With about 2 square yards (1.7 meters squared) of exposed skin to care for, it makes sense that many people's medicine cabinets are crammed with skin-care products [source: iVillage]. But for most of us, using more than two or three of those products on a daily basis is unnecessary -- and may even be doing more harm than good.
The exposed layer of skin we're slathering with lotions, creams, toners, scrubs and cleansers is called the epidermis -- it's the outermost of the three layers of skin. The epidermis is the most vulnerable to environmental damage, typically UV light that can leave it discolored and old-looking; and skin in general undergoes an aging process that can leave it looking dull, wrinkled and dry. Enter the hundreds of "scientific" skin-care products on store shelves -- some costing upward of $100 an ounce -- intended to clear, plump, de-wrinkle, brighten and just generally beautify all different skin types.
In reality, it's not rocket science. Skin only needs a handful of simple, inexpensive "treatments" to get and stay healthy -- and healthy-looking. And many of those treatments are the same ones the rest of your body needs to operate at its optimum level. Adding additional, expert-recommended products into a skin-care routine isn't necessarily a bad thing, and can in some cases be quite beneficial; but for most people, effective skin care is actually a pretty simple process.
For more information about skin regimens, read Skin Regimens: Fast Facts.
In this article, we'll find out what everybody's skin needs every day, why those elements are so important, where you'll find them, and which supposed "necessities" might really be harming your complexion.
The first daily must is the most obvious: Healthy skin has to be clean.
Cleansing is the most basic element of any skin-care routine. It not only removes excess dirt, pollutants and pore-clogging oil from the epidermis so it can remain blemish-free, but it also preps the skin for any subsequent products you'll be using, so active ingredients (like vitamins or sunscreen) can penetrate and be most effective.
But not all cleansers are the same. First, a facial cleanser should always be soap-free; the soap products you use on the rest of your body are typically too harsh for the face. And, as with most skin-care products, you need to pick one that suits your skin type. For very dry skin, you might want to go with a creamy cleanser. Dry and/or sensitive skin should always go alcohol-free, whether creamy or not. An oily epidermis can benefit from an acidic cleanser, like an alpha-hydroxy product, which does a better job of breaking up sebum -- the skin's oily secretion that can lead to clogged pores.
Whichever cleanser is right for you, be sure to massage it into your face for at least 20 seconds so it has a chance to do its job [source: SmartSkinCare].
Cleansing is all about the surface of the skin. Up next, going a bit deeper…
The human body is full of water -- it's 55 percent to 75 percent of what we are [source: ASA]. Water flushes toxins out of the body, allows our cells to absorb nutrients, and keeps our digestive processes moving smoothly.
But that water isn't a constant. The most basic bodily processes, like breathing and sweating, remove that water from our cells. So for our cells to function properly, we need to consume lots of water to replace what we lose.
The skin is no different from the rest of the body when it comes to needing hydration. Water helps to remove impurities from the skin that can lead to pimples, and it hydrates to keep the skin looking plump and smooth.
To keep the skin hydrated, you should drink at least half a gallon (2 liters) of water each day [source: Edgar].
Up next: Water doesn't do much good if your cells can't hold on to it.
Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are an important component of any healthy diet. They help to build up the lipid-based cell membranes that hold in water and nutrients. In the case of the skin, those lipids also form an oil barrier that protects the skin from UV damage and pollutants.
Without EFAs, skin-cell membranes and that overall protective barrier can't work effectively. The skin ends up overly exposed, dehydrated and prone to produce a more harmful type of sebum, leaving it dry, inflamed and blemished [source: Bouchez].
The EFAs you need to keep your skin looking great are primarily omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 is found in tons of foods, including poultry, grains and cooking oils, so you're probably getting plenty of that. Omega-3s are somewhat harder to come by; you'll find those in cold-water fish, like salmon and sardines, along with flaxseed and safflower oils, kidney beans, walnuts and spinach. Some skin experts also recommend another EFA, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), for its anti-inflammatory effects. GLA is founds mostly in plant oils.
You might find it helpful to take an omega-3 or GLA supplement to improve your skin health. You'll find those in most grocery stores, and definitely any natural-foods store.
EFAs can improve your complexion from the inside. Up next, something to protect your skin on the outside.
When you use sunscreen, you're not just helping to protect yourself from diseases like skin cancer; you're also helping to prevent the signs of skin aging that come from sun exposure. Skin that's left naked in the sun ends up more discolored and wrinkled and less elastic than skin that has been steadily shielded from UV radiation.
In fact, what most of us think of as "aged skin" is, more specifically, sun-damaged skin [source: Mayo Clinic].
To protect your skin from the effects of the sun, you can choose either a chemical sunscreen, like avobenzone or oxybenzone, or a physical one, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Either way, look for one with a sun-protection factor (SPF) greater than 15, and apply it at least 20 minutes before you're going to be in the sun [source: Mayo Clinic]. That way, the active ingredients have time to take effect before the UV exposure begins.
If you go swimming or have occasion to sweat a lot, be sure to reapply afterward.
Up next, another element of great skin that doubles as a cancer fighter.
Antioxidants are widely believed to be beneficial for both cardiovascular health and cancer prevention. They're found in all sorts of foods, including fruits, vegetables, seafood and oils. Antioxidants' free-radical-fighting activities destroy molecules that can damage healthy cells, and as it turns out, they're as great for skin cells as they are for every other cell in the body.
While many different antioxidants can be beneficial to the skin, two in particular get lots of attention:
- Vitamin C -- Builds collagen for plump, tight skin. Find it in whole grains, apples and citrus fruits. Aim for 75 milligrams a day [source: Edgar].
- Vitamin E -- Protects cell membranes and "boosts" skin-based nutrients that fight off UV damage. Find it in wheat germ oil, almonds, and peanut butter. Aim for 15 milligrams a day [source: Edgar].
Other skin-beautifying antioxidants include selenium, thiamine, beta-carotene and zinc.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Basic skin care routine. SmartSkinCare.http://www.smartskincare.com/skincarebasics/basicroutine.html
- Bouchez, Colette. Nutrients for Healthy Skin: Inside and Out. WebMD.http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/skin-nutrition
- Edgar, Jolene. "The Nutrients Your Skin Needs Now." Fitness Magazine.http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/beauty/skin-care/clear/nutrients-skin-needs/?page=1
- Gold, Alana. "Health Benefits of Drinking Water." Truestar Health.http://www.truestarhealth.com/members/cm_archives12ML3P1A1.html
- Janes, Beth. "Back to basics." Self.http://www.self.com/beauty/2009/04/skin-care-basics
- Nordenberg, Tamar. "Feed Your Skin the Nutrients It Needs." Discovery Health.http://health.discovery.com/centers/healthbeauty/beautybasics/skinnutrition.html
- Robinson, Dana. "Healthy Diet, Healthy Skin." WeightWatchers.com.http://www.weightwatchers.com/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=59401&sc=3048
- Six Tips for Healthy Hair and Skin. Weil.http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02032/healhty-hair-and-skin.html
- Skin Basics. iVillage.http://yourtotalhealth.ivillage.com/skin-basics.html
- Skin care: Top 5 habits for healthy skin. MayoClinic.http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/skin-care/SN00003