Vitamins and supplements can be confusing. Some work one way when they are applied to your skin (via skin care)—and a totally different way when you ingest them. Then, there’s the research that questions just how much of a nutrient you are really getting when you pop a pill. New York dermatologist Jennifer Chwalek, MD, dishes on which vitamins and supplements work for skin-nail-hair health, and gives the inside scoop on which ones actually have the supporting research to back up the claims.
The Truth Behind the Studies
“I really believe there is no better way to get these vitamins than though a well-balanced diet with lots of fresh vegetables/fruits, whole grains and essential fatty acids,” Dr. Chwalek says. “As an aside, the quality of supplements varies widely. Some studies have shown that there are only trace amounts of the purported nutrient in the supplement. For that reason, if you are going to take supplements, it is important to do some research to determine, which ones are better (this is unfortunately difficult too because this information is not always readily available or even known). Lastly, supplements can potentially have interactions with medications and may be contraindicated in certain conditions. For this reason, people should always consult their doctor before starting supplements.”
Which Vitamins Work
With that in mind, there are a few supplements Dr. Chwalek says may be worthwhile to take for your skin (or even topically in some cases), in addition to what she pegs as the “more obvious ones” like vitamins A, B, C (important for collagen synthesis), D and E, all of which are important for skin health:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Found in walnuts, salmon, cod, sardines, flax seed oil, pumpkin seeds, these are important building blocks for cell membranes throughout the body and have a vital role in the production of hormones, improving blood vessel function and reducing inflammation. “The most evidence for omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is for its cardiovascular benefits. However, there are studies showing it helps skin cells retain moisture, which reduces dryness and itching (which may help patients with eczema and psoriasis),” Dr. Chwalek says. “In animal studies, omega-3 FA can inhibit UV radiation from inducing carcinognesis. Clinical studies have shown that it also raises the UV ‘mediated erythema threshold’ (protecting against sunburn and reducing UV mediated immune-suppression).”
Coenzyme Q10 (Ubiquinone)
CoQ10 is an antioxidant made by our bodies that has an important role in mitochondrial respiration and protecting against oxidative stress. “Its levels rapidly decrease with age or in chronic disease,” Dr. Chwalek explains. “There are some animal studies showing supplementation may increase life expectancy, but the data in humans is more controversial. Some studies have shown it may have a role in protecting against photo-aging, specifically by reducing the effects of UV damage and stimulating collagen. Topical application has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects as well, however there is some evidence that oral supplements are more effective at increasing the levels of CoQ10 in the skin.”
Evening Primrose/Gamma Linolenic Acid
“There is some evidence this may reduce UV-induced skin pigmentation in addition to improving skin moisture/reducing transepidermal water loss,” she says. “There have been several studies looking at the use of this topically and as a supplement in patients with eczema showing varying degrees of improvement.”
An extract from pine tree bark that contains active bioflavonoids, this is best described as a “super” antioxidant. “There are some in vitro and in vivo studies showing it can prevent collagen and elastin degradation,” Dr. Chwalek says. “A clinical study showed taking 25 to 75mg day protected against UV light exposure.”
Astaxanthin (found in krill oil) and Rose Hip
This is one of the most potent antioxidants known and is a carotenoid derived from microalgae. “In addition to rose hip (a separate supplement which contains carotenoids and vitamin C, as well as other things), astaxanthin has been shown to improve skin moisture, fine lines and elasticity. It also protects from UV irradiation.” One study Dr. Chwalek cites: “It compared oral supplementation of rose hip to astaxanthin and found no statistical difference in improvement in both groups—both noted some improvement in skin wrinkles, elasticity and skin moisture content. This was a small study, so more research is needed to confirm these results.”
Green Tea Extract and Alpha Lipoic Acid
There is also evidence that these two powerhouses have photo-protective effects on the skin, so there may be a role for supplementation with these as well.