Need a cure for itchy, flakey skin? It might be more about hydration and omega-3s than which moisturizer you use.
If you’re suffering from seasonal scaliness, you’re not alone. Dry skin is a common side effect of winter. As temperatures plunge, so does the humidity in the air, creating an environment that essentially sucks the moisture out of our body’s protective outer layer, resulting in that uncomfortable tightening, itchiness and flakiness.
There are things you can do from the outside to prevent moisture loss, including keeping showers brief and tepid, slathering on a rich cream right after patting yourself dry and running a house humidifier. But you can also optimize your skin’s natural moisture-lock system by keeping it well-nourished from the inside.
The goal is to eat and drink so your body can generate robust skin cells — it’s not magic; it’s just good nutrition. “Healthier, stronger skin cells retain more moisture and have a suppler form, so skin won’t crack with dryness,” board-certified dermatologist and author Jeanette Jacknin says. Here are some healthy eating and drinking habits that could keep your skin dewy — OK, if not exactly dewy, at least less lizardlike.
We typically don’t sweat as much in the winter as we do in the warmer months, so it’s easy to forget that we still need plenty of fluids. Staying well hydrated helps keep all our bodily systems functioning smoothly, so at a minimum, you should aim for the recommended daily intake of 91 ounces of liquid for women and 125 ounces for men, amounts which include not only water, but all nonalcoholic liquids consumed.
There is not much evidence that drinking more than that will boost skin moisture further, but one 2015 study published in the journal of Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found that all participants, both those who typically drank at least 108 ounces (3.2 liters) daily and those who typically drank less than that had significantly moister skin after supplementing their usual intake with an additional 67 ounces (2 liters) of water for a month.
That doesn’t mean you have to pump fluids aggressively to have healthy skin, but do make an effort to stay on top of your thirst. If drinking plain or bubbly water leaves you cold this time of year, try a hot beverage such as herbal tea. Also, since about 20 percent of our fluid intake comes from the foods we eat, make the most of water-rich edibles that are especially good in the winter, including cozy vegetable soups and the wide variety of seasonal citrus. These foods not only pump up your water intake, they have other possible skin-nourishing benefits as well.
Get more omega-3
Just as we can apply a nice, rich body cream as a protective coating on the outside of our skin to combat parching winter elements, we can also help our bodies build an impermeable layer from the inside. Our skin’s effectiveness as a barrier, locking water in rather than letting it evaporate into the dry air, depends upon our intake of two types of fats, omega-6 and omega-3. These essential fats “help the lipid membrane that is on the outside of the skin to hold more moisture,” Jacknin says. Dhaval Bhanusali, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City agrees: Essential fats “are the building blocks for healthy skin cells in general — they form a protective shield, reinforcing the skin’s barrier — and we need to get them from our diet.”
Since most of us get plenty of omega-6, it’s a smart strategy to focus on upping our intake of omega-3. The best source is fish, because it contains the most potent forms of the fat (EPA and DHA). Fatty fish like salmon has the most omega-3 (more than 1,000 mg in 3 ounces cooked). But amounts in other fish add up too, so enjoy a variety — including tuna, sardines, halibut, cod, trout, shrimp, oysters — it’s all good. There is no official ideal daily intake of omega-3 — but recommendations for healthy people typically range from 250 mg to 500 mg a day, so eating at least two seafood meals a week will likely cover you. You can get omega-3 fat from plant foods, too (albeit the less potent ALA form). Flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and their oils, as well as chia seeds are especially good sources.
Eat colorful produce
Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is another habit consistently linked in the research with healthier skin. “The science is still so early, but we have been seeing the benefits of eating a balanced diet with healthy fruit and vegetables with our patients for years,” Bhanusali says. Two nutrients bountiful in richly hued fruit and vegetables that researchers have begun to home in on are carotenoids (including beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A, lutein, zeaxanthin and others) and vitamin C. They act as antioxidants, protecting cells from damage, and they are essential for the skin’s growth and repair.
Getting more than you need for basic, good nutrition won’t necessarily make your skin moister, but “antioxidants in fruits and vegetables help act as fighters within skin cells to prevent damage, which means less potential water loss,” Bhanusali says. Beta-carotene imparts a yellow-orange color to food – think sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, mangos — but it, and other carotenoids, are also concentrated in dark greens like kale and spinach. So back to the vegetable soups I mentioned earlier. Besides being hydrating, they can also supply a hefty dose of antioxidants.
In-season citrus is a well known way to get vitamin C, which Jacknin says “is a very powerful antioxidant that also plumps up the skin’s collagen — which is the structure of the skin.” Other vitamin C-packed produce includes bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes and berries.
Eating more citrus, vegetables, seafood, nuts and seeds and drinking plenty of fluids are habits that not only may help you avoid dry skin this winter, they are good for every cell in your body. After all, healthy-looking skin is considered an outward reflection of a healthy inside, not only in winter, but year-round.
Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author who hosts public television’s “Ellie’s Real Good Food.” She blogs and offers a weekly newsletter at elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post’s Food section.