Even if you're willing to try every new serum and mask under the sun in the name of clear skin, when it comes to actually making dietary changes, well, that's often easier said than done. Still, experts say that when you make what you eat part of the skincare equation, you'll notice a direct impact on your skin's health — and appearance.
“Good skin requires an outside-in, inside-out approach for best results,” agrees California-based dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D., noting that this rule applies whether you are dealing with pesky blackheads, frequent breakouts, cystic acne, or even an inflammatory skin condition, like rosacea. “I work with patients to address not only what they are putting on their skin, but what they are putting in their bodies.”
Here, Dr. Campbell and Harrington break down the science behind why adding certain foods (and cutting others) can help you score the clear skin of your dreams.
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While there, unfortunately, isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for scoring clear skin, one thing is certain: “What you eat can make an impact on your skin,” says registered dietitian and chef Julie Harrington.
At the top of her list for keeping skin in tip-top shape? Plants. “Plant-based antioxidants — like beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and B vitamins, to name a few — function as shields to protect your skin cells from damage,” she says.
Blueberries, blackberries, dark leafy greens, cranberries, broccoli, asparagus, beets, sweet potatoes, and various squashes are just a few antioxidant-packed fruits and veggies you’ll want to keep in rotation to help maintain healthy skin, reduce inflammation, and increase longevity.
Don’t forget your Omega-3s.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful at calming inflammation,” Dr. Campbell says, which, as you might know, can be the culprit behind some of your most problematic skin issues, like cystic acne and all-over blotchiness.
Plus, you don’t have to stomach another supplement if you’re feeling maxed out. Instead, you can score omega-3s from various food sources, Harrington notes, which are mostly found in fatty fish like arctic char, mackerel, sardines, sablefish, oysters, rainbow trout, halibut, and even canned salmon.
Make vitamin D a priority, too.
While supplements won’t clear up your skin on their own, Dr. Campbell says vitamin D is one you may want to have on hand. While the vitamin is used topically to help treat psoriasis, she says oral vitamin D (4000 to 5000 units per day) can also help improve the skin.
This one might feel like a “duh,” but, really, it can’t be said enough. Water is a crucial component in your skincare routine, especially because the skin, which is your body’s largest organ, is made up of 30 percent water, Harrington says.
In a 2018 study, researchers discovered that participants who upped their water intake saw a decrease in skin dryness and roughness, as well as a slight increase in skin elasticity.
“Keeping properly hydrated is one of the simplest ways to boost your glow and keep your skin and tissues functioning at their best,” she says, adding that you can jazz up your water to hit your daily H2O goals (roughly eight eight-ounce glasses is recommended) by adding slices of citrus, like lemon or lime, or herbs for a fun twist.
Make sure to include protein.
While you’re in the business of rounding out your diet, Dr. Campbell says it’s important to include healthy sources of protein, like chicken breast, lean red meat, or, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, nuts and seeds, tofu, and beans and legumes, like lentils and chickpeas.
“Protein allows for wound healing and tissue repair,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean you should go crazy with your protein consumption. In fact, Dr. Campbell points to a recent study that showed high-protein diets, like the keto diet, can cause a skin condition that results in an itchy rash. (Hint: You can figure out your required daily protein intake, you just multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, according to Harvard Health Publishing.)
If you're looking for the best diet for clear skin that won't backfire, Campbell suggests the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and those essential omega-3s.
Think about skipping dairy.
If you can’t seem to thwart regular breakouts and you also have an affection for ice cream and cheese platters, then you might want to consider dairy as a possible offender, Dr. Campbell says.
“Dairy — especially skim milk — has been shown to be statistically significant at worsening acne,” she says, pointing to a recent study published in the Journal of The European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology that showed a link between acne and dairy products, including whey protein and dairy-based sweet treats.
However, while there are several studies that point at a link between dairy consumption and acne, researchers aren’t quite sure about the “why” behind the connection. For example, a 2014 review published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology found that the type of dairy, like skim milk, might be the root cause, while other studies show the acne-dairy link might be the result of growth hormones that naturally occur in (and are even added to) cow’s milk.
Cut back on sugar and other processed foods.
If you feel like what you're eating might be contributing to your breakouts, you may want to do a once over on your pantry, says Harrington, who is also the author of The Healing Soup Cookbook. This is where you’ll likely find processed items, like refined grains or sweet treats with added sugar that might be the root of your skin issues. The reason? They send your blood sugar into overdrive.
“When your blood sugar spikes, it causes inflammation throughout your body,” Harrington says. “These spikes also cause your body to make more sebum, an oily substance in your skin. Both inflammation and excess sebum can lead to acne."
Dr. Campbell adds that while the link between pro-inflammatory foods, like sugar, and acne has not been statistically proven, there are studies that have shown a correlation between a high glycemic diet and increased acne, including one 2016 study. Another 2017 study showed a connection between consuming foods with a high glycemic load (aka how much a serving of food affects your blood glucose) and acne. For example, highly-processed white bread has a glycemic load of 75, while an apple clocks in at 36.
See a dermatologist to rule out skin conditions.
While certain foods can certainly be linked to a not-so-great complexion, Dr. Campbell says she most often sees a correlation between diet and inflammatory skin conditions, like rosacea and psoriasis. For example, spicy foods can further irritate rosacea or acne, and in the case of psoriasis, antioxidant-rich diets (like the Mediterranean diet) have been shown to “dramatically improve” the appearance of skin, Dr. Campbell says.
Of course, if you are dealing with an ongoing skin issue that you can’t seem to get to the bottom of with topical treatments or dietary changes, then you’ll want to head to your derm who can help you get to the bottom of your skin concerns.