Skip to content
Join Life Time
a woman holds sliced fruit by her face

Learn how each nutrient supports healthy skin:

Vitamin C  •  Carotenoids  •  Collagen  •  Coenzyme Q10  •  Vitamin E  •  Fatty Acids  •  Fiber  •  Nitric Oxide  •  Probiotics  •  Selenium  •  Zinc

The skin is the body’s largest ­organ, so it seems both right and oh-so wrong that it’s the only one we watch age in real time.

“Most people never see an aging liver or kidney, but they see their skin aging every time they look in the mirror,” says Mark Tager, MD, author of Feed Your Skin Right: Your Personalized Nutrition Plan for Radiant Beauty.

Aging isn’t the only challenge to skin health. Skin ailments affect more than 60 percent of people, a study published in 2019 in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology estimates. Apart from skin cancer, which affects up to 20 percent of Americans, most of what ails us are hard-to-treat inflammatory conditions, such as acne and eczema.

“Because we can see and feel the skin, it’s natural to want to attack problems from the outside,” says Julie Greenberg, ND, AHG, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in integrative dermatology. Skincare products are a $21 billion business in the United States alone.

While topical products can relieve symptoms, they can also mask their root cause. More often than not, Greenberg believes, the underlying trigger for inflammatory skin problems is found in the gut. And the solution is not more or better topicals, but a more diverse, gut-friendly diet.

Outside In

The gut and skin are in constant conversation, much like the gut and brain. Research suggests that imbalances in the gut’s microbiome are showing up on the body’s surface as inflammatory conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne.

Tager is careful to distinguish between the “outside skin” — the body’s covering — and “inside skin,” the lining of the digestive tract. The outside skin has three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and a fatty layer underneath. The average adult has about 22 square feet of outside skin.

The inside skin starts at the lips and ends at the anus. Its walls are just one cell thick and coated in a protective layer of mucus. You can get a sense of its texture by feeling the slippery quality of the inside of your cheek.

Gut dysbiosis erodes this delicate mucosal layer. Without mucosal protection, the cells start to die, says Greenberg. “As they die, the joints between them open up and you get leaky gut.” (For more on leaky gut syndrome, see “What Is Leaky Gut?“)

With leaky gut, food particles and bacteria escape the gut and enter the bloodstream. But the bloodstream is not designed to digest food components like proteins, Greenberg notes.

“The whole reason we eat is to break food down into teeny little parts, like amino acids, that can be easily absorbed into the bloodstream, which sends them out to every cell in the body,” she says. When the body encounters food particles in the bloodstream that it can’t break down, “the immune system is going to be alarmed.”

An alarm sounding in the immune system often resounds on the outside skin as inflammation.

One example is rosacea flares, which can be triggered when alcohol inflames the gut. Another is acne, which can be aggravated by sugar and refined carbohydrates. Both enter the bloodstream in a whoosh, like doing a cannonball into a swimming pool, spiking insulin.

This can result in inflammation and an increase in the body’s production of sebum, an oily substance that protects the skin. An excess of sebum clogs the pores, leading to blackheads and cysts.

Conversely, a diet of whole, unprocessed foods can give the body nearly everything it needs to maintain healthy skin. In addition to using quality nontoxic skincare products, Tager recommends getting more nutrients into the bloodstream. “You could be delivering nourishment to your skin with every heartbeat — 100,000 times a day.”

The Nutrients

Most experts agree that your skin will thrive if you eat a wide variety of plants and healthy fats. But if you really want to get your glow on, these nutrients can help.

Vitamin C

One of the most powerful antioxidants, vitamin C reduces cell damage from external insults like pollution and too much sun. It protects us from factors that age us from the inside, like poor sleep.

It also works topically. “Vitamin C is the topical nutrient we’ve tracked the longest and know the most about,” says Tager. Research shows that vitamin C protects against sun damage, age spots, and even melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

As the skin ages, a diet high in vitamin C reduces wrinkles by nudging the body to make more collagen and elastin, two proteins that give the skin structure, stretch, and strength. It also helps the skin retain moisture, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines.

Consuming adequate vitamin C even helps heal scratches and cuts, says Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, RD, a food-and-nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University. Our bodies can’t make vitamin C, which is why it’s so critical to consume vitamin C–rich foods, such as red peppers, broccoli, kale, and citrus, every day. You can also safely supplement with up to 1,000 mg a day.

There’s a lot of hoopla about the benefits of topical vitamin C, but not all products are equal. Look for those with L-ascorbic acid, an active form of the ­vitamin that your body can put to work immediately. Because vitamin C degrades quickly when exposed to oxygen and light, choose products packaged in dark-tinted bottles with airless dispensers.

(This essential nutrient supports nearly every aspect of health. Learn more at “What You Need to Know About Vitamin C.”)


When you hear “eat the rainbow,” what this means is “eat carotenoids.” Carotenoids are the 750 colorful pigments found in plants. “Bright colors evolved in part to protect plants from UV damage,” says Tager. “They are plants’ skincare, and they can do the same for us.”

Carotenoids are absorbed through the gut and dispersed throughout the skin. Like all antioxidants, they help reduce the daily damage wreaked by environmental insults and ward off premature aging and skin cancer.

The best-known carotenoid is beta-carotene, some of which is converted to vitamin A in the skin. Found in carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and mangoes, beta-carotene reduces skin inflammation by inhibiting free radicals caused by UV rays and air pollution, studies show.

Two other carotenoids — lutein and zeaxanthin — replenish the skin’s moisture. You can get your daily dose by eating spinach, kale, basil, parsley, and egg yolks.

Astaxanthin is another key carotenoid for skin health. It bestows the reddish-pink hue in salmon and many shellfish, and it protects mitochondria, the engines of our cells. Aging reduces the number, power, and efficiency of the mitochondria in skin cells; astaxanthin may slow this process, says Tager. You’ll find the best food sources at the fish counter, specifically salmon, trout, shrimp, and crayfish. Think pink.

As for topical applications of carotenoids, retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A that can produce some powerful effects in maturing skin. Commonly known as retinol, these fat-soluble molecules can penetrate skin and fuel the production of elastin and collagen to increase elasticity. They also modulate melanin, so retinol may help reduce age spots. (Note that retinol can cause dryness, irritation, and sun sensitivity, so proceed with caution.)


The most abundant protein in the body, collagen is a key component of skin, tendons, and ligaments. As the body ages, it makes less (and lower quality) collagen. This contributes to reduced elasticity and less fresh-looking skin.

Eating meat twice a week provides all the collagen most people need, says Tager. Other foods can help stimulate collagen production too. “To make collagen, we require other cofactors, such as vitamin C, copper, zinc, vitamin A, and silica — all of which can be supplied by a healthy diet.”

Meanwhile, sales of collagen supplements are booming. Collagen peptides, also known as hydrolyzed collagen, are made from the bones, skin, and connective tissue of cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as from fish scales and skin. These proteins break down into amino acids in the digestive tract, which are absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed to the skin.

Unlike vitamin C, which dissipates quickly, collagen peptides remain in the skin for up to 14 days. Collagen supports moisture retention by increasing production of hyaluronic acid, which makes skin more pliable. It even fires up the body’s ability to make new skin cells — a capacity that declines with age.

“I admit I was skeptical of the hype around collagen,” says Garden-Robinson. But she was swayed by a raft of studies showing its benefits. Most notably, in 2021, the International Journal of Dermatology and Venereology published a meta-analysis of 19 double-blind, randomly controlled trials on the effects of collagen supplementation on skin aging, where the majority of subjects showed improved elasticity and fewer wrinkles.

Worth noting: Collagen products that claim to be animal-free are engaging in a sleight of hand. “Collagen comes from animals,” explains ­Greenberg. “Vegan collagen products contain high-dose nutrients, such as vitamin C, amino ­acids, and silica. These are believed to help the body make more of its own collagen.” Some truly vegan collagen products made from yeasts and bacteria are in development, but they’re not available yet.

If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, Garden-Robinson suggests getting two servings of protein a day from a variety of sources, including nuts and beans. This gives you “ample protein to nourish your body’s needs and help maintain collagen,” she says.

And if you eat animal products and you want an extra dose of collagen, she suggests drinking a cup of bone broth.

(Learn how to use food and supplements to boost your body’s collagen production at “How to Get More Collagen.”)

Coenzyme Q10

Popularly known as CoQ10, this micronutrient is vital for mitochondrial function. In the skin, coenzyme Q10 helps fight free radicals triggered by UV radiation and pollution.

Supplements are the easiest way to get a skin-supportive amount of CoQ10, though there are several potent food sources. Organ meats may have the highest concentration, followed by fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel.

(To learn more about this important molecule, check out “The Powerful Health Benefits of CoQ10.”)

Vitamin E

Another potent anti-inflammatory, vitamin E works best in the company of vitamin C. Vitamin E molecules lose potency when they destroy free radicals, but nearby vitamin C molecules can restore vitamin E’s power.

This duo protects the skin against its No. 1 nemesis: sun damage. A fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E easily penetrates the skin’s deeper layers to heal UV damage. New research suggests vitamin E may even prevent skin cancer by curtailing the sun’s harmful impact on DNA.

Boost your vitamin E with nuts and seeds, avocados, red bell peppers, and dark, leafy greens. When applied topically, vitamin E supports healing, protects collagen, and smooths rough skin.

Fatty Acids

The skin requires up to 150 mg of fat daily to stay healthy, in part because fat is a key ingredient in the glue that holds skin cells together. “You don’t want to have leaky skin,” says Tager.

Just as in leaky gut syndrome, loose junctions in the outside skin can lead to transepidermal water loss. This makes the skin drier and less protective, increasing the likelihood of skin damage from friction. Psoriasis, eczema, acne, and dandruff all involve some degree of transepidermal water loss.

Still, the skin doesn’t need just any fat; it needs quality fats, such as the omega-3s found in fish and flaxseeds. “Good fats are your skin’s friend,” says Tager. “They help moisturize from the inside out and strengthen the skin’s ability to act as a barrier.”

An excess of poor-quality hydrogenated oils and certain saturated fats can wreak havoc on your skin. “Throw in some hormonal changes, a high-sugar diet, and a little zinc deficiency, and you have the perfect storm for acne,” he adds.

To feed the skin, Tager recom­mends a Mediterranean-style diet that emphasizes beneficial fats, such as olive oil. Fatty fish, raw nuts, avocados, and flax oil are good sources of high-quality fats, as are fish-oil supplements. Evidence suggests they can help strengthen the skin’s barrier function, cool inflammation caused by sun damage, slow the formation of age spots, and help relieve dry skin.


Thanks to the close relationship between skin and gut health, fiber may be the skin’s greatest ally. Because the body doesn’t digest it, fiber ferments in the gut, which helps feed the community of microbiota that reside there.

“You know how pregnant people say they are eating for two?” Greenberg asks. “Well, you are eating for trillions.” And a diet high in fiber is the best way to keep the crowds happy.

Studies also show that fermentation of high-fiber foods generates short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These include butyrate, propionate, and acetate, all of which help heal the skin from the inside out. (Butyrate plays a surprisingly big role in overall health. Learn more at “The Health Benefits of Butyrate.”)

Internally, SCFAs help tighten up loose cell junctions and seal a leaky gut. Externally, they help protect the skin by making it more resistant to bacterial overgrowth. Propionate, for example, has antibacterial properties that can destroy antibiotic-resistant staph.

Greenberg recommends eating at least 35 grams of fiber a day from 30 different plants a week, from artichokes to zucchini. “The point is to build up diversity as well as quantity. More variety will cast a wider net for skin-healthy nutrients.”

(For more on fiber, see “Fiber: Why It Matters More Than You Think” and “The 3 Types of Dietary Fiber You Need.”)

Nitric Oxide

The body has 60,000 miles of blood vessels. Nitric oxide is a free-radical gas made by the body that supports blood flow. This matters for skin health because between 5 and 10 percent of your blood flows through your skin, explains Tager.

“If the small capillaries feeding the skin are closing off, the skin can’t get the nutrients it needs,” which can correspond to a gray, ashen complexion. Brighten up by eating more beets, arugula, garlic, and citrus fruits, all of which may increase nitric oxide levels.

Still, when it comes to overall skin health, individual foods are less important than a commitment to dietary diversity, says Garden-Robinson. “Skin is complex. Keeping this vital organ well-nourished requires variety.”


What’s good for the microbiome is good for the skin, so aim to include plenty of gut-supportive probiotics in your diet. Solid sources include fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sauerkraut, as well as unsweetened yogurt and kefir. (Dairy can be an acne trigger, so if that’s an issue, seek out yogurt made with coconut or cashew milk.)

“If you give your gut’s good bacteria their favorite food, they will live their best life,” says Tager. “For me, a day without sauerkraut is like a day without the sun.”

(See “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics” and “How to Make Coconut-Water Kefir, Greek Yogurt, and Other Fermented Foods” for recipes and more information on the health benefits of probiotics.)


A trace mineral, selenium helps protect keratinocytes, the most dominant skin-cell type. A primary task of keratinocytes is to repair and restore the skin’s surface, which may slow the signs of skin aging.

Research suggests that selenium may even help prevent skin cancer. In one notable study of 485 adults in Australia, high levels of selenium were associated with an approximately 60 percent decrease in the incidence of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.

Good sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, sardines, broccoli, white cabbage, asparagus, kohlrabi, and mushrooms.


Found in all the body’s tissues, zinc is essential for cell function. It supports collagen production and modulates inflammation. As a popular topical ingredient in mineral-based sunscreens, zinc oxide reflects and disperses UV rays to protect skin from sunburn.

As a nutrient, it supports wound healing and helps calm inflamed skin. The body can’t store zinc, so it’s important to consume it daily. Go-to zinc sources include pumpkin seeds, oysters, and red meat.

This article originally appeared as “Feed Your Skin” in the November/December 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Catherine Guthrie

Catherine Guthrie is an Experience Life contributing editor.

Thoughts to share?

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


More Like This

a woman relaxes in a sauna

How to Optimize Your Skin’s Natural Detoxification Process

By Mo Perry

Learn more about the vital role your skin plays in detoxification — and how you can support it.

Back To Top