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Top Micronutrients for Skin Health and How to Test for Them

Medically reviewed by 
 
Top Micronutrients for Skin Health and How to Test for Them

Optimal skin health is not merely the result of expensive skincare products or elaborate beauty routines; it also hinges on a well-rounded approach to nutrition. Micronutrients often take center stage when it comes to achieving optimal skin health. Essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants protect and nourish the skin from within, combating signs of aging, blemishes, and inflammation. This article will discuss the top micronutrient needs for skin health, highlighting their unique benefits, food sources, and other health considerations.

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Importance of Micronutrients for Overall Skin Health

Micronutrients are crucial in supporting and enhancing the skin's barrier function, vital for maintaining overall skin health. The skin barrier, also known as the stratum corneum, protects against external aggressors, such as harmful bacteria and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, helps maintain proper hydration levels, and protects the skin from excess oxidative stress. Certain micronutrients contribute directly to the integrity and strength of the skin barrier. Therefore, eating a balanced diet rich in skin-essential nutrients supports the production of essential lipids and collagen, retains moisture, and protects against inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to healthy skin and prevent premature aging, redness, and blemishes. (1)

Vitamin A's Role in Skin Health

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is derived from two different sources. Preformed vitamin A, encompassing retinol and retinyl esters, are found primarily in animal products. Provitamin A carotenoids, found in plant-based products, are converted into vitamin A by the body. 

Benefits of Vitamin A for Skin Health

Skin is one of the body's predominant retinoid-responsive tissues. The epidermis and the dermis contain proteins and receptors that mediate the biological effects of vitamin A in the skin, supporting the process of cell turnover and facilitating the constant renewal of healthy skin cells. Vitamin A also supports the synthesis of collagen, the protein that provides structural support to maintain skin elasticity and firmness. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with poor wound healing. (2)

Along with an essential role in maintaining skin barrier integrity, vitamin A also exerts antioxidant activity and modulates sebum (oil) production. Because of these various effects, vitamin A is clinically recommended to reduce wrinkling, promote skin smoothness, and diminish hyperpigmentation. Oral and topical vitamin A is often recommended for treating dermatologic conditions like acne and keratosis pilaris. (1, 2)

Food Sources Rich in Vitamin A

Vitamin A and its carotenoids are found naturally in many foods, including sweet potatoes, carrots, green leafy vegetables (e.g., kale and spinach), organ meats, mangos, apricots, red bell peppers, cod liver oil, eggs, and fortified dairy products and breakfast cereals. (3)

Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin A

The amount of vitamin A you need depends on your age and sex. The average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals, called the recommended daily allowance (RDA), for vitamin A is reported in micrograms (mcg) of retinol activity equivalents (RAE). (3, 4)

Potential Risks and Precautions

Risk is associated with taking too much preformed vitamin A, typically from supplements or certain medications. Vitamin A toxicity can present clinically with severe headache, blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, muscle aches, discoordination, elevated liver enzymes, coma, and death. Excess intake of vitamin A during pregnancy is associated with congenital birth defects related to the eyes, skull, lungs, and heart. (3, 4)

These toxic effects are not associated with a high intake of beta-carotene. Consuming high amounts of beta-carotene can turn the skin yellow-orange, a harmless self-resolving problem called carotenodermia. However, studies show that smokers, former smokers, and people exposed to asbestos taking high-dose beta-carotene supplements have a higher risk of lung cancer and death. (3, 4)

Vitamin C's Role in Skin Health

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a powerful water-soluble and antioxidant vitamin that plays a crucial role in collagen synthesis, immune function, and skin protection from oxidative stress and environmental damage.

Importance of Vitamin C for Skin Health

Vitamin C is vital in providing structural support to the skin and wound healing through its involvement in synthesizing collagen and new connective tissue. Scurvy, the vitamin C-deficient state, causes cutaneous manifestations because the resulting decline in collagen synthesis and vascularization impedes nutrient delivery to the skin and impairs the skin's structural integrity. As a potent antioxidant and scavenger of reactive oxygen species, vitamin C also combats UV-induced skin damage, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. (1, 5)

Food Sources Rich in Vitamin C

Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, and cantaloupe. (6)

Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin C

The RDAs for vitamin C are listed in the table below. Because there is insufficient evidence to develop an RDA for infants up to 12 months old, an adequate intake (AI) has been developed to ensure nutritional adequacy for this population. The vitamin C AI is 40 mg for infants up to six months old and 50 mg for infants aged 7-12 months. It's also important to note that smokers require an additional 35 mg of vitamin C daily than nonsmokers. (6, 7)

Potential Risks and Precautions

Vitamin C has very low toxicity but can cause gastrointestinal upset at higher doses, most notably involving abdominal pain and diarrhea. Also, because vitamin C can enhance the absorption of iron and increase urinary excretion of oxalate and uric acid, patients with a history of hemochromatosis, kidney stones, and gout should be advised to avoid high supplemental doses of vitamin C. (6, 7)

Vitamin E's Role in Skin Health

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant with several tocopherol and tocotrienol forms. Of the eight distinct molecules, alpha-tocopherol is the body's preferred form to meet nutritional requirements.

Role of Vitamin E in Promoting Skin Health

As an antioxidant, the primary role of vitamin E in the skin is to prevent UV-induced skin damage by free radicals, reduce inflammation, and support wound healing. Vitamin E works synergistically with vitamin C to prevent collagen breakdown and premature skin aging. (1, 8)

Food Sources Rich in Vitamin E

Most vitamin E in American diets is gamma-tocopherol from soybean, canola, corn, and other vegetable oils. However, many foods contain alpha-tocopherol, including nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals. (9)

Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin E

The RDAs for vitamin E are listed in the table below. Like vitamin C, AI values have been developed for infants under one year. The AI for infants from birth to six months is 4 mg, and for infants 6-12 months is 5 mg. (9)

Potential Risks and Precautions

There are no known adverse effects from consuming vitamin E in food; however, research suggests alpha-tocopherol's hemorrhagic potential in supplemental form. Vitamin E doses of up to 1,000 mg daily in adults appear safe. (9)

Zinc's Role in Skin Health

Zinc is an essential trace mineral the body requires for many physiological functions, including reproduction, cellular replication, and immune functioning. Six percent of total body zinc is located in the skin (10). 

Significance of Zinc for Skin Health

As it pertains to the skin, zinc's primary role is to protect the skin against photodamage by absorbing UV irradiation, limiting radiation penetration into the skin. This is why many sunscreens use zinc oxide as a primary ingredient. As an essential component of more than 300 metalloenzymes, zinc is important in maintaining the proper immune status, wound repair, and cell differentiation processes involved in skin cell turnover and maintenance. Additionally, zinc supports the healthy functioning of the skin's immune system, defending against infection and inflammation. Zinc deficiency has been associated with the development of many dermatologic conditions, including atopic dermatitis, hyperpigmentation, and epidermolysis bullosa. (1, 11

Food Sources Rich in Zinc

The richest food sources of zinc include meat, fish, and seafood. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. Beef and fortified breakfast cereals are major sources of zinc in the American diet because they are commonly consumed. Eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts, and whole grains are also natural sources of zinc. Zinc from animal products is the most bioavailable for the body because phytates in plant-based foods impair zinc absorption. (12)

Recommended Daily Intake of Zinc

RDAs for zinc have been developed for almost every age group, as listed in the table below. An AI of 2 mg daily has been developed for infants aged 0-6 months. (12)

Potential Risks and Precautions

Dietary intake of zinc is unlikely to cause adverse effects. It is common for supplemental zinc to cause gastrointestinal upset, including symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Supplemental zinc at doses of more than 50 mg daily, dosed for weeks, can result in copper deficiency, reduced immune function, and lowered HDL cholesterol levels. Extremely high doses of zinc (142 mg daily) may also cause magnesium deficiency. (12)

Essential Fatty Acids' Role in Skin Health

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are polyunsaturated fats that cannot be synthesized by the body and, therefore, must be obtained through the diet. There are two classes of EFAs: omega-6 and omega-3. Linoleic acid (LA) is the parent compound of omega-6 fatty acids; alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the parent compound of omega-3 fatty acids. While both are important for health, many people overconsume omega-6 EFAs compared to omega-3s. The Western diet typically has a ratio of around 15:1 omega-6:omega-3, whereas studies show that a ratio of 4:1 omega-6:omega-3, or less, is optimal for health. (13, 14)

Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids for Skin Health

Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids contribute to skin health by promoting hydration and modulating inflammation. In addition, omega-6 EFAs play a crucial role in supporting the skin's structural integrity and barrier function. EFA supplementation, typically as fish oil, has well-documented benefits in treating dermatologic conditions, including acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis. (15)

Food Sources Rich in Essential Fatty Acids

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds (16). Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils (13).

Recommended Daily Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The following table lists the recommended AIs for omega-3 fatty acids. For infants up to 12 months, the AIs apply to total omega-3s. For ages one year and above, the AIs apply only to ALA. (16)

Recommended Daily Intake of Omega-6 Fatty Acids

The established AIs for omega-6 fatty acids are listed in the table below. For infants up to 12 months, the AIs apply to total omega-6s. For ages one and above, the AIs apply only to LA. (17)

Potential Risks and Precautions

High doses of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids may cause gastrointestinal upset and loose stools. Case reports have also noted induced seizure activity in people with epilepsy taking omega-6 EFAs. High intakes of omega-3 fatty acids (over 5 grams daily) may inhibit clotting and increase the risk of excessive bleeding. (16, 17)

Testing for Micronutrient Deficiencies 

Specialty labs enable the precise evaluation of nutrient status at both the functional and cellular levels. Using advanced diagnostic methods, these tests aid in identifying nutrient deficiencies but also offer insight into the underlying factors contributing to suboptimal nutritional states in patients.

Micronutrient Testing

A micronutrient panel is designed to functionally assess a patient's nutritional status by measuring levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids. These panels combine direct and functional markers of nutrients to screen for deficiencies and assess how they work in the body at the cellular level.

Comprehensive Gut Evaluation

For patients with nutrient deficiencies without apparent cause (i.e., increased metabolic demand or restricted diet), specialty tests evaluating gut health and function can be helpful to screen for intestinal inflammation and permeability, infection and other dysbiosis, food sensitivities, and digestive enzyme insufficiencies contributing to poor digestion and nutrient absorption. Commonly utilized gastrointestinal tests include a comprehensive stool analysis, leaky gut panel, and food sensitivity panel.

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Summary

Micronutrients play a crucial role in maintaining optimal skin health and appearance. These nutrients support various aspects of skin health, including cell turnover, collagen synthesis, and protection against oxidative stress and inflammation. Incorporating a diverse range of micronutrients through a balanced diet or supplementation can fortify the skin's natural defense mechanisms, maintain hydration, and ultimately contribute to achieving healthy, vibrant skin.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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References

1. Park, K. (2015). Role of Micronutrients in Skin Health and Function. Biomolecules & Therapeutics, 23(3), 207–217. https://doi.org/10.4062/biomolther.2015.003

2. Angelo, G. (2016, November 7). Vitamin A and Skin Health. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-A

3. National Institutes of Health. (2021, January 14). Vitamin A. Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/

4. Sweetnich, J. (2023, March 24). Vitamin A 101: Health Benefits, Testing, & Top Foods. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/vitamin-a-101-health-benefits-testing-top-foods

5. Michels, A. J. (2011, September). Vitamin C and Skin Health. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-C

6. National Institutes of Health. (2021b, March 26). Vitamin C. Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/

7. Sweetnich, J. (2023b, May 9). How to Make Sure Your Patients Are Getting Enough Vitamin C in Their Diet: Understanding Testing, RDAs, and The Benefits of Supplementation. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/vitamin-c-101

8. Michels, A. J. (2012, February). Vitamin E and Skin Health. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-E

9. National Institutes of Health. (2017). Vitamin E. Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/

10. Angelo, G. (2013, January). Minerals and Skin Health. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/minerals

11. Ogawa, Y., Kinoshita, M., Shimada, S., et al. (2018). Zinc and Skin Disorders. Nutrients, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020199

12. National Institutes of Health. (2016). Zinc. Office of Dietary Supplements; National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/

13. Preston, J. (2022, November 10). What's The Difference Between Good And Bad Dietary Fat? Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/dietary-fat-the-good-the-bad-and-the-misunderstood

14. DePorto, T. (2023, January 6). Omega 3's: The Superfood Nutrient You Need To Know About. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/omega-3s-the-superfood-nutrient-you-need-to-know-about

15. Omega-6 fatty acids Information. Mount Sinai Health System. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/omega-6-fatty-acids

16. National Institute of Health. (2017). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

17. Higdon, J. (2003). Essential Fatty Acids. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids#intake-recommendations

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