8 Essential Foods for Gorgeous Skin

Acai is the new pomegranate, and goji berry is the new blueberry! Who can keep track of all of the “super skin foods” touted in magazines? And honestly, who needs to? Here, Dr. Ellen Marmur reveals the top eight everyday food elements, from antioxidants to zinc, that will help optimize your skin’s health.  From Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin

As popular as the “super skin foods” topic may be in magazines, there’s not much sound scientific evidence behind all of it yet. Scientists are studying the effects of many foods and vitamins on the health of the skin, but strong studies are still pretty scarce. Even so, there are things you can eat that definitely benefit the skin in particular, and deficiencies of certain nutrients is damaging. A lack of protein can lead to poor wound healing and hair loss, and a fat deficiency can bring on dry skin and brittle hair and nails. A lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy (yes, even in this day and age!), which leads to spongy gums and bleeding hair follicles, among other awful skin conditions. So don’t be caught short of the nutrients your skin needs in your diet, but don’t make yourself crazy either. It’s really not too difficult to incorporate essential food elements into your daily meals.

Top Substances in Food That Optimize Skin Health
>>> Vitamins C and E
Vitamin C is found in: Oranges, lemons, grapefruit, papaya, and tomatoes

Vitamin E is found in: Sweet potatoes, nuts, olive oil, sunflower seeds, avocados, broccoli, and leafy green vegetables

What they do for skin: These antioxidant vitamins fight oxidation damage in skin cells’ DNA. Because they are key elements in the structural proteins in the body, they are important to the integrity of the blood vessels and hair follicles. They’re required for the formation of collagen, and medical studies have found that they decrease wrinkling of the skin. Vitamin E reduces inflammation and helps wound healing. Vitamin C enhances the immune response.

>>> Vitamin A
It’s found in: Fish oil, salmon, carrots, dairy products, spinach, and broccoli

What it does for skin: Since it promotes normal keratinization (the turnover of skin cells), it helps with conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Without it, skin becomes extremely dry and dull. It’s important to note that if you use a synthetic retinoid (a derivative of vitamin A) on your skin, you may need to stop vitamin A supplementation, since too much of this vitamin can lead to hair loss and liver dysfunction.

>>> Protein
It’s found in: Meat, eggs, grains, sunflower seeds, dairy products, fish, legumes like beans and peas, and nuts such as walnuts and pecans

What it does for skin: Protein is a component of all the cells in the body and a building block of skin tissue. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, the building blocks of new proteins for the body’s constant reconstruction job. They are like Legos, coming in different shapes, sizes, and types that help construct collagen or create lubricating ceramide in the skin. It’s a perfect economy, with the amino acids being recycled into new proteins on a supply-and-demand basis.

>>> Zinc
It’s found in: Turkey, almonds, Brazil nuts, and wheat germ

What it does for skin: This anti-inflammatory mineral calms irritation in the epidermis and helps to heal acne and treat rosacea. It also facilitates cell regeneration.

>>> Biotin
It’s found in: Egg yolks, brewer’s yeast, bananas, lentils, cauliflower, and salmon

What it does for skin: This B vitamin strengthens skin, hair, and nails. (A deficiency is extremely rare because bacteria in your intestines make all the biotin you need.) A deficit can lead to hair loss or dermatitis (itchy, scaly skin). Some people swear by biotin supplements to strengthen brittle nails, but studies haven’t proven that it’s beneficial for anyone who’s not deficient in the vitamin.

>>> Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 is found in: Seeds, nuts, eggs, and sunflower and soybean oil (which are in lots of snack foods, such as crackers, cookies, and cereals)

Omega-3 is found in: Cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines, flaxseed oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and almonds

What they do for skin: These essential fatty acids support skin health, improve nerve and vascular function, and act as antioxidants. Omega-3 has strong anti-inflammatory properties and may calm skin conditions such as rosacea or eczema and minimize redness. It also boosts immune system functioning. Some nutritional studies have shown that omega-3 may protect against squamous cell skin cancers and decrease sunburn response. Studies have shown that diets rich in the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid are associated with less skin dryness and thinning. But it’s important to note that these fatty acids must be balanced in the body. For example, too much omega-6 and linoleic acid can cause an inflammatory response in the body, while omega-3 minimizes it. Because of the prevalence of omega-6 in processed snack foods, it’s believed that we are getting an abundance of them and not enough omega-3. And studies have shown that too much omega-6 can increase the risk of everything from high blood pressure to dementia and depression. The key is balancing your intake of the two.

>>> Monounsaturated Fats
They’re found in: Olive oil, canola oil, and avocados

What they do for skin: These healthy fats help to maintain the water level in the epidermis and supply the ceramides and fats that keep the bricks and mortar of the skin healthy and intact. This translates into less itchy, healthy-looking, glowing skin.

>>> Antioxidants
They’re found in: Blueberries, green tea, red kidney beans, olive oil, artichokes, pomegranates, dark chocolate, and red wine

What they do for skin: These are indeed the superheroes of the nutrient family. We’ve heard a lot about how antioxidants extinguish the dangerous free radicals (the toxic oxygen molecules that can be by-products of cell renewal and are also generated by pollution and sun damage). The polyphenol antioxidants in green tea have also been shown to help prevent certain skin cancers and protect skin against sunburns. Antioxidants found in red wine and green tea are being studied for their possible cancer-fighting potential, but so far the results aren’t conclusive. There have been studies that strongly showed that the antioxidants in green tea (among them epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG) protect the DNA in skin cells from UV-induced damage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty (Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ellen Marmur), is the Chief of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City and specializes in skin cancer surgery, cosmetic surgery, and women’s health dermatology. She lives in Manhattan with her family.

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Antiaging Products Demystified: 4 Rules to Remember Before You Start Shopping

There are thousands of antiaging products filling our heads with promises, from pricey prestige brands to drugstore options that are more reasonably priced. How can you choose between them, and which ingredients actually might work? Dr. Ellen Marmur, author of Simple Skin Beauty, demystifies the cosmeceutical mystery with these four rules.

Some products state that they prevent and reverse the signs of aging. Others claim to firm, smooth, and lift the skin, and there are plenty that guarantee they stimulate collagen and diminish wrinkles. Anti-aging products do fill our heads with promises. (I completely expect to wake up looking like Gwyneth Paltrow after using one.) There are thousands to pick from, from pricey prestige brands to drugstore options that are more reasonably priced. How can you choose between them, and which ingredients actually might work?

Most of us feel baffled and frustrated, with way too many choices. (Remember my overwhelming shopping trip?) According to the American Academy of Dermatology in Schaumburg, Illinois, 94 percent of women are confused by their anti-aging options. So let’s demystify the cosmeceutical mystery. There are four rules to remember:

1. Prevent aging skin with what you already own: sunscreen.

Sun protection is the best anti-aging product you have and the best investment you can make. Ninety percent of cosmetic skin problems that occur with age (wrinkles, sagging, hyperpigmentation) are caused by sun exposure, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Therefore sunscreen is the best honest-to-goodness miracle cream on the market. There is no point in buying a bunch of anti-aging products to repair damage if you don’t prevent it in the first place by wearing sunscreen every day. Most cosmeceutical ingredients try to mimic substances found in the body, such as antioxidants, peptides, growth factors, coenzymes, copper, and vitamins. So protecting what we already have naturally and maintaining optimal skin health with daily sun protection and moisturizer is worth a thousand anti-aging beauty solutions. In fact, I have a collection of sunscreens and I use them all differently — an oil-free, broad-spectrum SPF 15 for daily use; an SPF 30 when I know I’ll be outside more of the day; a body lotion with added sunscreen; and an even stronger broad-spectrum sunscreen spray for the beach. Because your skin type changes and the amount of sun exposure you receive does too, your sun protection needs to be compatible. Owning several formulations of sunscreen also reduces the excuses not to wear it, and sunscreens are a better investment than a bunch of cosmeceuticals. Think about it this way: every time you put on sunscreen, you’re preventing the signs of aging and therefore saving money on expensive products or cosmetic procedures to fix fine lines or sun spots.

2. Read product labels closely.

The label must list ingredients from the highest concentration to the lowest, so if the anti-aging element you’re looking for, be it niacinamide or vitamin C, is near the bottom, there’s not enough in the product to do anything. (Keep in mind; a high concentration of the chemical is one way to get it into the skin). Most often, a cosmeceutical acts primarily as a good moisturizer, which is wonderful, but it won’t have much more than superficial and temporary results. Most of the ingredients on the label — the water, moisturizers, binders, and preservatives that make up the vehicle — are inactive. Often an anti-aging product includes silicone to provide a smooth texture to the product and make the complexion look smoother too. It may also contain a little glycolic acid or lactic acid to exfoliate the skin and provide instant gratification. These elements don’t actually change anything below the surface of your skin. At least make sure that the antioxidant or peptide you’re buying is very near the top of the ingredients list. De- coding the label has limitations, however. Most of the time a product does not state the concentration or percentage of the ingredients (and it doesn’t have to). And too high a concentration of some ingredients, such as vitamin C, can be toxic to the skin. You also can’t tell from the label whether an ingredient, like an antioxidant, is stable or not.

3. Choose your anti-aging ingredients wisely.
Okay, let’s shift gears. Let’s pretend that all these cosmeceuticals work.

With so many new ingredients promising to fix so many problems, how should you decide among them? Do you need an antioxidant or a peptide? And what is a growth factor, anyway? Is a prescription retinoid safe, or should you try an over-the-counter version first? Step back, look at your skin, and consider what products you already own. A moisturizer? A sunscreen? A chemical exfoliant or a scrub? (Check to see if your moisturizer already contains an antioxidant or one of the ingredients I’ll discuss soon. You may have been using an anti-aging product for some time without even knowing it.) Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve with a cosmeceutical. Are you in your twenties and looking for a preventive product? An antioxidant is a good bet. Do you want to fight wrinkles? Then something with retinoic acid will work. If brown spots and uneven skin tone are your problem, you can use retinoic acid or try a product with niacinamide. Narrow down what it is about your complexion you want to improve, and that will help narrow down your options.

Tending to your complexion is like caring for a garden, which needs a certain amount of water, nutrients, soil, and sunshine to grow and be healthy. If you overfeed or overwater it, the garden is destroyed. In the same way, putting too much of a good thing on your skin is not necessarily better or more effective. I’ve had patients come in with red, irritated skin and show me twenty different products that they use on it. How do all these ingredients react with one another? Are they overlapping the same kinds of chemicals, such as acids, over and over again? Try to pick one or two active ingredients — an antioxidant and a retinoid, for instance — and stick with them for at least three months (a fair amount of time to see if you get results). Switching from one ingredient to another within a span of a couple of weeks — a niacinamide product, then a kojic acid, then an azeleic acid to get rid of brown spots, for example — cancreate a cocktail of chemicals on your face that can be extremely irritating.

4. Research products, and learn the difference between miracles and marketing.
Do your homework on ingredients, and think logically about their claims. Frequently what is proclaimed to be a new chemical innovation turns out to be a derivative of something that already exists. For instance, an exciting ingredient (whose name was created and patented by a cosmetic company) claims to stimulate the production of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and increase the storage of moisture in the dermis. This chemical has a cool, sci-fi name and sounds like an amazing discovery, yet it’s simply a plant-derived form of xylose (a sugar molecule like the GAGs). Again, the manufacturer’s tests are proprietary, and most products containing the ingredient also include hyaluronic acid, a superior humectant. So it’s hard to say which one is responsible for any water retention results in the skin. A little sleuthing online can tell you what a hot new ingredient actually is and if the clinical studies behind it are for real.

Most of these ingredients aren’t really under the jurisdiction of a dermatologist. Traditional medical training has nothing to do with a popular antioxidant like CoffeeBerry, or an ingredient like rare, Japanese seaweed. As a doctor, I must form a medically educated opinion about whether these things provide substantial results or not. I read the claims and the literature available, put them through my dermatologic understanding of the body, and judge if it’s a reasonable hypothesis or not. So far three things have been proven to work as anti-agers: sunscreen, moisturizer (to maintain the health of the skin’s barrier), and retinoic acid.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty (Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ellen Marmur), is the Chief of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City and specializes in skin cancer surgery, cosmetic surgery, and women’s health dermatology. She lives in Manhattan with her family.

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5 Beauty Products You Love but Don’t Need

Despite all the advertisements to the contrary, skin truly needs the barest minimum. You may love your eye creams, toners, face masks, and other beauty products, says Dr. Ellen Marmur, author of Simple Skin Beauty, but they’re unnecessary luxuries.

They sure are fun to buy and lovely to use, and all the jars and bottles look pretty in your bathroom, but these cosmetic options are far from essential. If they’re not in your budget and you don’t have the time for a twenty-minute face mask or an added step in your nightly regimen, then skip them — and don’t feel guilty about it. When it comes to cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting, these three things won’t do anything more for your skin than your three essentials. If you want to treat yourself to a special skin care purchase or an at-home facial, go for it. I don’t blame you, and I do it too. But please don’t be tricked into thinking you need it.

Eye Cream
If you’re going to cancel one item from your shopping list, this is the one. It’s just as effective, and far more efficient, to multitask with your regular moisturizer and daytime SPF. Yes, it feels nice, but, no, it is not a necessity. In actuality, it’s simply redundant. The skin around your eyes is more delicate, but unless you are massaging a thick balm on the rest of your face, the moisturizer you use on your face and neck has the same formulation and many of the same ingredients that you get in any eye cream. The same moisturizing ingredients can treat the fine lines and dryness around your eyes just as well as they take care of the same issues anywhere else on your face.

What about puffiness or dark circles? I’ll tackle both those issues in chapter 8, “Skin SOS,” but suffice it to say that an eye cream isn’t going to eliminate them. Dark circles are due primarily to your anatomy, while puffiness is often a sign of water retention inside your body (often from lack of sleep). A cool compress or cold, damp chamomile tea bags will calm puffiness better than a special eye cream, although they are both temporary cures. If you are bothered by puffiness around your eyes, make sure your regular moisturizer contains anti-inflammatory ingredients such as chamomile, cucumber, or aloe vera (which would be found in an eye cream as well).

Toner
In a classic comedy bit, Jerry Seinfield speculates about why women need all those truckloads of cotton balls. How can they possibly use so many, and for what possible purpose? The answer: toner. How many cotton balls and bottles of astringent did we go through in high school and college, anyway? Toner is meant to remove residual makeup and oil from the skin. But since most cleansers these days do that just fine, toner is an unnecessary added step. Gentle, soothing alcohol-free toners (they usually contain moisturizing or anti-inflammatory substances like rosewater or cucumber) are totally superfluous if you use a moisturizer. (However, I do prefer them, even to makeup remover, to take off any extra bits of eye makeup or concealer because the consistency is so watery.) An alcohol-based astringent toner (similar to the antiseptic version we all remember as teenagers) usually contains ingredients such as witch hazel or salicylic acid to get rid of oil. For those who are addicted to washing their faces in the morning, a quick swipe of toner instead may be just the right remedy. These are great for combination skin conditions, to eliminate oil from one area of the face (rather than all over). For the most part, I, like Seinfeld, don’t have much use for cotton balls.

Face Masks
I relish the thought of giving myself an at-home facial, relaxing in front of the TV wearing some kind of blue or green face mask. The odds of this happening (with four kids, a crazy schedule, and a husband who would laugh himself silly) are slim to none. But so are the chances that a mask — whether it be one for moisturizing or a clay mask to “soak up” oil — can do something really transformative or long-lasting to my skin. Can a mask super-moisturize your face and seal the hydration in? Yes, but only until it’s rinsed off. Truthfully, masks are like ChapStick for your face — an occlusive film over the surface that provides a nice, temporary fix. For someone with sensitive or rosacea skin, a mask packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients (such as aloe vera, allantoin, and chamomile) and humectants will feel wonderful and soothe the skin, but only while it’s on the face. Again, it’s always important to read the label, especially if your skin is feeling sensitive. Fruit acids or menthol, which are commonly found in masks, could cause irritation.

Moisturizing Masks
If a mask has active ingredients, such as anti-inflammatories or antioxidants, they might be better absorbed into the skin because of the occlusive barrier of the mask. But that’s a big “if,” since those ingredients would have to be lipophilic (oil-loving and compatible with skin) and microscopic enough to penetrate pores in the first place. By the same principle of occlusion, I sometimes treat eczema on the body by applying a steroid cream, then putting plastic wrap over it to provide an occlusive barrier so the cream doesn’t evaporate or wipe off. This also provides a slight pressure that pushes the medication onto the skin. It’s similar to slathering on a rich foot cream and then covering the feet with cotton socks — although, unlike a medicine, the moisturizing effect wears off the minute you wash your skin.

Clay Masks
Clay masks don’t actually absorb or “soak up” oil, and they can’t really “purify” and “detoxify” your pores either. A mask with kaolin (a mineral-rich clay), sea mud, or even charcoal does provide a gentle way of exfoliating by coating the skin like an adhesive. When it dries and is rinsed off, the mask theoretically pulls off some dead cells, debris, and oil with it. It’s the same concept as rolling a lint brush over the surface of a sweater. Pore strips work the same way, and they’re terrific. Sometimes a clay mask contains active ingredients like sulfur, which is a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, or tea tree oil, a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. But a treatment like this won’t be more effective than a salicylic acid exfoliant and diligent nightly cleansing. A clay mask can reduce the oil you have right now, but unfortunately it’s just going to build up again in no time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin (Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ellen Marmur), is the Chief of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City and specializes in skin cancer surgery, cosmetic surgery, and women’s health dermatology. She lives in Manhattan with her family.

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