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Eat Your Way to Healthy Skin

By Julie Schoonover - UMES Dietetic Intern

We often hear how the foods we eat can impact our health relating to things like heart disease or having healthy bones. But have you ever wondered how what you eat impacts your skin? Skin is the largest organ of our bodies and plays a wide variety of roles. It protects internal organs, helps regulate body temperature and produces vitamin D. Skin health can be affected by external factors, like the foods we eat, our environment and lifestyle habits. This month, we’re doing a deep dive into how skin damage happens, what nutrients play a role in having healthy skin and how to best protect our skin from sun damage.

How Does Skin Damage Happen?

Before discussing nutrients important for skin health, we must first understand how skin damage and aging happens. Our DNA is located inside the body’s cells, and something called a telomere is located at the end of each DNA coil. The telomere keeps DNA from unraveling or fraying. This is similar to the little plastic tip at the end of a shoelace, which keeps the shoelace from becoming frayed or damaged. Telomeres become shortened every time DNA divides, and over time, it will eventually disappear, contributing to skin aging. An enzyme called telomerase can rebuild telomeres before they disappear. Studies show that telomerase activity can be influenced by the foods we eat! One study found that eating unprocessed and whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains and healthy fats was associated with longer telomere length.

Another aspect to consider is something called inflammation, which is the body’s normal reaction to injury or infection. When inflammation lasts too long, this can be damaging to our bodies. Skin damage and aging can be accelerated by inflammatory processes, including loss of skin cell function with age and external factors like exposure to UV light, smoking, pollution, poor sleep and poor nutrition. These factors combine and over time show up in the skin as dryness, sallowness, loss of elasticity (sagging or crinkling) and even fine wrinkles.

In addition to shortened telomeres and inflammation, oxidative damage can contribute to accelerated skin aging. Normal reactions that happen in our body can result in producing a side product called free radicals, which are unstable, highly reactive and can damage our body’s cells (called oxidative damage). Molecules called antioxidants exist to neutralize free radicals and prevent that from happening. When there are too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants, oxidative damage occurs. But where do antioxidants come from? The foods we eat! Next, we’ll talk about nutrients that act as antioxidants and how they keep our skin healthy.

It’s important to note that aging and its impact on skin is not completely preventable. Antioxidants, sun safety and other ways to take care of your skin can help delay the effects of aging. By taking care of your skin and eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet, you can give your body the tools it needs to keep your skin looking healthy as long as possible!

Nutrients That Your Skin Loves

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is the primary antioxidant that is involved in skin health. It protects skin cells from damage by stopping oxidative damage to the lipids in our cell membranes. Getting enough vitamin E in our diet is important to keep its normal function in the skin! Some foods that contain vitamin E include:

  • Roasted nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts
  • Roasted sunflower seeds
  • Sunflower oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Spinach
  • Try this Apple Almond Spinach Salad recipe!

After vitamin E performs its antioxidant duties, it needs to be regenerated. This regeneration process is completed by vitamin C in the skin, the next nutrient we’ll talk about.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is the second most involved nutrient in skin health. It works as an antioxidant in the skin by neutralizing free radicals to regenerate vitamin E. It also promotes gene expression for collagen production, a protein that is a major component of the skin. Some foods that contain vitamin C include:

  • Fruits like oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries, cantaloupe
  • Red and green peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomato juice
  • Potato
  • Try this Warm Broccoli Orange Lentil Salad recipe!


Polyphenols are compounds found in plant foods. There are thousands of different types, such as resveratrol in grapes and flavonoids in fruits and veggies. Polyphenols play a lot of helpful roles in the body. In the skin, they also act as antioxidants along with vitamins E and C. Past research shows that polyphenols may play a role in preventing skin damage from UV rays when in combination with sunscreen, though more research is needed to see exactly what role they play in keeping our skin healthy. Some foods that contain polyphenols are:

  • Berries like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries
  • Other fruits like apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries
  • Kale
  • Orange and grapefruit juice
  • Miso and tempeh
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beans
  • Green and black tea
  • Try this Berry Overnight Oats recipe or your favorite berry smoothie!

Safe Sun Exposure

Now that you know how the foods we eat can impact our skin health, let’s discuss another external factor that plays a large role: the sun. This topic can be tricky because sunlight plays a large role in producing vitamin D, but too much exposure can be dangerous. Here we’ll discuss how we can safely get sunlight.

Vitamin D gets produced when our skin is exposed to sunlight, and ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) hits the cholesterol in the skin. We can also get vitamin D from eating fortified foods or using a supplement. While getting some sunlight is important for making vitamin D, this needs to be balanced. Too much exposure to the sun can lead to health risks like sunburn, damage to the eyes and the development of damaged skin.

If you are looking to get sun exposure, first you must be familiar with how much sun you can handle. Some fair people may get sunburnt after just 10 minutes of being in direct sunlight. If this is true for you, this could limit the amount of vitamin D you’re getting from the sun and you may consider making sure your intake includes vitamin D sources from foods or supplements. Darker-skinned people have more melanin, which protects the skin from damage from too much sun. This also means that darker-skinned people need to stay in the sun longer than lighter-skinned people to produce the same amount of vitamin D.

It is best to use sunscreen when in strong sunlight for any prolonged period of time. Sunscreen works by reflecting or absorbing sunlight so that the skin is exposed to less harmful UV rays. This also blocks UVB rays and prevents the skin from producing vitamin D. Going out in the sun in moderation and using sunscreen can help keep your skin safe and healthy. The CDC recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher, reapplying if you’re out for more than two hours or if you swim, sweat or towel off.

By following a well-balanced, nutritious eating pattern and practicing safe sun exposure, you can ensure healthy and strong skin. Not sure how to implement these into your life? Book an appointment with the campus dietitian!


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