How much can vitamins and supplements help your skin?

By Stephanie Watson

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

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 can ultimately increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

While 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. While 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 comments 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.

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, now they know that it actually protects against further sun damage. Retinoic acid can cause side effects, however, such as redness and peeling, if you apply it in too high of a concentration and too often. 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 Soy) for Your Skin
Green tea, soy, 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.

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 vitamins 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, flaxseed, safflower oil, walnuts

Lifestyle Solutions for Beauty and Skin Care continued…
Get the vitamin D you need to protect your bones from dairy foods and supplements, rather than from spending hours sun worshipping. Adults 19 to 50 years need 200 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily; adults 51 to 70 need 400 IU/day and after age 70, adults needs 600 IU/day.

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.