Longer days and warmer temperatures are a sure sign that summer is just around the corner. As millions perform the seasonal ritual of swapping bulky winter togs for skin-revealing summer shorts, many will notice that their skin looks and feels more like alligator hide than a smooth, hydrated surface. The cold, dry months of winter can leave skin parched, dull and flaky, yet preparing skin for summer involves more than a great moisturizer. Beautiful skin starts from the inside.

Consumers often turn to topical treatments to shed their winter pallor, unaware that a diet rich in skin-nourishing nutrients coupled with blood-pumping exercise can revive the dullest winter complexion. Nutrition and fitness professionals can help bridge this information gap by offering consumers a diet-and-exercise prescription for great summer skin.

Skin 101

The skin is the body’s largest organ, accounting for 20% of body weight and serving primarily as a physical barrier against microorganisms, ultraviolet (UV) light, abrasions, dehydration and pollution. Loaded with sensory nerve endings, skin regulates body temperature, excretes waste and synthesizes vitamin D. Human skin has three layers:

  • Epidermis. This outer layer actually consists of two layers: (1) the superficial statum corneum, made up of packed skin cells called keratinocytes that are constantly shed and replaced, and (2) the underlying basal or “living” layer, which supplies new keratinocytes. Younger skin has a greater ability to rejuvenate, because the basal layer’s capacity to create new cells declines with age (Stanulis-Praeger & Gilchrest 1986).
  • Dermis.This inner layer, or foundation, is filled with blood vessels, lymph channels, nerves, sweat and oil glands, hair follicles and structural connective tissues like collagen and elastin. These connective tissues are strong, flexible proteins responsible for skin’s strength, elasticity and stretchiness.
  • Subcutaneous fat. This layer insulates and stores nutrients.

Finally, muscle provides definition and firmness to skin.

The Changing Face of Aging

As we age, our ability to replace dead keratinocytes slows, collagen fibers stiffen and break apart, and elastic fibers thicken and fray—all contributing to wrinkles. Fibroblasts that produce collagen and elastin decrease in number, subcutaneous fat begins to disappear, sebaceous (oil) glands atrophy and pigmentation fades (Gilchrest 1996). All these changes yield dry, sagging skin and an ashen skin tone. Although genetics play a role in skin appearance, environmental factors have a profound effect. Skin aging is accelerated by free-radical damage from smoking, sunlight and pollution (Gilchrest 1996).

All these effects show up on our faces, where healthy skin is the most obvious manifestation of overall health. This skin is the most vulnerable to aging—thanks to 24/7 exposure to environmental insults, the constant movements of facial expressions and thin epidermis around the eyes.

According to Peter Thomas Roth (of the cosmetics company by the same name), skin that is often exposed or unprotected is most likely to show the earliest signs of aging. “For women, the face/eyes, hands and the décolletage are the most likely to show damage in the form of wrinkles and age spots. For men, it’s the back of the neck, chest, shoulders and arms.” Roth adds, “Sun damage accumulates and it’s hard to fix. Regular use of sunscreen and antioxidant-rich products along with good diet can prevent damage and may lessen signs of aging.”

You may be familiar with the term “nutricosmetics,” which describes the use of oral and topical agents that boost skin appearance (Draelos 2010). Nutrient-rich peels, creams, fillers and injections can help alleviate Father Time’s signature, but diets rich in certain nutrients may boost youthfulness from the inside out.

Recipe for Healthy Skin

The diet-appearance connection has long fascinated scientists. Studies associating diet with acne, clear skin tone and overall skin health have demonstrated that certain vitamins, minerals and fats may help create a healthy, ageless glow.

  • Cosgrove et al. (2007) assessed the relationship between diet and skin aging in 4,025 middle-aged women. Those whose faces had a wrinkled appearance consumed significantly less protein, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. Dry skin was observed in women with lower linoleic acid and vitamin C intake.
  • Boelsma et al. (2003) found in a study of 302 adults that serum vitamin A levels that correlated to sebum content and fat intake were associated with skin hydration.
  • Purba et al. (2001) observed less sun-exposed skin wrinkling in older adults who consumed eggs, yogurt, legumes, fruits, vegetables and olive oil, suggesting that diets rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals and certain fats may ward off signs of aging.

Here’s a quick look at the top skin-enhancing vitamins and nutrients:

Vitamin C

The most abundant water-soluble antioxidant, vitamin C resides in cellular fluids and plays a key role in collagen synthesis. Citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers and baked potatoes are excellent sources. Smoother skin was observed in women who consumed vitamin C foods (Cosgrove et al. 2007).

Vitamin E

The most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E strengthens and protects the vulnerable subcutaneous fat layer against free-radical damage. Whole, unprocessed grains such as wheat, wheat germ, barley and rye—as well as sunflower oil and almonds—are excellent sources of vitamin E.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is called the “sunshine” vitamin, because UV rays reaching the skin trigger a chemical reaction that releases vitamin D in the body. In keratinocytes, active vitamin D regulates growth and differentiation, and analogs of vitamin D have been used to treat psoriasis (Tremezaygues & Reichrath 2011). Dairy and shiitake mushrooms are good sources of vitamin D; but supplementation is usually required—both to meet the recommended daily allowance and to account for the use of sunscreen, which can block the UV–vitamin D synthesis process.

Plant Nutrients

Fruits and vegetables are packed with potent free-radical scavengers, including phyto- (plant) chemicals like anthocyanidins, polyphenols and flavonoids. Responsible for the rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables, phytonutrients may reduce wrinkles and inflammation from sun exposure (Dinkova-Kostova 2008; Purba et al. 2001).

Carotenoids produce the deep hues found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach. As potent antioxidants, carotenoids may prevent skin aging and improve skin tone. Too much beta carotene can leave skin with an orange cast, but just the right amount can give a healthy glow. Faces that carry a hint of orange are perceived as more attractive and healthier (Alaluf et al. 2002). Lycopene, the carotenoid that gives tomatoes and watermelon their red color, is linked to smoother skin. In a study of 20 adults, lycopene was associated with greater skin smoothness (Darvin et al. 2008).


Whole grains like cereals and bread are great sources of complex carbohydrates and the B vitamins, which are essential for making new skin cells. Skin becomes dry, cracked and flaky, especially around the corners of the mouth, when B vitamins are lacking. Folic acid in dark green leafy vegetables and whole grains is critical to rejuvenating skin.


Zinc is essential for wound healing. Summer skin, prone to sunburn, scrapes and abrasions, needs zinc to heal properly. Shellfish and beef are the best sources. Vegetarians may be at risk for zinc deficiency, since zinc from nonanimal sources is not well absorbed (Hunt 2003).

Iron is required for oxygen-carrying red blood cells; too little iron results in anemia and pallor. Women of child-bearing age who shun beef are at particular risk for anemia. Besides beef, dark-green leafy vegetables are a good source of iron.


Adequate hydration is critical to a glowing complexion. The human body is more than 50% water, and with 3 quarts of it lost every day, drinking 8–10 glasses daily is essential for keeping skin soft and pliable. Hot weather, humidity and exercise accelerate the fluid loss that begets sallow complexions and dry skin. Hydration keeps skin plump and rosy, minimizing fine lines and wrinkles. Water is also critical for the skin’s ability to regulate body temperature and remove waste. Drinking plenty of water is an essential part of any healthy skin prescription.

Exercise Creates a Rosy Outlook

The skin benefits of exercise are numerous. Increased muscle tone can improve skin appearance by firming the foundation that underlies tissue. Regular exercise keeps skin vibrant by increasing blood flow, which bathes skin tissue in oxygen and vital nutrients, encouraging new cells to form and whisking away damaging toxins.

Aerobic exercise increases facial vascularization and oxygenation, creating an unmistakable rosy luminance that influences perceptions of age, health and attractiveness (Armstrong & Welsman 2001; Matts et al. 2007). Stephen et al. (2009) manipulated facial redness and demonstrated that increasing facial skin coloration through oxygenation increased perceptions of healthiness in 98% of Caucasian young adults. People are perceptive to subtle changes in skin oxygen levels, deeming those with pallor to be less healthy and vibrant, regardless of ethnicity. (Samson, Fink & Matts 2010).

Because exercise enhances facial redness, Re et al. (2011) suggested quantifying the amount of physical activity needed to induce a desired level of facial redness. Having this measurement could lead to the development of goal-directed exercise regimens that increase perceptions of health and attractiveness.

While the repeated physical movements of exercise may cause unsupported skin to sag, Cosgrove et al. (2007) reported more skin dryness and wrinkles in women who were less physically active. Chafing, rashes and skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne can flare up in response to heat, sweating and pool chlorine (Jaret 2011). Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may relieve these conditions, but showering after exercise and using powder or moisturizer can help reduce skin inflammation right away. Sunscreen is a must for outdoor activities.

The Right Combination

Healthy skin starts with good eating habits, exercise and a skincare regimen that includes exfoliation, cleansing, moisturizing and using sunscreen. Peter Thomas Roth says, “A regular skincare regimen that includes sunscreen is essential to getting the great skin you want, but healthy diet and activity are key.” A recent study showed that women who tried an anticellulite cream experienced better results if they also received dietary counseling (Escudier et al. 2011).

People can achieve radiant, glowing summer skin by eating a kaleidoscope of foods rich in nutrients that work in harmony to improve tone, texture and clarity. For a healthy glow that lasts all year, the recipe for great skin includes regular exercise coupled with good nutrition.

Acne: Not Just for Teens

Adult facial acne strikes 25% of men and 50% of women over 25 (Goulden, Stables & Cunliffe 1999), persisting into middle age (Collier et al. 2008). Triggered by hormones, stress, humidity, heat, diet and exercise, acne involves inflammation of the dermis that results in pustules (Taylor, Gonzalez & Porter 2011). Long-held beliefs that chocolate, fatty foods and dairy cause acne have been largely disproved (Cordain 2005), but low-zinc diets and chronic consumption of high-sugar foods may ignite inflammation, worsening acne flare-ups (Costa, Lage & Moises 2010).

Omega-3 fatty acids suppress inflammation and may reduce acne breakouts (Cordain 2005). It’s been suggested that dietary probiotics like yogurt can change intestinal microflora and mediate skin inflammation (Bowe & Logan 2011).

Menu for Great Skin

The rainbow connection. colorful fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants and fiber. Produce-rich diets improve skin tone and appearance and may prevent photoaging (Dinkova-Kostova 2008).

Water. Vital for flushing waste prodcuts, water keeps skin plump and hydrated.

Seafood Fish, especially salmon, is full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish are a good source of zinc.

Healthy fats. Avocados, flaxseeds and olive oil have beneficial fats that keep ski supple and glowing.

Nuts. Almonds, walnuts and other nuts are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.

Whole grains. Unprocessed grains are an excellent source of the B vitamins that are essential for manufacturing new skin cells.

Spice it up. Basil, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger, red chili, tumeric and curry have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions.


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Martina Cartwright, PhD, RD

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