Is there any more convincing evidence for vibrant health than a glowing, fresh-faced complexion? Face it: no matter how small or large the number on your waistband or scale, no matter how energetic or fabulous you may feel, if your skin isn’t tip-top, it’s hard to feel good about the skin - and body - you’re in.
The beauty industry understands this, which is why it endlessly focuses on lotions, scrubs and complex “skin care routines” that aim to create radiant skin from the outside in.
But what about from the inside out?
As the largest organ in the body, our skin is arguably the most important interface between our immune response and the external world. It protects the rest of our organs, yet it also requires protection. The skin we see, known as the epidermis, represents the teeniest tip of the iceberg: it can range between 0.3mm and 3.0 mm thick (Yousef, 2020). It is also the only visible part of a vast network of complex cells, proteins, muscles, nerves, and microscopic flora.
Beyond its beauty, skin can reveal a staggering amount of information about complex processes within us, especially when it comes to our nutritional health. It can also reveal allergen sensitivity, emotional status, and of course, age (Michalak, 2021). In fact, it is due to the incredible ability of the skin to show us information about internal health to which we owe our understanding of the essential role of certain fats.
Skin disorders lead to a major discovery
In 1929, the University of Minnesota nutrition research team of George and Mildred Burr published a very interesting finding - one which rocked the notion then in vogue in the scientific community. At that time, it was largely agreed-upon that dietary fats were just another form of energy - interchangeable with carbohydrates, with no peculiar traits of their own (Smith, 2012).
But an experiment intended to reveal the consequences of vitamin deficiency had a surprising result: when fat was completely eliminated from the diet of rats, despite consuming enough calories and vitamins, the rats developed scaly tails, lost fur around their face, erupted in sores throughout their bodies, and ultimately died prematurely.
Additional vitamins didn’t solve the skin problem, either. Something else was up. The Burrs didn’t understand what they were seeing: all of the rats’ nutritional needs were being met - weren’t they? Yet autopsy results indicated significant and unexpected organ damage in the kidneys and urinary tracts.
A second effort to better understand these outcomes resulted in another publication by the Burrs that would usher in a new wave of understanding with regard to fat and physiology. After introducing a variety of oils to the fat-deprived rats, ranging from olive oil, lard, linseed, and cod liver, the rats’ skin recovered and they were able to survive. A new term was coined along with this discovery: essential fatty acid, or EFA. The term “essential” means the body cannot make such fats on its own; they must be consumed in the diet.
So controversial was this assertion that George Burr received a letter of from his post-doctoral mentor, “chiding Burr for having stuck his neck out and made such an error” (Spector, 2015).
Almost a century later, more than 2,000 scientific publications refer to the term “essential fat” and 10 times more refer to fish oil as its most known and beneficial source. Who could have guessed that a dandruffy lab rat would herald such an incredible discovery?
And who could have guessed that essential fats turned out to be essential for healthy skin for humans as well?
Fatty fish modulates inflammation in skin pathologies
The essential nature of certain fats became clear thanks to the Burr research team. Now we have robust evidence that indicates omega-3 deficiency is a common culprit of certain skin conditions including chronic dryness, psoriasis, and more.
Indeed, EPA and DHA are widely acknowledged to be the crux of our inflammation-resolution response and may play a unique role in the resolution of those skin conditions. This means eating enough of the fats found most abundantly in wild fish, and to a lesser extent in pastured livestock, should continue to be a primary goal toward overall dietary wellness (Katta, 2014).
It’s often said that true beauty comes from within, and the topic of skin health is certainly more than skin deep. Focusing on topical application of oil and potions and lotions has a limited reach: for truly healthy skin, nourishment must come from the inside out.
While Burr’s research showed that fats a variety of sources are essential, later research has indicated that the fats from fish are particularly valuable, as they “can improve skin barrier function, inhibit UV-induced inflammation and hyperpigmentation, reduce dry skin and pruritus from dermatitis and accelerate skin wound healing” just to name a few benefits (Huang, 2018).
Good skin begins within
Yet most of our focus on the topic of skin wellness remains - well - topical: mostly aimed toward the top dermal layer, which is made mainly of dead skin cells. This is similar to having a beautiful garden and neglecting the soil, watering, root system, and nutrients throughout the springtime and summertime, and then giving those falling leaves the utmost care and pampering as they fall to the ground to decay in the autumn.
The irony is (literally!) rich: we pour more and more money (CNN reports that the beauty industry is projected to grow from $123 to $185B in the next five years) on that teeny 0.3mm tip of the iceberg, much to the delight of the skincare industry. Yet whether that lathering and slathering of scrubs, tonics, hydrosols, moisturizers, serums, and oils effectively change the appearance or function of the skin is still far from scientifically established.
It seems clear that topical intervention can’t compare to the ultimate nourishing habits from inside out: and certain fats pack a plumper wallop than others.
Not only are the nutrients predominant in fatty fish such as vitamins A, B, D and E, and collagens, but the superstar fats omega-3 EPA and DHA have crucial roles to play in inflammation control and tissue repair (Gutiérrez, 2019). EPA and DHA may even help protect from the sun’s aging effects by reducing UV-induced inflammation, which can lead to fewer wrinkles (Schagen, 2012).
So make sure to bring a tin of sardines for your next beach picnic!
Ghadially R. (1998). Aging and the epidermal permeability barrier: implications for contact dermatitis. American journal of contact dermatitis : official journal of the American Contact Dermatitis Society, 9(3), 162–169.
Gutiérrez, S., Svahn, S. L., & Johansson, M. E. (2019). Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(20), 5028. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20205028
Huang, T.H., Wang, P.W., Yang, S.C., Chou, W.L., & Fang, J.Y. (2018). Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil’s Fatty Acids on the Skin. Marine drugs, 16(8), 256. https://doi.org/10.3390/md16080256
Katta, R., & Desai, S. P. (2014). Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 7(7), 46–51.
Michalak, M., Pierzak, M., Kręcisz, B., & Suliga, E. (2021). Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients, 13(1), 203. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13010203
Schagen, S. K., Zampeli, V. A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Discovering the link between nutrition and skin aging. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 298–307. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.22876
Smith, W., & Mukhopadhyay, R. (2012). Essential fatty acids: the work of George and Mildred Burr. The Journal of biological chemistry, 287(42), 35439–35441. https://doi.org/10.1074/jbc.O112.000005
Spector AA, Kim HY. Discovery of essential fatty acids. J Lipid Res. 2015 Jan;56(1):11-21. doi: 10.1194/jlr.R055095. Epub 2014 Oct 22. PMID: 25339684; PMCID: PMC4274059.
Yousef H, Alhajj M, Sharma S. Anatomy, Skin (Integument), Epidermis. [Updated 2020 Jul 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470464/