We’ve spoken to nutrition experts and dermatologists to discover which so-called skin food you need to eat to get a clear, healthy complexion
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We bang on a lot about the importance of looking after your skin, and spend the majority of our time testing skincare so we can recommend which products are worth the money.
Yet there is a much cheaper way to improve your complexion – knowing which foods are good for skin.
Beyond the obvious – that drinking more water is the best way to brighten your skin and help prevent wrinkles – there are some diet swaps you can make to improve everything from acne to dark circles, redness and dullness.
Many help fight the signs of ageing, and are equally beneficial for your hair and nails.
To get the lowdown on which foods are best for clear, healthy skin we spoke to Hamish McNair, Clinical Director at Candela Medical, and sports nutrition experts from Bulk.
READ NEXT: The science of wrinkles and how to prevent them
A balanced diet of the following foods will cover all the most important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants your skin needs to look healthy and clear. We’ve tried to make sure we cover vegetarian and vegan options, as well.
You can also take supplements to boost your levels of certain vitamins and minerals. If you want to know more about how supplements work – and what you should and shouldn’t do when looking at taking them – read our guide to the truth about beauty supplements.
“The simplest way to maintain healthy skin is through eating a well-balanced diet and avoiding free radicals,” Hamish McNair explains. “Free radicals include smoking, pollution, and excessive UV exposure. Too much sun exposure, particularly, can speed up the skins ageing process.”
Before we list the foods that fight free radicals, we’re going to get a bit technical. If you know what free radicals are, and what damage they can do to the body and your skin, it can help you know the best ways to fight them.
When we take in oxygen, our body can split it into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons prefer to be in a couple so the single, split electrons – the free radicals – are unstable and hunt around the body looking for a partner.
At a moderate, regulated level, free radicals have been found to have some benefits. These include helping to create energy and helping the immune system fight off infections. Our body maintains a balance and regulates these free radicals through antioxidants.
However, when the levels of free radicals get too high or the antioxidants are too low, through exposure to smoking, alcohol, pollution, fried foods and more, this hunting process can damage our cells, proteins and DNA. Putting the body under what’s known as oxidative stress.
This stress has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease as well as being a cause of premature ageing.
Research into these free radicals and their impact on our skin has shown that foods which include the following ingredients are the best foods for skin. You can browse through the list, or click each entry in the list to jump straight to that section.
OMEGA 3 FOODS
You can also take Omega 3 supplements, Cod Liver Oil or a veggie alternative called Algal Oil.
Omega 3 is a healthy unsaturated fat found largely in oily fish, so eating more salmon, herring, and mackerel will help promote better, clear skin.
This is because these fish are what’s known as “pelagic”.
In the wild, they spend all their time swimming and searching for food.
This requires large amounts of energy, provided by oil in their body tissues that act as fuel.
If you’re a vegetarian, you can also get Omega 3 from nuts, seeds and plant oils.
Omega 3 is particularly good for tackling redness and swelling in the face due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
“The omega-3 fats in fish can reduce redness and acne and can even make your skin less sensitive to the sun’s UV rays,” according to Bulk. “Fatty fish is also a source of one of the most important antioxidants for your skin, Vitamin E.”
In addition to being good food for skin concerns, the World Health Organisation recommends two portions of oily fish per week.
This is because it can lower cholesterol and recent studies have shown that a diet rich in this supplement can potentially reduce the risk of dementia in older life.
OMEGA 6 FOODS
Omega 6 is also a healthy unsaturated fat and is found in eggs, nuts, whole grain bread and pumpkin seeds.
It plays an important role in boosting our immune health and blood clotting, in regulated and balanced amounts. These fats are also said to help with the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and dermatitis.
However, Omega 6 has been criticised for causing inflammation if it reaches excessive levels in the body.
Inflammation is beneficial to the body in regards to fighting infection, but too much inflammation can lead to wider health problems.
This is where the Omega 3-Omega 6 ratio comes in. Western diets, particularly, tend to contain more Omega 6 than Omega 3 – almost 16:1 when it should ideally be 1:1 and this can lead to an imbalance.
As a result, Omega 6 foods should be eaten as part of a balanced diet and not relied on solely for improving skin.
It is also worth avoiding processed forms of Omega 6, in processed oils for example, and you should try to seek out natural sources.
We’re regularly told about the benefits of antioxidants but, before writing this, we didn’t really have any idea what they were or what they did.
Put simply, antioxidants are the molecules that fight the free radicals. Our bodies have their own source of antioxidants which they use to keep these free radicals in check but it helps to boost the levels of these molecules through our diet to make sure free radicals don’t get out of hand.
Several vitamins, including Vitamin E and C, are effective antioxidants and antioxidants generally are largely found in vegetables, and other plant-based, whole foods.
This is why vegetarian and vegan diets are said to be beneficial and part of the reason why we’re encouraged to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.
VITAMIN E FOODS
Vitamin E helps to strengthen the immune system and promotes healthy skin.
This is because it’s what’s known as a fat-soluble vitamin that is found naturally in the sebum in our skin.
In this way, Vitamin E skincare helps to boost your skin’s natural barrier, which in turn helps it retain moisture and leave it looking clear and healthy.
The promotion of a healthy skin barrier is also great for reducing redness and balancing skin tone.
As a result, areas of our skin that contain higher levels of oil tend to also contain higher levels of Vitamin E.
Hence why Vitamin E is so good for the skin on your face.
“Getting enough Vitamin E is essential for helping protect your skin against inflammation,” continues the experts at Bulk. “It is also a source of high-quality protein, which is needed for maintaining the strength and integrity of your skin.”
VITAMIN C FOODS
As you can read in our Vitamin C for skiningredient spotlight guide, Vitamin C helps increase antioxidant levels.
This improves our bodies’ ability to keep free radicals in check, which in turn benefits our skin in a huge variety of ways.
To name just a few benefits, Vitamin C protects the skin from UV damage and pollution, helps reduce the signs of ageing, brightens the skin and reduces scarring.
It’s also great at getting rid of dark spots.
One great source of Vitamin C, as well as other key skin vitamins and minerals is broccoli.
“Broccoli is full of many vitamins and minerals important for skin health, including Zinc, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C,” said the experts at Bulk.
“The super green also contains a substance called glucoraphanin that helps the skin to repair itself.
“As a result, eating broccoli renews your skin more quickly and gives your complexion a beautiful natural glow.”
You can read more about Vitamin C for skin in our Ingredient Spotlight: Vitamin C: What does Vitamin C do and which is the best Vitamin C serum for skin?
The body and therefore the skin also needs protein for optimum health.
This is because our hair and nails, in particular, are mostly made of protein and your body uses protein to build and repair tissues.
It’s also an important building block of skin and blood.
Choosing leaner meat can provide this vital protein without adding fat to your diet.
There are a number of sources of protein that also provide the body with vital levels of calcium, another important mineral that is needed for healthy skin and hair.
Most of us know that calcium helps promote strong bones and teeth but it also regulates many of our skin’s functions.
Most calcium in the skin is found in the outermost layer (the epidermis) where it acts as a barrier and helps the skin repair and replenish.
Every two months, or so, our epidermis completely renews itself but as we get older, this turnover rate slows down dramatically.
This is a major cause of ageing and the loss of elasticity, as well as what causes the barrier to become thin. You can read more about this in our guide on how to prevent wrinkles.
Calcium can help maintain a healthy level of regeneration and barrier function, which is why calcium has also been touted as an anti-ageing mineral.
Quinoa is a good source of calcium as well as a number of other skin-loving vitamins and minerals, as the experts at Bulk explain: “Quinoa is packed with high nutrients including Vitamin A, calcium, zinc, protein, manganese, fibre, iron and essential amino acids.
It is also rich in Vitamin B, which can help brighten your skin, leaving it looking healthy. The superfood contains high levels of riboflavin which makes the skin soft. It can also help build connective tissue to prevent wrinkles and fine lines.”
VITAMIN D FOODS
You can also take Vitamin D supplements.
Many of us are lacking in Vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body and these are the nutrients that keep our bones, teeth, and muscles healthy.
A lack of Vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and bone pain in adults.
This deficiency can also impact your ability to complete simple cognitive tasks, make you more prone to respiratory diseases – such as Covid-19 – and make your skin look dull.
Two recent studies looking at Vitamin D found that the lower your Vitamin D levels, the more you struggle with mental tests and that people with lower Vitamin D levels have slower information-processing speed. This was especially the case in people over 60.
When it comes to your skin, Vitamin D can prevent premature ageing by boosting it at a cellular level. Our skin ages when the caps of genetic material on the free ends of DNA strands, called telomeres, get shorter. This makes the DNA more unstable and causes cells to die.
A 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who get sufficient Vitamin D have longer telomeres compared to those and the difference was equivalent to five years of ageing.
Of course, there is a caveat. The main source of Vitamin D for many of us is from the sun yet the sun and UV rays are damaging to skin. Any colour you get from being in the sun – it doesn’t even need to be sunburn – effectively damages the skin. You can read more about this in our guide to What is SPF and why is it so important?
The best way, therefore, to boost your Vitamin D intake without subjecting it to damaging UV rays is through your diet and Vitamin D supplements. In addition to wearing SPF when you’re outside.
Mushrooms are the only vegan-friendly food that contains Vitamin D, naturally. All other natural food sources of Vitamin D are from animals, including poultry and seafood. Cultivated mushrooms contain a plant sterol called ergosterol, which is the precursor of Vitamin D. But only if it’s been cultivated in a way to absorb Vitamin D from sunlight.
One such mushroom is the chaga mushroom. It is rich in Vitamin D2 as well as Vitamin A, fibre, potassium, amino acids, and B-complex vitamins.
Yes, we know we sound like a broken record but by drinking an average of two litres of water a day can help to keep the skin well hydrated. It’s not a catch-all solution – and it doesn’t mean you can chow down on fried food, wash it down with water and assume one counteracts the other, but it certainly helps.
Drinking water can also help your body absorb more of the vitamins and minerals found in the food you’re eating
This includes tea and coffee, as well as squash, but water is the best source because it doesn’t contain caffeine or sugar. A healthier alternative is Green Tea, containing much less caffeine than regular tea.
Victoria is founder and editor-in-chief of mamabella, freelance journalist and Mum. She has a passion for empowering people to feel beautiful whatever their age, size, skin type and budget