Nutrition for Healthy Skin: Vitamin A, Zinc, Vitamin C | Chris Kresser
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Nutrition for Healthy Skin: Vitamin A, Zinc, Vitamin C

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One of the biggest motivations to adopt a more nutritious diet is the desire to improve skin health. Many people of all ages struggle with skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, dry skin, wrinkles, and sun damage, among others. This can be very upsetting for those who have yet to find a solution to their problematic skin. While conventional medical professionals often discount the connection between skin health and nutrition, there is strong evidence to support the influence of our food choices on the health and vibrancy of our skin.

The consumption of certain vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds in the diet is one of the most effective ways to treat skin conditions and improve the look and feel of one’s skin.

There are several nutrients that are known to play a role in the proper growth and immunity of the skin, and many people have found that their skin health has dramatically improved after making purposeful changes to their daily diet. For example, Liz from the blog CaveGirlEats has a great post about how eating a traditional diet has improved her skin health. As her story suggests, making simple changes to your diet can have a significant impact on skin appearance in a short amount of time.

In this series, I will discuss how vitamins and minerals from a nutritious whole foods diet can treat acne, wrinkles, and other problem skin conditions.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A, or retinol, is one of the most widely acknowledged nutrients for healthy skin. Synthetic retinoids have been used as effective treatments for severe acne and psoriasis since the 1980s, demonstrating how useful vitamin A can be in treating problem skin.

Vitamin A influences the physiology of the skin by promoting epidermal differentiation, modulating dermal growth factors, inhibiting sebaceous gland activity, and suppressing androgen formation. (1) As it promotes cell turnover in the skin, vitamin A is effective in preventing the formation of comedones that cause the most common forms of acne.

Lack of vitamin A causes the skin to become keratinized and scaly, and mucus secretion is suppressed. (2) Rough, dry skin is a common sign of vitamin A deficiency, which often first appears as rough, raised bumps on the back of the arms. (3) This condition is called hyperkeratosis pillaris, and is found in approximately 40% of adults. (4) Though dermatologists believe this is an inherited condition with no cure, I have successfully treated this condition in several patients by significantly increasing their consumption of vitamin A rich foods. While physicians prescribe synthetic retinoids to treat skin conditions including acne, eczema, psoriasis, cold sores, wounds, burns, sunburn, and ichthyosis, it is possible to obtain similar effects from consuming natural sources of pre-formed vitamin A. (5)

Preformed vitamin A, which is well absorbed by the body, can be found in a variety of traditional foods. The most vitamin A-rich foods are liver and cod liver oil, but other sources include kidney, cream and butter from pastured cows, and egg yolks from pastured chickens.

I recommend using cod liver oil if you wish to supplement, as this provides a balance of vitamin A and vitamin D that will reduce the risk of overdosing on vitamin A. Eating liver once or twice per week is a great dietary strategy for those looking to reduce and even eliminate stubborn acne.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral that is an imperative part of many physiological functions, including structure in certain proteins and enzymes, and regulation of gene expression. It plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. (6) In skin, zinc assists in the proper structure of proteins and cell membranes, improves wound healing,  has anti-inflammatory effects, and protects against UV radiation. (7)

Several studies indicate that dietary zinc may reduce acne, even as effectively as antibiotics such as tetracyclines. (8) This may be because it interacts with vitamin A as a component of retinol-binding protein, which is necessary for transporting vitamin A in the blood. (9) Zinc supplementation has been shown to significantly increase the level of vitamin A in the blood, indicating an interaction between the two nutrients that may explain its positive effect on acne. (10) In fact, men and women with serious acne are found to have lower levels of serum zinc than healthy controls. (11)

Dietary sources of zinc are best absorbed from animal sources, where it is not bound to phytates as in plant sources. Organs such as kidney and liver, red meat such as beef and lamb, and seafood such as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish are the highest animal sources of zinc.

Plant foods such as pumpkin seeds and other nuts can also be high in zinc as well, but are less bioavailable, as the zinc is bound to phytates if not properly prepared by soaking. To get the most zinc from your diet, include shellfish, organ meats, and red meat on a regular basis.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has been known for decades to play a crucial role in the regulation of the structural protein collagen, which is necessary for the extracellular stability of the skin. Vitamin C nutrient deficiencies cause scurvy, which is first manifested as rough dry skin and corkscrew hair growth. Inadequate vitamin C is also known to contribute to the development of the common problem of hyperkeratosis pillaris, as the follicles become damaged when collagen formation is impaired.

Increasing the amount of vitamin C in the diet can contribute to improved skin health and faster healing. Observational studies have shown that diets high in vitamin C are associated with better skin appearance and less skin wrinkling. (1213) Vitamin C may also help prevent and treat ultraviolet (UV)-induced photodamage by acting as an antioxidant. (14) Higher intakes of dietary vitamin C have been correlated with a decreased level of dry skin, and ascorbic acid may have effects on trans-epidermal water loss. (15) Vitamin C has an important role in wound healing and can improve the proper formation of strong scar tissue. (16)

While true deficiency in the United States is uncommon, it is possible to be consuming sub-optimal levels, particularly in a diet with limited fruits and vegetables. The highest sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, guava, dark leafy greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kiwi, citrus fruits, and strawberries. Certain fresh herbs such as cilantro, chives, thyme, basil and parsley are also high in vitamin C. Consuming a wide variety of colorful plant foods on a regular basis is the best way to get adequate vitamin C in your diet. It’s important to remember that vitamin C is sensitive to heat, so lightly cooking these plant foods or eating them raw (if possible) is ideal to maximize your intake of this vitamin.

Keep your eye on the blog next week for three more nutrients that can greatly improve your skin health.

148 Comments

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  1. I believe that this list does contain various important nutrients, and some great food sources for it but, for most people, some dietary changes aren’t enough to clear up their breakouts. People need to eat a completely wholesome real food diet but also find out what nutrients they specifically need to replenish to help their body heal the skin. Just getting more of certain nutrients isn’t enough, since you don’t know what your individual body needs. Also, if people have poor digestion, they won’t be getting all the benefits from the nutrients they are taking. Addressing my own personal needs was essential to getting rid of my own breakouts after 6 years, and what led me to chose skinhealth/skincare for my area of expertise in Nutritional Therapy.

  2. Hi,Dr Chris n team. I’m Meenal. I have a skin problem that has stayed for about seven to eight years until now. I’m 21 years old. I have got two black scars my face with tiny pimples in it(no oozes),one on left cheek and other on the chin. Recently I visited a local dermatologist(here in India), who said that it is because vitamin A doesn’t work properly in that area and it’s darkness might increase or decrease but it’s not completely curable. He gave me ‘Momatasone Furoate and Salicylic Acid Ointment ‘ and asked me to stop applying it after 20 days. Could u suggest me some remedy…

    • I get a similar thing if I eat certain types of grains, especially wheat, and there is also something in processed foods (perhaps preservatives or additives), so I avoid it all and eat very simple food – meat, veg, rice, raw milk, butter, eggs, some fruit, water, coffee. Nothing from packages or cans…The cream they gave you is a slightly harsh treatment and it is better to fix your skin from inside your body, not put things on top of it. It’s really bad to put makeup on top of such problems. Good luck!

  3. Isn’t ascorbic acid a synthetic corn derivative that’s likely from a Gmo source and therefore to be avoided???

  4. Chris could you please let us know what you personally consider a normal optimal range for Vitamin A levels? There is so much disparity depending on what lab you use for blood testing…

  5. Hi. I’m 27 and I have had keratosis pilaris since I can remember. It’s on my legs from hip to ankle. I never wear shorts or dresses or anything that shows my legs, even in 110 degree California weather. I’m so embarrassed by the red dots that are on every single pore where hair comes out. And it’s not just the red dots, the whole skin surface is red and blotchy. I’ve tried so many things and although I’ve heard about the retinal that’s probably the only thing I haven’t tried. This site has a lot of information I feel can be useful. Is there anyone else here that has dealt with a serious case of keratosis pilaris, I’d love to know what u do to keep it away. I hate using all the disgustingly sticky thick lotions that smell. Maybe it’s my only option. I don’t have trouble with the rough and bumpiness, that I can usually get rid of by moisturizing, by the redness and red dots never go away. Help Please!!!

    • I’ve had a much milder case than yours, but I’ve found that, besides daily gentle exfoliation, lotions that contain urea work well for KP as well as eczema. Long ago urea was derived from urine, but don’t worry because these days it’s synthesized in a lab! The Gold Bond lotions contain urea (most standard lotions don’t). Good luck!

      • Sorry, forgot to mention that food sensitivities may play a role as well (I’ve heard that gluten and dairy are the primary offenders in many skin problems).

    • I’ve had KP all my life…the ONLY solution I found was:

      – exfoliation no more than 2x per week
      – using ONLY natural skincare products (do NOT use sulphates!! They dry out and irritate the skin)
      – moisturize with bio oil.
      – moisturize IMMEDIATELY after coming out of the shower to lock in moisture

    • With all due respect to the suggestion to use Gold Bond, which may well work, I can’t argue that, is a little concerning. After looking up GB and reading the inactive ingredient label, it threw me for a loop. It contained parabens, petroleum, and other toxic ingredients. I certainly empathize and can understand the desperation with considering this. As for me, this is one product that I would personally be cautious of. A good reference point to check out safe lotions and other items is the skindeep.org website, an affiliate of EWG (environmental working group). They do research on products and report their findings by listing what items have toxic ingredients, which ingredients are worse than others and which are safer. It isn’t easy because some of the toxic products do actually work (a friend of mine swears by one product that I wouldn’t touch yet I can’t argue with the results). On the other hand, we don’t know what those inactive ingredients are doing on a different level at the same time. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The best thing I’ve found is to seek out a holistic physician, a D.O. or Integrative physician who can determine and prescribe the proper treatment but that costs money, something many of us don’t have. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t hurt to ask the doctor’s office about payment plans, discounts for certain situations, etc. Unfortunately, conventional medicine only addresses the symptoms and uses synthetic treatments topically and orally because that is all they have been taught. But as Carol wisely mentioned, diet plays a big role. And she is right! Avoid GMOs, color dyes, MSG which is listed under a number of different ingredients, excitotoxins, and more. Food allergies can often be a huge offender and that is where I am focusing. I sincerely wish you the best.

      • It’s treatable with supplements, it’s most likely a deficiency of zinc, and using vitamin A for a short time will get rid of it. It was for me…..i had it just on back of both upper arms and didn’t bother me much but it was always bumpy and i knew it was a sign of something so I had it looked at. I only recommend taking supplements supervised and measured via bloodwork. Some supplements can be toxic if taken for too long or just too high a dosage if you do it yourself. Also if you don’t take enough your skin won’t get better. Find an alternative dr, or naturopathic dr. They can help you clear up that problem. I would not go to a conventional dr since they take 2 mins with you and they end up prescribing steroids. You don’t want that crap unless your dying or only resource, not me. Trying to save money can end up costing you more later. Not all supplements are well absorbed by the gut so bloodwork can indicate if its working. I’m hoping insurance will begin to see how effective alternative medicine is. If you use lotions please think twice…..what you put on your skin ends up inside your body. That’s a fact! I take medication via skin daily because it’s more effective and it works amazingly…who knew your skin was so absorbent?!!!!!! Don’t give up and keep asking questions, it’s your life.

    • In addition to looking at your vitamin A intake as well as zinc intake, you may want to have a look at your Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio and get it as close to 4:1 as possible. High Omega 6/Low Omega 3 fatty acid intake (westernized diet is around 15:1) can also be part of the cause. Too much Omega 6 FA will eventually displace Omega 3 FA from the skin. I try to keep mine closer to 2:1, as that is what is known to be the ratio in nonindustrialized populations in our past.

  6. Very informative site, I have a problem with my skin, my skin colour is peeling off nd doctors tells me it’s vertilico nd there is no cure for it….is this true or can I get help. I have seen many doctors now but still no results

  7. Every since I started using Vitamin A in my products, I noticed a difference and so did my co-workers. Vitamin A has unplugged my pores and evened out my skin discoloration. I used to use a brand that I bought at Walmart, but it did not work well. I now use the Made from Earth Vitamin Enhanced Firming Serum because it also reduces the oilyness of my face. Highly recommended!

  8. So, my skin is sensitive to vitamin A and Retinol, but I have seen a HUGE difference in my complexion and wrinkles since I started using a product with Vitamin A. People are telling me I look younger! Retinoids bind to corresponding receptors in the skin. This peels off the top layer, which evens skin tone, and thickens the layers below, which smoothes out wrinkles. Retinoids also boost collagen, a protein that keeps the skin firm and springy, by blocking the genes that cause it to break down and increasing other gene activity responsible for its production.

    Yes, it does make me sensitive. But its worth it. I have tried all the Vitamin A creams, and the only ones that work for my sensitive skin are the Made from Earth Firming Serum and the Lady Soma Renewal Serum. I just switch between the two. The Lady Soma is probobly my favorite.

  9. Chris have you encountered any other circumstances where KP is caused by a food allergy potentially gluten or cross reactors of and not Vit A difficency. Or do you always rule out Vit A first then if it doesn’t clear up look to other factors? To determine would you recommend doing an AIP protocol or try more Vit A first? Thanks so much

    • Hi i have severe eczema and my skin has become very dull and uneven, my skin reacts to most of the beauty products and i cannot apply anything on my fave due to this. Please tell me if i can use any product with vitamin c or ascorbic acid? Will it react or would it be fine to use ?

      • Have you tried satya.ca. Its special for eczema. Many good reviews. No. its not a vitamine c serum. If you are on low budget you can try the sample first. Or try organic jojobo oil . Thats very mild and very moisterizing. Hope it will help. just Google for baby eczema creams and read the reviews. They are usually the mildest.

  10. My daughter who is 18 has acne and acne scars on her arm. It is too much, she feels shy to expose her arm. She also has acne on her back and bum. She applies tretin on her arms since a year, but it is of no use. She took Vit A tablets also. applies moisturiser in day. Can anybody suggest a remidy

    • As a sufferer of acne, i can tell you that the best results come from a 6-12 month course of isotrenin or isotane. Guaranteed beautiful skin but the treatment can be harsh for a short time. Please google it and see your doctor.

    • Niacinamide/nicotinamide is the amide form of vitamin B3 and in a topical cream it has been shown to be good for acne. Niacinamide has anti bacterial activity and helps to kill bacteria that cause acne. Interestingly enought, niacinamide can be used to treat tuberculosis and the #1 & #3 TB antibiotics, isoniazid & pyrazinamide, are both structurally related to nicotinamide. Niacinamide also killed MYRSA dead in a lab dish.

      http://www.jtad.org/2008/4/jtad82402a.pdf

    • M. B.: Severe acne in females can be a sign of excessive androgens (esp. if it occurs alongside menstrual irregularity). Mainstream medicine’s “remedy” is birth control pills. Birth control pills are the “catch-all” remedy for everything from PCOS to endometriosis. The Pill robs the body of B6, which is crucial for mental health (anxiety is a key symptom of B6 deiciency). It also increases the risk of blood clots and stroke. It’s only a band-aid, and does not get to the root of the problem. Alissa Vitti is one practitioner who specializes in treating PCOS (having once suffered from it herself). I’d bet Chris knows her. Follow Chris’s recommendations for sure, but if you need more help you can look up Alissa Vitti online!

    • Please get blood work even if you must go out of pocket.
      Women please check elevated testosterone levels.
      Ensure profile covers all, although not limited to the following:
      Vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, B12, B15, C & E, Iron, Biotin, Bromine, Chromium, EFA, Iodine, Lecithin, MSM, Manganese, Niacin, Nickel, Thymus, Iodine, Tin, Zinc ***Minimize Sugar & Fatty Proteins, Diary / Alcohol. Stay Hydrated
      Love & Unstoppable Confident Energy to Each & All!

    • I experienced something like what you described.
      It wound up to be sensitivity to laundry detergent and bleach.
      It might be worth checking out.

  11. Hii, i’m a 18 year old girl. I have so dull looking skin at this age. I’ve got these huge dark circles though i sleep for about 8 hours or more. I have always been anaemic n i do take iron and zinc for it and recently had jaundice, after which my skin has worsened. There is just no gloss and as soon as i go out in sun, it turns so dark and dull. Please help

    • Hi Sakshi, I have also been struggling with anaemia and my skin. Someone suggested I eat some beef liver and I was desperate enough that I tried it and the next day felt a big jump in my energy, it was incredible. It turns out beef live has a lot of copper, which you need to metabolize iron, and also for your skin. Be careful with zinc. Zinc can interfere with copper absorption. So be sure not to take more than 25mg of zinc a day. If you’ve been taking more, as I was doing, then you are probably deficient in copper and you should cut back on zinc and add more copper. Or eat beef liver which in a tiny 4oz piece has 10mg of copper!!! I’m starting to get used to the taste. Or maybe I just associate it now with feeling so much better that it’s making me like the taste.

    • You also might want to check into foods that help your Liver detoxify…IF you suffered from Jaundice..THAT right there should give you a clue. Drinking water with the juice of a lemon helps your liver ALOT! I’m surprised you didn’t mention whether you’ve been under doctor’s care.

  12. http://605e3mrmfg0-ky21rkrxyi3m4q.hop.clickbank.net/
    My wife uses coconut oil all summer long after being in the sun all day and it is so amazing!!!!!! She puts it on every night and never burns or feels. Smells so good and fells wonderful to the touch. I love when she uses coconut oil and cant wait till the next time. Please check it out and you and your other half will not be disappointed…….*

  13. I just finished reading clear skin forever and it provided me with some pretty great information on how to clear up acne with food. I ordered Zinc, cod liver oil, and vitamin d3, I also take a probiotic supplement. Does anyone know if these are all safe to take together? What should I avoid? I am vegetarian thats why I don’t get a lot of these vitamins I’m assuming.
    Thanks for your help!

  14. I just finished reading clear skin forever and it provided me with some pretty great information on how to clear up acne with food. I ordered Zinc, cod liver oil, and vitamin d3, I also take a probiotic supplement. Does anyone know if these are all safe to take together? What should I avoid? I am vegetarian thats why I don’t get a lot of these vitamins I’m assuming.

  15. i’m not a vegetarian, but it’s not a good idea to recommend eating RED meat, specifically red meat, just to supplement a certain mineral. Eat eggs and pop a zinc or take immune booster that comes with zinc, which for me is better than just plain zinc pill,

    • You are obviously not Paleo or a frequent reader of Chris’s blog. Search for “red meat” here on his site. He has an ebook on it.

        • I don’t think you understand what Paleo means. You supplement with red & white meats but it does not nor should it take up the majority of your diet.

      • Great! I am fed up. I am back to what my gradnparents ate-red meat, liver, and take cod liver oil
        JUST LIKE THEY DID
        NO SERUMS OR JUNK THAT MOST DOCTORS KNOW NOTHING ABOUT

        • And they were dying -suprise! 15-20 years earlier on the average than they do today. Bon appetit, ignorance.

          • You are right. We need to minimize red meat and other bad foods if we want quality of life until the end which is longer these days. Cod liver oil is probably good though.

    • I am a vegetarian, and you are incorrect. Red meat, at least grass fed, is not bad for you. Grass fed beef has high levels of vitamin A as well. And pills, while a convenient alternative and better then nothing (I take vitamin pills), are not better then natural sources.

      • Red meat needs to be minimized because of the saturated fat. A balanced diet with lots of variety and emphasis on plant foods and little packaged processed foods is always best. Organic lean poultry, grass fed beef occasionally, while grains and Whole Foods, 3-4 c of veggies a day and 2 c of fruit -preferably organic for many and fish 1-2 times a week. Experts still debate about gluten and dairy but they do know we eat way too much sugar, refined carbs, gluten , alcohol, chemicals, bad fats, fried foods.

  16. Hey Chris! I really loved this entry on skincare! My obsession on skin care is overly understated 🙂 I’m gonna include your list to my healthy diet along with my squalene supplements to prevent skin cell damage and keep my skin nourished inside out. Thanks a lot!

  17. I can not get rid of my skin problems although i take a good care of my skin and vitaminize it as much as possible. May be that’s because i have a poor diet and vitamin deficiency.

    • Try homeopathic products from Boiron. You can buy at a vitamin shoppe. Silicea and calcium sulfate worked amazingly well, better than anything from the dermatologist