Clearer skin: there’s no supplement for natural vitamins.


I’m taking a lot of vitamins and supplements every day but I’m not noticing any difference in my complexion. What am I doing wrong?


Many people think that when taking vitamins, the body uses what it needs then ‘disposes’ of what it doesn’t. You’d be forgiven for thinking you have the healthiest toilet water in the world. But there’s more at play than just popping expensive pills and heaping spoonfuls of ‘super-protein-magic-beans’ into your morning smoothie. And science provides the facts. While you may be taking what you think is more than your body’s fair share of vitamins and supplements, science tells us that the most efficient way to absorb nutrients is from, wait for it... fresh food.

Just like Mum always claimed, the best way to get your daily dose of the good stuff is from fresh fruit, vegetables and protein. We’re talking greens so leafy they’re still growing, and the yellowest of bananas, not ‘banana flavoured’ supplements. Regardless of what your supplement label says (which often reads longer than a legal disclaimer and more optimistically than an enlightened Yogi) science says otherwise. Supplements are just that – they’re in addition to what you should already be consuming.

And while it’s enjoyable to stroll down row upon row of vitamins and engage in conversation with young, lycra-wearing health food shop staff, you’d be better off spending the time talking to your older (and wiser) greengrocer. See, there’s a reason they often stand spruiking ‘fresh is best’ – because it is.

Not all ‘vitamins’ are born equal.

‘Synthesised vitamins’ don’t sound natural, because they’re not. The vast majority of store-bought vitamins are manufactured synthetically with chemicals and do not come straight from their natural sources. As a result, they oxidise and may increase free radical activity. And the very reason we eat healthy foods or take vitamins and supplements in the first place is to decrease free radical activity.

So what exactly are free radicals and why should we care?

While ‘free radicals’ might sound like a band you’d invite to play at your party, they’re not great for your cells to hang out with. They’re molecules on a mission. And it isn’t a good one. Everything around us (and including us) is made of molecules. Our molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of two electrons. But when an atom is missing an electron, it becomes a ‘free radical’. These single molecules do what singles usually do, they try and mate with another’s partner. And it doesn’t end well for anybody. Since they only have one electron, they try and steal another molecule’s. When atoms are taken away from molecules in the skin, it causes damage to our skin’s DNA that can accelerate skin aging. 

This science lesson begs the question: what does it mean for me and my skin molecules?

Skin damage from free radicals is ugly. It ranges from changes in skin colour (brown spots and broken blood vessels) to weakening elastin in the skin so it’s on its last legs and becomes saggy. These ‘free radicals’ can also break down the skin’s collagen and lead to the dreaded ‘w’ word: wrinkles.

Up the healthy-skin ante with naturally occurring Antioxidants.

These guys kick redness and ruddiness where it hurts, not to mention fight carcinogens. You’ll find them in fruits and veggies with Vitamin C, E and beta-carotene. Antioxidants are a big family that can help you face healthy skin enemies. There are a number of fresh fruit and veggies to look out for, but it’s important to know the exact type of antioxidant and what makes them pals with your skin. Before we meet them, let’s find out just why there’s so much hype around these good fellas. 

Antioxidants = anti-inflammatory. The use of dietary supplements for protection against the effects of oxidative stress and the progression of degenerative skin diseases and aging has been the subject of an increasing number of studies over the past two decades. And there are many products that contain antioxidants in varying levels of helpfulness for our skin. These come in the form of foods, liquids and nutritional supplements. As we’ve covered, the richest sources of these vital nutrients are fruits and vegetables which contain compounds such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta-carotene.

Science has proven that antioxidant supplementation with dietary antioxidants can alleviate the redox imbalance associated with disease – in simple speak: correcting the imbalance between oxidants (bad guys) and antioxidants (good guys). Antioxidants bind to these free radicals, stabilising and scavenging them out of your body’s system. Think of it as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, armed to the hilt, running the radical extremists out of town.

Do synthetic antioxidants make the grade?

These days, we have synthetic everything, so it was only a matter of time before science gave us synthetic antioxidants. Several have been developed including BHA (butylated hydroxy anisole), BHT (butylated hydroxy toluene) and NDGA (nordihydro-guaiaretic acid). When it comes to natural antioxidants, there are enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, peroxidase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase, and non-enzymatic antioxidant substances such as tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), cartenoid and glutathione.

Just as synthetic polyester pants make some of us itchy, synthetic antioxidants may cause allergic reactions and oncogenesis due to their strong toxicity in the body, and are easily disrupted by heat due to temperature sensitivity. Not cool. Literally. 

Natural antioxidants are safer than synthetic antioxidants, even if they aren’t quite as potent. And the best, bit? Natural antioxidants are all around us. In fact, they’ve been here for thousands of years. We’re just learning how useful they are. 

Where to get your daily dose (hint: it’s not in a tablet).

There are many products that contain various levels of antioxidants on the market, in the form of foods, liquids and nutritional supplements. The richest sources of these vital nutrients are commonly found in fruits and vegetables that have compounds such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, anthocyanins, beta-carotene, and others. Antioxidants function to bind these free radicals, stabilise and scavenge them out of the system, reducing the amount of damage free radicals can do.

Since many fruits and vegetables contain these vital nutrients, it’s useful to be able to assess the ability of antioxidants in these foods to absorb free radicals, so we can decide what to eat more of. USDA Researchers at Tufts University developed a laboratory test known as ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), which rates different foods according to their antioxidant content and its ability to bind these free radicals. Through this test, different foods were compared and analysed for their antioxidant ability. And the answers are widely agreed upon.

Now it’s no secret that goodies for your skin are contained in the skin of fresh fruit and vegetables. And while antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E and can be consumed via vitamin tablets and supplements or applied topically, your friendly local grocer really does know best. Fresher antioxidants won’t oxidise, giving you a better chance of fighting the free radicals, rather than creating more, and having a positive effect on your complexion. 

So what should we look for? Here’s a list of some of the scientific properties of the best guys at the market, and how they help: 

  • Flavanoids. These nerds will do your skin serious favours.

    Good for: fighting DNA mutation, kicking carcinogens to the kerb, improving your immune system 
    Found in: The skin of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables (especially berries).

    Many studies have demonstrated the protective properties of the polyphenolic flavonoids (a group of natural substances with variable phenolic structures). They’re anti-mutagenic (don’t mess with your DNA) anti-carcinogenic (cancer fighters) and possess immune-stimulating properties. The flavonoids (another great band name) are a large group of naturally occurring polyphenols found in fruits, vegetables, grains, bark, tea and wine that have proven in vitro free-radical scavenging potential (remember the chasing the bad guys out of your body, bit?). 
  • Anthocyanins – part of the Flavonoid Family (healthy skin mafia).

    Good for: fighting DNA mutation, kicking carcinogens to the kerb, improving your immune system.
    Found in: Apples, blackberries, elderberries, peaches, pears, figs, cherries, onions, gooseberries, red cabbage, and grandma’s rhubarb stew (or yours it really doesn’t matter who cooks it).

    Anthocyanins function as a potent antioxidant, but here’s the best part: they’re found in foods you eat (and no doubt you’ll now eat more of) every day. They’re a triple threat: they neutralise enzymes that destroy connective tissue, prevent oxidants from damaging connective tissue, and repair damaged proteins in the blood-vessel walls. They’re naturally occurring compounds responsible for the red, purple, and blue colours of many fruits, vegetables, cereal grains, and flowers. Forget inconsequential scientific questions like ‘why is the sky blue?’ when it comes to your skin, it’s more about ‘why are blueberries blue? And why is it good for me?’. Our anthocyanin friends give berries their colour (think strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, and cranberries, etc...).

    Over 300 structurally distinct anthocyanins have been identified in nature. Anthocyanins are naturally occurring, so it’s not unusual that they’ve attracted a lot of interest for use as colourants in foods and drinks. Recently, the interest in anthocyanin pigments has grown because of their possible health benefits as dietary antioxidants. For example, anthocyanin pigments of blueberries have long been used for improving visual acuity and treating circulatory disorders. There’s experimental evidence that certain anthocyanins and flavonoids have anti-inflammatory properties. And there are reports that orally administered anthocyanins are beneficial for treating diabetes and ulcers and even may have antiviral and antimicrobial activities. The chemical antioxidant characteristics associated with berries and other fruits and vegetables are 100% attributed to the amount of anthocyanin.
  • Apigenin – the all-in anti-inflammatory

    Good for: decreasing inflammation, and they can help heal skin with conditions like dermatitis.
    Found in: citrus fruit (especially lemon), parsley, cumin, Chrysanthemum extract and peppermint tea.

    Apigenin has been used for skin care, particularly in China, for millennia. A natural brew of chyrsanthemums can be used as a lotion on the skin. However, the underlying mechanisms by which apigenin benefits the skin are not known. Seems this ‘magic’ extract lacks scientific basis (studies are underway) but in the meantime it’s hard to argue with the fact that it has been subject to a very lengthy trial (did we mention it’s been used for thousands of years?)
  • Proanthocianidin OPC + GSP

    Good for: inhibiting DNA mutation that blocks elastase (an enzyme which breaks down elastin) to keep your skin soft and supple.
    Found in: grape seeds, apples, berries, barley, bean hulls, chocolate, rhubarb, and rose hips. And that’s just a taste. There are loads of other antioxidant enzymes found in other foods, too.

    ‘Pigment reducing modality’ is the chief benefit of this super-potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory. Here’s proof: grape seed extract was orally administered to 12 Japanese women with chloasma (grey-brown, irregularly shaped, persistent spots on the face) for six months, lightening these marks and reducing them in length and width. 

The upshot?

The long (and short answer) leads to the same conclusion. While supplements can help, you’ll do your body a whole lot better by eating naturally occurring vitamins and antioxidants in fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Synthesised vitamin supplements are like synthetic pants. They may seem like a good idea, but natural is much more comfortable.

For more info, read our article: ‘How to eat Cleaner for Clearer Skin’ here.

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