It is easy to take our skin for granted and to forget that it is a living organ, which needs and thrives on a constant supply of nutrients, oxygen, and water to keep it in great condition. Each of us has around 6 square meters of skin on our bodies, which make up 16 per cent of our total weight. Comprising over 300 million cells in total, our skin is home to an astonishing 11 miles worth of blood vessels.
Unlike our internal organs, we have the advantage of being able to nourish and protect our skin from the outside in as well as the inside out. Here, we reveal the firming benefits of doing just this, looking at its top, middle, and deep layers each in turn and remembering, it is not just the skin on our face that counts when it comes to our firming routine.
The top layer of skin we can see is called the stratum corneum. It is made up of cells that although dead, still play a vital role in the firmness of our skin, not least because among other roles, they create a waterproof barrier and maintain hydration. In turn this makes our skin look and feel firmer. Avoiding cleansing and toning products with solvents, detergents and other chemicals that damage the delicate balance of natural chemicals in this outer layer of skin is an essential part of our firming skin care. What we eat and drink can also play a role.
What We Can Do
Trying to avoid products containing parabens and artificial fragrances and the detergents sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate is a starting point. Also look out for nitrosamine precursors (DEA and TEA) formaldehyde preleasing preservatives, propylene glycerol and phthalates. While avoiding these chemicals, on the other hand it is good to look for those containing natural 'squaline' from olives. Squalene is a type of 'lipid' or fat. Skin scientists estimate the stratum corneum makes around 100 – 150mg of ‘lipids’ (a type of fat), each day, which play a vital waterproofing role. Products containing the lipid 'squalene' from olive oil can help to boost these lipids from the outside in, while eating a diet containing omega 3 and omega 6 essential fats in foods like olive oil, rapeseed oil, walnuts, flaxseeds, and fish oils do the opposite, providing them from the inside out. Omega 3 and 6 essential fats both help us to produce precious, hydrating lipids throughout the skin whether on our face and neck, legs and arms or stomach and back. Body brushing with a soft and firm body brush in circular movements from the feet up the skin on your body towards your heart and down from the neck, again towards your heart can help to tone, detoxify and boost circulation.
Under the stratum corneum lies the middle layer of our skin, known as the 'dermis'. The dermis is home to ‘fibroblasts’, which make the two vital tissues, collagen, and elastin that help to give our skin, its strength and elasticity and a resistance to the formation fine lines and wrinkles.
What We Can Do
There are three main goals that we need to work towards to optimise dermal health. The first is to help fibroblasts have the best chance of making as much good quality collagen and elastin as possible. The next is to reduce the chances of these tissues from being broken down. The third goal is to give our dermis the opportunity to make plenty of health cells that are packed in the spaces between the collagen and elastin fibres.
1. Optimise Collagen Production
Both collagen and elastin are proteins, and so not surprisingly, we need a constant supply of protein along with a full mix of vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds (super nutrients), to help our bodies to optimise their production.
In practice this means basing our meals around plant proteins from for example, pulses, nuts, and seeds and if you are omnivorous, smaller amounts of good quality eggs, milk, poultry, fish, and a little lean red meat. Research indicates that certain vegetable proteins, found for example in peas, are especially powerful in helping to stimulate collagen production in fibroblasts.
To these proteins, we need to add at least five servings of a wide variety of vegetables and fruits a day. Blueberries and other vegetables and fruits containing blue and purple pigments are particularly known for helping to dilate blood vessels and improving ‘microcirculation’ of blood flow, including to the skin. This in turn helps to improve delivery of oxygen and nutrients, which researchers believe may reduce signs of skin aging. Vitamin C, found especially in green leafy vegetables, peppers, citrus fruits and berries helps to maintain the strength of blood vessel walls, again helping microcirculation of blood, including to the skin. It is also crucial for collagen production. Extracts of the herb Centella Asiatica also appears to stimulate fibroblast activity.
2. Protect Against Collagen Damage
When it comes to protecting collagen, we need to think about limiting the damage caused by sun, raised levels of sugar in our blood and by compounds known as AGE's, present in many processed foods.
Sun Damage: Wearing a good quality high sun protection factor sun cream, is of course vital, as are the careful use of hats and suitable clothes to protect our skin from ultraviolet rays. These rays trigger production of free radicals in our skin, which directly damages collagen, causing it to harden, tangle, loose its bounce and lead to formation of lines and wrinkles. Using natural sun protection products can help to block some of the damaging ultraviolet but even in the best circumstances, some rays will get through, and this makes skin products rich in natural antioxidants like vitamins A, E and C crucial, since they can help to ameliorate this damage. By attaching themselves to the free radicals, antioxidants, including those from green tea and other plant extracts, effectively help to deactivate them and reduce the potential of their destructive behaviour.
Taking every opportunity to top up with as wide as possible a range of antioxidants in our meals and snacks considerably boosts this effect. Vegetables and fruits are crammed with antioxidant nutrients like vitamin C but also, crucially thousands of antioxidant plant compounds (super nutrients), many of which include the beautiful orange, red, yellow, and purple pigments in everything from carrots and mangoes; tomatoes and watermelon; sweet corn and kale; blueberries and purple sprouting broccoli. Green tea is another rich source of important antioxidants while astaxanthin, the beautiful red antioxidant pigment in many algae, has been found to help protect against collagen breaking enzymes. Wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, nuts and seeds also provide powerful antioxidants in the form of vitamins E and selenium.
Look too for products containing bakuchiol. This natural plant compound has been shown in clinical research to have anti-ageing effects when applied to our skin. Dermatologists have revealed its effects to be comparable with retinol in its ability of improve sun damage skin aging while being better tolerated.
Sugar Damage: While damage to collagen by the effects of sun is well-known, perhaps less appreciated is the trauma collagen suffers when levels of sugar in our blood is raised. Eating refined carbohydrates and foods containing added sugars has this effect. Cakes, biscuits, sweets, and puddings are the obvious culprits, but equally white rice, croissants and refined breakfast cereals can equally trigger an increase. Replacing these foods with wholegrain, unrefined carbohydrates like brown pasta and rice, wholemeal breads, pittas, and tortilla wraps and getting our sugar naturally from whole fruits, which raise blood sugar slowly after eating, are all great, collagen-preserving nutrition steps we can introduce right away into our daily lives.
AGE Damage: In skincare, the letters 'AGE' stands for ‘advanced glycation end products’ and these are formed in foods, particularly when fried and processed. AGE compounds have been shown to affect collagen and elastin production and cause both damage, which in turn means that our skin loses firmness and bounce. Wholegrain foods, pulses, vegetables, fruit, and lower fat milks, yoghurts and cheeses are some of the foods we can eat, which have the lowest AGE content. AGE compounds are naturally present in uncooked animal protein like fish and meat and cooking causes more to be produced. Grilling, roasting, searing, and frying triggers the most while steaming and boiling trigger much lower numbers. Some of the highest non-meat AGE containing foods include crisps, biscuits, and crackers.
3. Keep Dermal Cells Healthy
The cells between collagen and elastin are also important when trying to keep our skin firm since they provide the ‘padding’ between these flexible fibres. In addition, water-trapping compounds like hyaluronic acid have an important role to play. Look for natural products that provide hyaluronic acid and from the inside out, along with products with Kigelia as an ingredient. Kigelia extracts are traditionally used in Africa by women to improve skin firmness and are believed to work by the isoflavones they naturally contain, acting on these skin cells, because they have a similar, cell plumping impact as human oestrogen. A combination of rose, jasmine and calendula extracts in an oil base have been shown to hydrate skin, making it more elastic and improving appearance of wrinkles. Also, try tucking into French beans, honeydew melon and porridge oats, as each give us silica. Extracts of the plant horsetail are also rich in this trace mineral, which helps to keep cells that lie between collagen fibres firm.
The deepest layer of our skin is known as the ‘subcutaneous’ layer and is made up of fat cells and again, some connective tissue. It is full of blood vessels, which bring nutrients, super nutrients and oxygen to the skin and removing toxins and carbon dioxide.
What We Can Do
One of the best things we can do for this subcutaneous layer of our skin is to help our blood vessels to stay robust and healthy to help with a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. A healthy balanced style of eating can help to achieve this, especially when it is low in salt to help control blood pressure and optimise blood flow. Regular aerobic exercise that gently raises your heart rate will also help in this process.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)