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Vitamins and Antioxidants for Your Skin

No magic pill can restore youth, but some vitamins and supplements can help improve the health and quality of your skin.

Age takes its toll on our skin, just as it does on other parts of our bodies. Exposure to sunlight and oxygen throughout the years produces unstable molecules called free radicals, which cause inflammation, damage skin cells, and ultimately increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

Although no magic pill can make you look 20 years younger, you can help your skin look as young as possible in a variety of ways. You probably already know the three surest ways to ensure youthful skin: protect your skin from the sun, don't smoke, and eat a healthy diet.

Vitamins and Antioxidants for Skin

In addition to lifestyle changes, a variety of vitamins and antioxidants may also improve the health and quality of your skin. Although some vitamin and antioxidant treatments work from the outside in, others work from the inside out, targeting the harmful effects of sun damage and free radicals under the skin's surface.

Eileen Ross started taking antioxidants to improve her health but shifted the focus to her skin when she started reading up on their benefits. "I developed a cocktail of vitamins and supplements so that I got the ones that were most beneficial for me," says the 46-year-old preschool director from Smyrna, Ga.

After she started taking her "cocktail," which includes vitamins E, C, B-12, and selenium, Ross noticed that she was getting more compliments on her skin. "I've heard that my skin is flawless or it looks very beautiful, very smooth," she says.

Research is finding that some vitamins and antioxidants can reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles, improve the look of the skin, and protect against further sun damage. Here are a few of the most effective vitamins and antioxidants for the skin:

Vitamins C and E and Selenium for Your Skin

Research has found that vitamins C and E, as well as selenium, can help protect the skin against sun damage and skin cancer and can actually reverse some of the discoloration and wrinkles associated with aging and sun exposure. These antioxidants work by speeding up the skin's natural repair systems and by directly inhibiting further damage, says Karen E. Burke, MD, PhD, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine's department of dermatology.

Although you can find these nutrients in skin creams, the challenge with applying vitamins E and C to the skin is that the concentration in most creams tends to be low, and they can lose their effectiveness when exposed to air and light.

Burke recommends taking supplements containing 1,000 to 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C, 400 international units of vitamin E (in the D-alpha-tocopherol form), and 100-200 micrograms of selenium (l-selenomethionine) to gain the most benefit. (Don't give selenium to children until they have all of their adult teeth because it can interfere with the proper formation of tooth enamel).

If you do use a topical form of these antioxidants, the most potent products contain 15% to 20% of vitamin C (non-esterified), 2% to 5% of vitamin E (D-alpha-tocopherol), and .02% to .05% selenium (l-selenomethionine).

Coenzyme Q10 for Your Skin

Coenzyme Q10 is a natural antioxidant in the body that helps the cells grow and protects them from the ravages of cancer. A drop in natural levels of coenzyme Q10 that occurs in our later years is thought to contribute to the skin aging process. A study published in the journal Biofactors found that applying coenzyme Q10 to the skin helped minimize the appearance of wrinkles. Most studies conducted so far have used a 0.3% concentration of coenzyme Q10.

Alpha-lipoic Acid for Your Skin

This antioxidant, when applied topically, may help protect the skin from sun damage. Studies have looked at creams with 3%-5% concentration, applied every other day and building up slowly to once daily, and found some improvement in sun-induced changes in the skin. 

When applied topically in higher concentrations, alpha-lipoic acid can cause adverse effects in some people. 

Retinoic Acid for Your Skin

Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A in the skin, and the "gold standard" in anti-aging skin care, according to Burke. Topical retinoic acid (brand names Retin-A and Renova) treats fine wrinkles, age spots, and rough skin caused by sun exposure. In a study conducted at the Skin Research Institute in Korea and published in the Journal of Dermatological Science, researchers found that treatment with retinoic acid restored the elastic fibers that keep skin taut, and reduced the appearance of wrinkles.

Retinoic acid comes in gel and cream forms, which are typically used once a day. Although dermatologists used to believe that retinoic acid made the skin more sensitive to the sun, they now know that it actually protects against further sun damage. However, if you apply it in too high of a concentration and too often, retinoic acid can cause side effects -- such as redness, extreme dryness, and peeling. Burke recommends starting with a low concentration (retinoic acid products range from 0.01% in gels to 0.1% in creams) and applying it once every second or third night to reverse photo damage more slowly.

Flavonoids (Green Tea and and Chocolate) for Your Skin

Green tea and yes, even chocolate, just might help improve your skin. Research suggests that the flavonoids in green tea might protect the skin from cancer and inflammation. A German study in the Journal of Nutrition found that women who drank hot cocoa with a high flavonoid concentration for three months had softer, smoother skin than women who drank hot cocoa with a lower flavonoid concentration.

Another study, this one in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that women whose skin was treated with green tea extract were more protected against the adverse effects of sunlight exposure. Although the results look promising so far, more research is needed to prove that flavonoids work and to determine the best dose, according to Burke.

B Vitamins for Your Skin

The B vitamins are essential for cells throughout the body, including skin cells. It's important to get enough of foods rich in B vitamins, such as chicken, eggs, and fortified grain products because a B vitamin deficiency can lead to dry, itchy skin.

Research is showing that some B vitamins are beneficial when applied to the skin.

For example, in one study of hairless mice, researchers in Kawasaki, Japan, found topical application of an antioxidant derived from vitamin B-6 protected against sun-induced skin damage and decreased wrinkles.

Other Antioxidants

There are many other plant-based extracts being studied for their positive effects on the skin, either when ingested or applied topically. Examples are rosemary, tomato paste (lycopene), coenzyme Q10, grape seed extract, pomegranate, and soy. Some experts feel that a blend of many different antioxidants and extracts might be more effective than individual products. The final answer about the best doses and extracts remains to be determined by researchers.

Evaluating the Claims on Vitamins for Skin Care

Companies often claim that their products can give you miraculous results, but don't believe all the hype. Although nutritional supplements and cosmeceuticals (products that combine cosmetics and pharmaceutical ingredients) are tested for safety, their benefits aren't necessarily confirmed in studies.

Even though a product may claim to contain useful antioxidants such as vitamin C or E, it's often difficult to know exactly how much of these vitamins and antioxidants are in the bottle. Vitamins and antioxidants need to be in strong enough concentrations, and in the correct forms, to remain stable and to be effective. If you are thinking about using a vitamin or antioxidant for your skin, it's best to ask your dermatologist for advice before buying it.

Lifestyle Solutions for Beauty and Skin Care

Don't forget: Practicing healthy lifestyle habits is the most important step you can take to protect youthful skin. 

"Staying out of the sun and wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen have been shown to reduce photo-aging and to have anticancer effects," says Robin Ashinoff, MD, director of cosmetic dermatology and Mohs surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

Choose a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 25 (30 or more in the summer), and one that protects against both ultraviolet A and B rays. Reapply the sunscreen at least every 90 minutes. Stay in the shade or indoors when the sun is at its strongest (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and avoid tanning beds. When you do go outside, wear sun-protective clothing and a hat with a wide brim all the way around. As part of your skin care regimen, use only moisturizers with an SPF of 15 or more to keep your skin hydrated and protected.

Diet is another potent way of practicing good skin care. Skin nutrition includes a diet low in saturated fat and rich in fruits and vegetables, which not only will help keep you healthier on the inside, but also may protect your skin from cancer. Healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, help produce the skin's natural oil barrier, critical in keeping skin hydrated, plumper, and younger looking. Load up on foods high in omega-3s and vitamins and antioxidants for the skin, including:

  • Selenium -- Brazil nuts, turkey, cod
  • Vitamin B-2 -- Milk, enriched grain products, eggs
  • Vitamin B-6 -- Chicken, fish, nuts
  • Vitamin B-12 -- Clams, liver, trout, fortified cereals
  • Vitamin C -- Citrus fruits, red peppers, broccoli
  • Vitamin E -- Sunflower oil, whole grains, nuts
  • Omega-3s – Salmon and other cold-water fish, ground flaxseeds, walnuts

Get the vitamin D you need to protect your bones from dairy foods and supplements, rather than from spending hours sun worshipping. The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D is 200 international units (IU) daily for adults 19 to 50 years, 400 IU/day for adults 51 to 70, and 600 IU/day after age 70. Although these are the current RDA levels, most research data show higher doses (1,000 to 2,000 IU/day) are safe and beneficial.

Finally, ditch the cigarettes. Smoking not only leads to wrinkles on your face, but research in the Archives of Dermatology finds that it also can lead to skin damage in areas (such as under the arm) that haven't even been exposed to the sun.

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