4 Foods That Can Improve Skin and Gut Health

Strawberry lip balms, kiwi facemasks, peach hand lotions—small wonder your beauty products smell good enough to eat. The product names themselves announce the starring role real foods like fruit juice, oatmeal, avocado, and even chocolate increasingly play in skincare products these days. The reason? Some foods benefit you just as much rubbed on the skin as served on the plate.

By applying a food topically, rather than just eating it, you can deliver higher concentrations of the active ingredient directly where it’s needed most. “The skin has high levels of fatty acids in the cell membranes of the epidermal layer, a part it that undergoes replacement and renewal every three weeks or so,” says Philip Cohen, ND, an adviser to Ecco Bella, which makes organic and natural skincare products, including a chocolate-based line for topical use and consumption. “Due to this constant need for fatty acids, the skin thrives with adequate essential oils in the diet and loves their topical application as well.”

Another powerhouse nutrient for skin? Seaweed. “It’s the best food I know,” says Susan Ciminelli, director of the Susan Ciminelli Day Spa in New York City. “You can bathe in it, eat it in salads, use it in masks, and it’s loaded with minerals and trace elements.” You feel and see the benefits, she says. “My clients who have started both eating and topically applying seaweed products find they look better and they have more energy; it also helps with water retention and inflammation and helps to cleanse your liver.” Ciminelli recently published The Ciminelli Solution: A 7-Day Plan for Radiant Skin, which provides recipes for skin-enhancing meals, as well as masks and spa treatments you can make at home with common foods.

Other healing foods include oregano oil and oatmeal. “If someone is suffering from an abscess or has a skin infection, I like to use oregano oil on the surface of their skin, since oregano oil is a powerful antimicrobial agent,” says Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New York City. “And though it works internally very well also, some people have a hard time taking it orally because it is so bitter and so powerful.”

Dattner prescribes an array of healing foods to treat other skin conditions as well. He often recommends oatmeal for both internal and external use. “Oatmeal is an incredible topical product,” he says. “Oatmeal products are great for inflamed skin, for drawing out impurities and for calming it down.” Although you can buy oatmeal products like Aveeno, you also can make an oatmeal poultice yourself. As for eating oatmeal, Dattner recommends cooking it until the oats turn milky white for the maximum calming effect.

Sniff but don’t snack

Despite the yummy smell of food-based beauty products, resist the urge to take a lick. While you can slather some foods directly on yourself, not all food-based skin products are edible. “In order to extract the medicinal properties of a food, the product will often need to be treated in some way,” says Keegan Sheridan, ND, who practices in Beverly Hills, California. “Using alcohol to extract certain compounds from a plant is a common example. Once the desired components are extracted, the product is often combined with some sort of carrier that may or may not be edible itself.” For instance, with products containing the edible-plant calendula, skincare companies must first manipulate the calendula and add other lotion ingredients for it to work its magic on the skin. The final mixture becomes dangerous to ingest.

Keep in mind also the importance of buying organic beauty products. Just as you are what you eat, you are what you dab on your skin. “All of our organic farmers certify that their ingredients are pesticide-free,” says Karen Behnke, CEO of Juice Beauty, an organic beauty products company. “The skin absorbs what you place on it, and we don’t need anymore pesticides applied to our bodies.”

Ciminelli agrees: “Whenever I can, personally, I choose organic-grade produce, both for eating and in any products I put on my skin,” she says. “If a facial product containing food is loaded with pesticides and you put that on your skin, I think it’s dangerous because you’re putting a caustic chemical on your face and body.”

Two-pronged approach

You can enhance your complexion not just by applying foods topically, but by eating them as well. As the body’s largest organ for eliminating toxins, the skin reflects the wellbeing of your body. You can trace the real story of your skin’s health in part to what you eat. For that reason, holistic skincare specialists typically treat both the internal imbalances at the root of skin issues—from dryness to inflammation—as well as the external symptoms. They prescribe foods to eat along with foods or food-based products to use on the skin. “We believe that beauty is enhanced from within and without,” says Philip Cohen, the Ecco Bella adviser. When foods are ingested, the nutrients influence the functioning of organs such as the central nervous system and the liver, which ultimately is reflected in the skin.”

Whether you eat a food, apply it topically, or both depends on the skin problem. For some people, their skin reflects internal issues best treated by a healthcare professional. “Many chronic skin conditions actually stem from the digestive system,” Sheridan says. “Inflamed tissue, imbalanced gut flora, and hyper-reactive immune cells in the digestive tract can create or exacerbate skin conditions. So a doctor may decide to treat the digestive tract in this case with oral products versus using a topical treatment.”

Some conditions respond particularly well to both internal and external approaches. Sheridan favors Aloe barbadensis, commonly known as aloe vera. “When barbadensis is rubbed on topically, it has anti-inflammatory and cooling properties that make it useful for minor inflammations, such as sunburn,” she says. But aloe also packs a punch when consumed. “The bitter yellow latex just beneath the outer skin on this plant has gentle laxative effects and can be useful for constipation,” Sheridan adds. The inner pulp of the plant also soothes inflammation in the digestive tract and helps treat gastric ulcers.

Although no one ingredient can give you a glowing complexion, keep the bigger picture in mind. Any food that brings radiance to the skin also enhances the health of the body, and you can’t have one without the other. Since, as Behnke says, the skin is the barometer of health and wellbeing, tend to the larger issues by eating right. “Remember what your grandma said about eating fresh fruits and vegetable?” Dattner jokes. That common sense applies to beauty too, so eat your avocadoes—and then rub them on your face as well. Your skin will thank you.

Feed Your Skin

 FoodOral BenefitTopical Benefit
OatmealSoothes and calms skin, can have antidepressant effectSoothes itchy, irritated, or dry skin; great in a bath
HoneySoothes sore throats and stops oral bacteria; internal lubricantIts antimicrobial properties heal wounds and skin ulcers; promotes healthy tissue and relieves inflammation
Dark ChocolateFlavonoids in chocolate help prevent heart disease and cancer, lower blood pressure, and provide high levels of antioxidantsExcellent moisturizer easily absorbed into the skin; high mineral content; soothes irritated skin and promotes feeling of calm and relaxation.
AvocadoContains oleic acid, shown to help lower cholesterol and regulate blood pressure; good source of potassium; helps inhibit prostate cancer growthAn excellent lubricant for deep-seated dry skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis; ideal for sensitive skin; a rich source of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, E, iron, potassium, niacin, lecithin, and pantothenic acid


By Lynn Ginsburg

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