin.
The skin is your body’s largest organ, protecting you from exposure to pathogens and chemicals in the environment. As a result, skin continually works to fuel, hydrate, and replenish itself.
Diet plays a significant role in maintaining good health and healthy skin. “While people often think that their dry skin reflects their total body hydration, the truth is you can’t drink your way to well-moisturized skin,” says board-certified dermatologist and nutritionist Dr. Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce, from Austin, Texas.
Eating a diet rich in healthy foods such as lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and leafy green vegetables helps provide an abundance of skin-protecting nutrients. “There are also some key nutrients and foods to focus on that may specifically improve your dry skin,” adds Dr. Geddes-Bruce.
The Regeneration and Rejuvenation of Skin Cells
Although dry skin can be caused by various factors, it is often the result of changes in the epidermal barrier—the outermost layer of skin. The cells within this layer of skin are continuously dividing to produce new skin cells.
“Your skin naturally renews itself on a monthly basis by shedding off these old dead cells and replenishing them with new healthy ones from stem cells,” informs Dr. Geddes-Bruce. “However, as we age, this turnover rate slows down to approximately every two months and skin can start to appear dull and dry.”
The macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) you consume support your skin in multiple ways:
- Maintaining skin barrier functions
- Promoting ideal skin structure
- Assisting with optimal skin function
- Influencing the appearance of the skin
While a healthy balanced diet is recommended, the two most important nutritional factors involved in the skin renewal process are proteins and fats. As the skin cells divide and recreate, they rely on these particular nutrients as they help seal the cells together to form the epidermal barrier. This barrier not only prevents chemicals and pathogens from getting in, it also prevents vital nutrients and moisture from being lost.
Protein is critical to overall health in addition to skin structure and function. When you consume protein, it is broken down during digestion into amino acids. Amino acids are the basic building blocks for all of your tissues—hair, bones, internal organs—and of course, your skin.
Protein food sources include:
- Dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
Researchers have found that one of the key nutritional deficiencies leading to dry, flaky skin and dermatitis is a lack of essential fatty acids. This deficiency increases the likelihood of moisture loss.
Essential fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats that the body requires but can’t produce itself. These fats must be obtained by consuming foods. There are two essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6.
Of the two, omega-3 fatty acids are the most important in maintaining skin moisture, as these play a particular role in enriching the epidermal barrier and in decreasing inflammation—a very common cause of skin conditions.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
Aside from foods, omega-3 supplementation can help enhance the fatty acid content of the epidermal barrier of the skin. Taking fish oil capsules is the most common way to consume omega-3 in supplement form; a vegetarian option would be flaxseed oil capsules.
There is also evidence demonstrating that topical application of essential fatty acids can assist with dry, flaky skin. You can easily break open a capsule of omega-3 and apply it directly to the skin. Evening primrose oil may also be beneficial. And surprisingly, even applying common vegetable oils such as sunflower and safflower have been shown to help dissipate skin dryness within two weeks.
The Benefits of Vitamin E for Your Skin
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that is incredibly important to the maintenance of skin health. As the most abundant antioxidant found in the epidermal barrier, vitamin E prevents the production of free radicals that cause damage to cells and lead to a faster rate of aging.
Vitamin E is especially helpful in protecting the skin from the effects of oxygen, UV light, and the chemicals you’re exposed to everyday.
Vitamin E-rich foods include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Olive oil
- Rainbow trout
- Swiss chard
According to researchers, people with a higher vitamin E status naturally have oilier skin, as opposed to dry skin. Small clinical trials have found that vitamin E produces greater water-binding capacity and increases hydration in the skin.
While both oral ingestion and topical application have been shown to increase vitamin E levels in skin, oral supplementation may be more beneficial for improving the quality of the outermost layer of skin.
One important point to remember when implementing dietary changes or a supplementation routine is that it will take some time to see results. Once vitamin E is ingested, it takes about seven days for it to reach the surface of the skin. And it can take a few months to notice the full effects of any new dietary changes.
Topical application of vitamin E also effectively penetrates the skin. This is why vitamin E is a very common ingredient in skin care products. However, a major downfall is that antioxidants in skin care products lose their stability very quickly with sun exposure/UV light.
Stability of vitamin E in skin care products can be improved when paired with vitamin C, or in a product that includes vitamin E conjugates.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
If you suffer from digestive issues or bowel irregularities, your dry skin could be a reflection of the state of your gut bacteria. The abundance of 100 trillion gut bacteria that reside inside your intestinal tract are able to communicate with your human genes and influence your health, including skin health.
Researchers suggest that when you have an imbalance in the bacterial population, phenols can be produced that disturb the skin’s quality and may result in dry, flaky skin. To help restore the balance in your bacterial population, you need to consume both probiotics and prebiotics.
Probiotics are beneficial live organisms—such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria—that are reintroduced into your system to help repopulate your gut with beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are ingredients that can stimulate the composition of your gut bacteria, encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria to help restore a more positive profile.
Probiotic foods include:
- Apple cider vinegar
An alternate and more convenient option would be to take probiotic supplements. Look for a supplement with several different strains of probiotics, and billions in terms of the number present.
Prebiotic foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Green peas
- Spring onions
- Dandelion greens
- Fennel bulb
- Pistachio nuts
In terms of expected results from probiotic and prebiotic consumption, in studies that tested the effects of bifidobacterium-fermented milk and probiotic-infused yogurt, participants reported a significant improvement in skin hydration.
Similarly, participants taking lactobacillus supplements for eight weeks were shown to have decreased water loss, and thereby, less dry skin. Additionally, intake of prebiotics has been shown to reduce the phenols that negatively influence skin health.
Limitations of Diet and Supplements
“Good nutrition ensures the body has the proper building blocks to maintain optimal skin turnover. Without a doubt, a diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and fatty acids can promote healthy skin, while a diet high in processed carbohydrates and refined sugars may lead to skin problems or premature aging,” says Dr. Geddes-Bruce.
However, while your diet will certainly assist with healthy, well-moisturized skin over the long term, don’t rely on it to perform miracles.
“For the average healthy individual, a daily application of a topical product containing mineral oil, dimethicone or glycerin will do a better (and quicker) job moisturizing the skin than making dietary changes alone,” emphasizes Dr. Geddes-Bruce.
Overall, the best way to rectify dry skin is to combine a healthy diet with a good daily skin care routine.