In March 2010, Bobby Ghassemi was driving on a winding road in Virginia. He lost control and the car barreled off the road. By the time paramedics arrived, he was in a coma and barely alive. The doctors did everything they could to save him, but nothing worked. That is until they tried a very common nutrient. They had to give it to him intravenously. Two weeks after beginning the IVs, Ghassemi was emerging from his coma. The nutrient was actually healing his brain.
What does this incredible story have to do with your skin? Well, it turns out this same nutrient can heal your damaged skin just as well as it heals the brain. Here’s how....
As you may know, your skin has layers. The top layer is the epidermis. It helps keeps moisture in and invaders out. The bottom layer is the dermis. It supports the epidermis both structurally and nutritionally. The dermis is made of collagen and elastin, which help keep skin looking firm and youthful.
Like your brain, essential fatty acids are a key component of the epidermis. In fact, when researchers started studying these fatty acids, they noted a number of key roles fatty acids play in skin health. By studying rats fed completely fat-free diets, they were able to identify some of these functions.
In particular, the rats developed skin abnormalities and suffered from significant water loss. These changes indicated that the epidermis wasn’t functioning properly. Instead of keeping moisture in and invaders out, it was doing the opposite.
Will Essential Fatty Acids Protect Human Skin?
Researchers have also noted that humans with similar deficiencies typically suffer from dry, scaly skin as well. Feeding the rats the right fatty acids reversed these issues. And in humans, fatty acid supplementation can help fix skin problems too. It can also help keep problems from occurring in the first place, even if we expose our skin to the sun.
Dietary fatty acids are very important to the skin because our bodies can’t make them. In particular, the body needs omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You’ve probably heard of these, as well as their parent compounds, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, respectively. Although they make up only a fraction of the skin, here’s why they’re, well, essential.
In the dermis, essential fatty acids help produce signaling molecules. These signaling molecules in turn help the skin’s inflammatory response work properly. And that’s where the sun damage comes in. UV rays can create a signaling cascade that damages collagen. This can lead to sagging skin and wrinkles. UV radiation can also create an inflammatory response in the epidermis. But essential fatty acids can help minimize this damage in a couple of ways.
An omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid helps the dermis produce an eicosanoid called 15-HETE. Eicosanoids are chemical messengers. They play an important role in the immune system and in inflammation. Some, like 15-HETE, are anti-inflammatory. Others promote inflammation.
When the dermis is producing 15-HETE, it helps stop the epidermis from making 12-HETE. This is another eicosanoid. But it promotes inflammation. And this inflammation can damage the skin and even lead to issues like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
Stopping Inflammation in the Skin
Because UV radiation triggers inflammation, it’s important that our eicosanoids are able to respond properly. Having access to the right fatty acids helps ensure that the skin can make anti-inflammatory messengers like 15-HETE rather than those that make inflammation worse.
When the skin has limited access to essential fatty acids and you expose it to an inflammation trigger like UV radiation, its first response is to make pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. And if there aren’t enough essential fatty acids left over, it can’t make the eicosanoids that can help with the repair process. Here’s why that repair process is so important.
You know that wearing sunscreen can help minimize exposure to UV radiation. But even if you don’t get burned, your cells typically experience some damage when you’re outside. The good news is that essential fatty acids can help minimize this damage – and even make you less vulnerable to it in the first place.
Researchers who study UV exposure in the skin have developed a scale to determine skin’s resistance to sunburn. It’s called the Minimal Erythemal Dose (MED). Erythema is just the scientific word for sunburn. The MED measures the lowest dose of radiation that will cause the skin to develop a detectable sunburn after 24 hours. The higher the MED, the better the skin is able to withstand the effects of UV radiation.
Sunburn is just one of these negative effects. Other problems can include wrinkling, sagginess, loss of elasticity, dark spots, and collagen breakdown. But measuring sunburn gives us a good idea of how the skin will fare on these other measures as well. If you’re not getting burned, you’re likely sustaining less damage overall.
Reducing the Damage Done by Sunburns
Multiple studies have found that taking fish oil supplements, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, can increase MED for humans. One such study found a significant reduction in sunburn in participants who took fish oil capsules daily for four weeks compared to those who took a placebo. Another study found that MED steadily increased in participants who took 5 g of fish oil twice a day for six months. However, once the study ended, their MED went back to baseline. So it’s important to continue to supply the skin with the nutrients it needs.
Yet another study found that taking 4 g per day of purified eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid often found in fish oil, for three months caused the EPA content of the skin to increase eight-fold. It also increased the participants’ MED and reduced a marker of DNA damage. The researchers have concluded that omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the skin’s inflammatory response to UV rays.
It seems like the solution is just to include more essential fatty acids in your diet or supplement regimen. And that is definitely a good idea. One study of diet and wrinkling in 453 women age 70 and older found that a healthier diet that included more essential fatty acids was associated with fewer wrinkles. Another study found that the more linoleic acid (LA) middle-aged women consumed in their diets, the less likely they were to suffer from dry skin and skin thinning on the backs of their hands – an area frequently exposed to the sun.
Fatty acid deficiency typically shows up in the skin in the form of dermatitis and loss of moisture. But diet can help reverse this deficiency. Research has found that the body can absorb the fatty acids through the intestines and deliver them to the skin. Many studies in both humans and animals have evaluated the effects of essential fatty acids on the skin by delivering them through the diet.
However, you can also apply these fatty acids topically. Many studies have found that doing so can help lighten hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure and relieve dry skin. One study found that applying olive oil and sunflower seed oil (which contains LA) could both reduce scaliness and water loss. In fact, because the liver processes a lot of the fatty acids we ingest, topical application may be the most efficient way to correct a deficiency.
Other studies have found that supplements can help as well. In fact, two placebo-controlled trials have even found that fish oil can help wounds heal. And as I mentioned above, many of the MED trials used supplements.
How to Use Fatty Acids to Heal Your Skin
So it is a good idea to add essential fatty acids to your diet, apply them topically, and perhaps even take a fish oil supplement. However, that’s not all you need to do. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are made of long chains that contain multiple double bonds. This makes them very vulnerable to the damaging effects of free radicals. So it’s important that you also have plenty of antioxidants available to mop up the free radicals before they can cause problems. One of the best tools for this job is vitamin C, which you can take orally and apply topically. Vitamin E is a good option as well.
Both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids can help the skin function optimally. We typically get plenty of omega-6 in our diets. So most of us probably don’t need to worry about that. But omega-3 is a little harder to come by. You can find it in fish. Flaxseed is also a good source. But most of us don’t eat multiple servings of seafood or flax a week. So I think a fish oil supplement is a good idea. Or you can try a blend of omega-3 and omega-6 oils, such as Complete Daily Oils. Then pair it with an antioxidant-rich diet as well as a serum or moisturizer that contains vitamin C or E.
This will help your skin have the tools it needs to promote an anti-inflammatory environment. And that will help you avoid (and repair) damage from the sun. It’s not an excuse to skip sunscreen. But it will help you with what sunscreen doesn’t cover, both literally and indirectly.