Forget what you’ve heard about beauty being only skin-deep: It actually runs all the way through you and is the product of everything you do, how you spend your time, and (perhaps most importantly) what you eat. To the rescue: antioxidant nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) and phytonutrients (plant-derived compounds like carotenoids and flavonoids), plus tummy-loving probiotics, all of which can keep your skin healthy and beautiful.
Antioxidants inhibit oxidation – a chemical reaction that creates unstable molecules called free radicals – in other molecules. Consider the effect of squirting lemon juice, a natural source of antioxidant vitamin C, onto a sliced apple or avocado: The apple or avocado doesn’t oxidize (turn brown). Because free radicals interfere with collagen production, antioxidants can have the same effect on your face, preventing the visible effects of oxidation (like wrinkles and sagging, which occur when collagen fibers are diminished or otherwise out of whack).
Free radicals do more than create wrinkles, however: They are actually dangerous agents that can damage or kill cells. In the body, free radicals are generated by many things, including environmental stressors (like cigarette smoke and ultraviolet radiation). Antioxidants, which include media darlings like beta-carotene and vitamin C along with lesser-known compounds like Coenzyme Q10, pycnogenol (from grapes), green tea and coffeeberry (the unripe beans of the coffee plant), are found in many foods (and dietary supplements) as well as topical preparations.
Vitamin C is critical for maintaining healthy, resilient skin (it plays a big role in collagen production). It’s abundant in young skin but diminishes as we age (exposure to UV radiation and other environmental factors speeds this decline). To get the biggest benefit for your skin, add C-rich foods (like red peppers, blueberries and citrus fruits) to your plate and use a topical treatment containing at least 3% vitamin C (in the form of non-esterified ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid) once a day; research shows that applying vitamin C to the skin can be 20 times more effective than taking it orally.
Applied topically, the mineral selenium can combat acne and improve skin elasticity and other age-related issues. Studies show that consuming selenium, along with vitamins C and E, can protect against UV damage and may even reverse some of the discoloration and wrinkles associated with aging. The three seem work together to speed up the skin’s natural repair systems and inhibit further damage. For the biggest benefit, add vitamin-rich foods (like colorful fruits and vegetables for C, nuts and seeds for E, and garlic and eggs for selenium) or take a supplement containing 1,000 mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E (as D-alpha-tocopherol), and 100 to 200 mcg of selenium (as l-selenomethionine). If you’re looking for a topical application, look for a product containing 15 to 20% vitamin C, 2 to 5% vitamin, and 0.02 to 0.05% selenium.
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that occurs naturally in the body and helps keep skin and other cells healthy (that natural drop in CoQ10 levels that occurs in midlife seems to contribute to aging skin). Applying CoQ10 topically (researchers have used creams with a 0.3% concentration) has been shown to diminish existing wrinkles and prevent future sun damage.
Compounds known as flavonoids (which occur in green tea and chocolate, among other places) seem to reduce inflammation and protect against sun damage and skin cancer and inflammation.
These live, ‘friendly’ bacteria are best known for boosting digestive health, but they can do great things for your skin, too – particularly skin prone to acne or rosacea.
Used topically – as masks, creams or cleansers – probiotics function as a living shield, separating the skin from any perceived threats on its surface, such as the bacteria that trigger acne breakouts. Probiotics also appear to have antibiotic properties and can exert a calming effect on the skin, which interrupt the skin’s ‘attack’ messages and thereby halt acne and rosacea flare-ups.
Taking supplements containing Lactobacilli and/or Bifidobacterium (or eating yogurt containing live cultures) also seems to help acne and rosacea through what doctors call the ‘gut-brain-skin axis.’ (This theory holds that stress can hinder digestion, which in turn upsets the balance of ‘good’ bacteria in the digestive tract and leads to inflammation.) One study found that acne patients who drank a Lactobacillus-infused beverage reduced both their breakouts and oil production. Another study saw improvements in both acne and rosacea patients who were given oral probiotic supplements.