Bite me, acne. No, seriously. While the most common thing mouthed about clear skin is that certain foods are the root of all evil, here’s the good news: the reverse is true, too. You can eat your way to clearer skin with smarter food choices that can reduce acne, photoaging, inflammation, immune dysfunction, and imbalanced epidermal homeostasis (serious skin disorders). Being healthy on the inside shows on the outside. And the menu options are tastier than you might expect, including, wait for it... wine and chocolate. Pores and tastebuds, rejoice.
Welcome to the A to Zucchini of fighting zits (and other pore pillagers).
Sadly, ‘C’ isn’t for carbs. But after you’ve finished this article you may want to reward yourself. Before committing to a lifetime of (mostly) healthy eating and glowing skin, that is. So get ready to add a few things to this week’s grocery list. Here’s the breakdown on breakout-busting ‘secret agents’ found in foods. Here’s an idea: find your favourites and make a smoothie (for smooth skin).
We’ll forgive you if you forget their scientific names, but your skin won’t if you forget these foods and natural remedies:
Aloe vera (and ‘ello moisture)
Our perennial favourite for restoring moisture in the skin, aloe vera has a prophylcatic effect before, during and after skin damage. It not only soothes and cools, it improves your fibroblast cell structure (the principal active cell of connective tissue). In doing so, it speeds up the collagen production process and in turn helps you heal, sooner. Note: it’s all good, as long as you don’t use it at half-strength. Reach for the 100% content creams only.
Apigenin (anti-inflammatory, skin-cancer boxer)
Found commonly in citrus fruit (especially lemon) parsley, yarrow, cumin, marigold and peppermint (we prefer it in a cuppa).
From a cup of peppermint tea, a garnish of parsley on your dinner (it’s not the 1970s – perhaps a parsley pesto), to cumin, Apigenin is found in a range of vegetables, fruits and drinks. This anti-inflammatory marvel is a plant flavonoid that’s been found to be effective in the prevention of UVA/UVB-induced skin carcinogenesis. That’s in mice, so far... but it’s looking the same for us less furry, less protected humans. In short, it could protect you from skin cancer and helps reduce redness. Apigenin is also found in marigold (Calendula officinalis), while Artemisia (Artemisia inculta) and Cuminum cyminum or cumin also contain apigenin and luteolin and their derivatives (ask your herbalist or health store).
Anthocyanins, and derivatives (antioxidants 4 x more powerful than vitamin E)
Anthocyanins are 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 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. Here are some Anthocyanins derivatives and where you can get your body-protecting, life-affirming fill:
- Cyanidin (and the ‘dins’ family – the good stuff): Found in apple, blackberry, elderberry, peach, pear, fig, cherry, onion, gooseberry, red cabbage, rhubarb.
Found in strawberry, banana, red radish, and potato.
- Cyanidin and Delpinidin: Found in black currant, blood orange, gooseberry, red cabbage, purple carrots.
- Delpinidin: Found in passion fruit, eggplant, green bean, pomegranate.
- Cyanidin and Peonidin: Found in cranberry, plum.
- Petunidin, Malvidin: Found in bilberry (closely related to the blueberry and can be substituted), red grape.
Avocado oil (good fats, ‘adaptogen’ = less skin stress)
Rich in vitamin E, β–carotene, vitamin D, protein, lecithin, and fatty acids avocado oil offers considerable benefits when combined with botanicals. Rosemary and comfrey work well to protect the skin. For another use of avocado oil, apply liberally to skin for a natural ‘tan’ (read: fake tan but Avocados are natural, right?).
Borage oil (stimulator, hydrator)
Borage oil stimulates skin cell activity and encourages skin rehydration. It contains high levels of gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), making it useful in treating all skin disorders, particularly allergies, dermatitis, inflammation, and irritation. Borage penetrates the skin easily and benefits all types of skin, particularly dry, dehydrated, mature, or prematurely aging skin.
Curcumin (anti-tumour, anti-oxidant, obscure coffee order supporter)
Found in Tumeric (including, of course... turmeric lattés)
If you thought Tumeric lattés were just another phenomenon, think again. The benefits of Curcumin, a yellow, odourless pigment found in turmeric are nothing short of phenomenal. It ups the ante on all the antis: anti-inflammatory, antitumoral, and antioxidant. Plus, it has a healthy appetite for scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS) as it prevents irradiation-induced apoptotic changes in human epidermoid carcinoma (non-doctor speak = the worst ‘c’ word: cancer).
Evening primrose oil (your ‘round the clock comforter)
We’ve long known the benefits of this aptly named night-time repairer. While you sleep, it goes to work, with its high GLA (gamma linolenic acid) content regenerating skin. It soothes inflammation, making it a good choice for people with eczema, psoriasis, or any type of dermatitis. Plus it fights dryness and premature aging (because no one likes waking up feeling – or looking – older).
Black tea (regenerative for you, and your skin)
In some parts of the world, the ingredient of our humble cuppa (Camellia sinensis) is used as a home remedy for sunburn. The Chinese apply cooled black tea to the skin, with the tannic acid and theobromine helping to soothe the heat from sunburn. Another group of herbal compounds in tea called ‘catechins’ help prevent and repair skin damage, and studies show they may also help prevent skin cancers.
The complex polyphenolic compounds in tea have been shown to modulate biochemical pathways that are important in growing cells, generating inflammatory responses, and fighting tumours. Tea also improves your skin’s reaction after sun exposure, reducing lipid peroxidation – a process where free radicals ‘steal’ electrons from the lipids in cell membranes, resulting in cell damage.
Proanthocianidin OPC + GSP (free radical scavengers, DNA protectors)
Found in grape seeds, apples, berries, barley, bean hulls, chocolate (repeat: chocolate) rhubarb, and rose hips. Also rich in some extracts you might not currently have in your diet, but are well worth it, like white pine bark extract, blackjack oak bark extract, witch hazel and hawthorn.
Protect what your mother gave you with a helping hand from mother nature. This DNA mutation inhibitor blocks elastase (an enzyme which breaks down elastin) to keep your skin soft and supple. Teaming up with vitamin C and E, it protects and replenishes your supply of elastin (goodbye saggy). In cream form, OPC is proven to protect against UV, whereas grape seed proanthocyanidins (GSP) are potent antioxidants and free radical scavengers, protecting cells from these wayward, unstable molecules. The tastiest bit of information: they’re found in chocolate. (And pine bark. We prefer the former).
Quercetin (sunscreen, anti-oxidant, all-round skin lover)
Found in evening primrose, mayapple, onion, tea, sunflower, apple, cranberry.
Thankfully, one of the most useful flavornols is the most commonly found active agent in our diets. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, as well as acting as an immunomodulator (stimulating our immune system to put on the gloves and fight back). While its dietary benefits are well documented (it’s a natural antihistamine, protects the brain, and heals the gut) it shows most benefit in UV protection. Science says: Quercetin and rutin were tested as potential topical sunscreen factors in humans and found to provide protection in the UVA and UVB range – but don’t start rubbing apple on your face if you want to stop sunburn.
Resveratrol (anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, pro glowing skin)
Found in grapes, wine, grape juice, blueberries, cranberries.
Resveratrol is known to act as an antioxidant and antimutagen, mediating anti-inflammatory effects and inducing human promyelocytic leukemia cell differentiation (read: it reduces number of immature blood-forming cells – a very good thing). In studies, it has been shown to result in a significant decrease in UVB-generation of H2O2 (Hydrogen peroxide) as well as infiltration of leukocytes and inhibition of skin edema. In essence, it’s a skin cancer delayer and fighter, reducing incidences of UVB tumours. It’s anti-tumour, pro-even-complexion. That has to be good.
Retinoic acid (the closest thing to the fountain of youth)
If a fountain of youth did exist, it would spout retinoic acid – it’s the active form of Vitamin A and the most powerful form of anti-aging known to man (and woman). Researchers found that treatment with retinoic acid restored elastic fibers that keep skin taut and reduced the appearance of wrinkles. Go easy, though. If you apply highly concentrated retinoic acid too often, it can have adverse effects: redness, extreme dryness, and peeling.
Rhatany root extract (anti-oxidant)
Here’s one you’ll hear more about soon, particularly if you regularly browse the shelves of your local health-food store. While trials are in their infancy, research shows Rhatany is an anti-oxidant, photoprotective (helps molecules protect themselves from sun damage) and cytoprotective, too (protects cells against harmful agents). Even cells given high doses of UVB but just 10g/ml were almost completely preserved, making it even more beneficial than our go-to green tea.
Silymarin (anti-tumour, anti-sunburn, anti-oxidant)
Made from the seeds of milk thistle
Silymarin comes from the seeds of milk thistle. It consists of three super phytochemicals: silybin, silidianin, and silicristin, with silybin (perhaps a cleverer name could have been chosen for such a clever ingredient) shown to have a very strong antitumor effect. It also reduces sunburn cell formation (less ‘ouch’). Worth tracking down at your local health food store. In this case, milk (thistle) is a good choice! Especially during summer.
Tea tree oil (ancient Aboriginal remedy)
With medical trials lasting thousands of years (this native remedy is long proven), tea tree oil is an effective antiseptic, fungicide, and germicide. It’s a popular component of many sunscreen formulations that relieve sunburn by increasing blood flow in capillaries and bringing nutrients to damaged skin.
Vitamin K (anti-scar, anti-stretch marks, body-healing positive)
Leafy greens are laden with it: (K)ale, spinach, turnip greens, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, romaine, and green leaf lettuce. Plus brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and zucchini.
Who likes stretch marks, spider veins, scars, dark spots, and stubborn circles under your eyes? Well, if you hate them, Vitamin K hates them more. Little wonder it’s the ‘super’ in many of our recognised superfoods like kale. It’s essential for the body to perform blood clotting, which helps to heal bruises and wounds, and it’s often recommended post-birthing and after surgery. Unlike vitamins E and C, vitamin K is more for recovery rather than preventing damage, but the sooner you start eating your greens, the sooner you’ll start healing.
Walnut (self-tanning, anyone?)
No wonder it’s used for self-tanning – Walnut extract comes from the fresh green shells of English (read: sun-poor climate) walnut. It’s a great sunscreen that gives the effect of sunbaking, but without the baking part. Its most important component is ‘juglone’ which reacts with the keratin proteins in your skin to form ‘sclerojuglonic compounds’ – these are coloured and have UV protection properties.
These tips are only part of a broader healthy skin routine. And importantly, the positive effect of eating these good guys will be neutralised if you eat too many sugary bad guys, or large amounts of dairy. These foods disagree with your gut’s microflora, which creates inflammation in the skin, causing acne.