It’s easy to feel like skincare is topical (no pun intended). Because the focus of modern skincare tends to be on products and treatments, most people think of their skin as something to be treated externally through a skincare regimen. While products and treatments can definitely support healthy skin, the truth is, the healthiest skin is supported first and foremost by a healthy lifestyle.
What is a “healthy” lifestyle?
In one study performed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it was found that (according to their criteria) participants who lived a so-called “healthy” lifestyle lived significantly longer lives than those who did not. Although the study was focused on longevity, these results speak to the overall health benefits associated with their criteria: diet, exercise, weight, smoking, and alcohol intake.
Each of these pillars directly correlates to maintaining healthy skin, not just life expectancy. Let’s break it down:
Biochemist Elaine Linker, Ph.D., co-founder of DDF skin care, says, “Any number of chronic skin problems can be directly linked to diet.” A healthy diet provides the body with essential nutrition. By “essential,” we’re not referring to a specific amount of food or restriction of it, but the quality of the nutrients that we receive through food. If we think about each meal we eat as having a specific value – not caloric, but nutritional – then what we want to do is try to maximize the number of highly nutritious meals we eat.
For instance, we should prioritize eating whole foods (foods that have not been highly processed) to ingest vitamins and minerals that can be lost when foods are processed. These vitamins and minerals (whole grains in nuts and seed husks, phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, and more) are critical in the regenerative processes of our skin and the health of our cells. If your body is not properly nourished, it will go into survival mode, deciding that certain parts of the body are non-essential. Your skin health is one of the first things to leave when you have poor nutrition or a gut imbalance, both often resulting from poor food choices.
*TIP - Eat lots of antioxidant foods, like blueberries, black beans, artichokes, blackberries, and raspberries, to protect your cells from free radicals. These damaging, unstable atoms are produced during sun exposure, and can damage the skin’s membrane, leading to premature aging, sun spots, and wrinkles.
The US Dermatology Partners write, “Exercise actually decreases the body’s elevated hormonal and immune responses to stress. This can minimize the risk of chronic skin condition breakouts and flare-ups. It also keeps the immune system healthy and better able to respond if needed to combat skin and whole-body health concerns.” Exercise, even just moving your body for a few minutes every day, can prime it to contend with any irritants that might lead to inflamed skin.
In addition, exercise is also proven to improve mental health, a component of skincare that is often overlooked. Poor mental health doesn’t just lead to struggles with self-care – it actually can alter your microbiome and increase the number of bad bacteria living in your gut and on your skin. If you struggle with mental health challenges and breakouts, it’s likely that the two are linked in more ways than you know. Exercising, which brings a rush of endorphins to the body and improves feelings of anxiety and depression, can help return your body and mind to balance.
*TIP - After you exercise, be sure to wash your face before the sweat dries down. If you aren’t in the habit of doing this, that sweat (and any dirt or pollutants you may pick up on your skin) can lead to more clogged pores.
It’s well-documented that obesity can lead to increased skin problems and inflammatory conditions like psoriasis and various skin infections. While your weight is your business, it is a component of your health, and something that can affect your skin in many ways. For instance, if your weight is a source of anxiety or self-consciousness, your mental health can be damaged, leading to stress-related gut imbalances that show up on your face. If you struggle to exercise, your body and immune system can be more susceptible to infection and slower to heal. If you overeat highly-processed foods, those foods can fail to actually feed you, nutritionally, and contribute to vitamin and mineral deficiencies over time.
Because our bodies are made up of many interconnected parts, it would be silly to overlook the role that weight can play in our skin health. Part of your healthy lifestyle should be a commitment to medical awareness – not associated with any shame about your weight – and the pursuit of healthy habits that can support you both mentally and physically. Taking steps to be healthy at any weight can greatly improve your skin.
*TIP - If managing your weight comes with a lot of fear or shame, try starting with one small change. Whether you commit to adding in some exercise, changing one part of your diet, or addressing your mental health, one small change will feel less overwhelming than trying to go on a crazy diet or follow a draconian exercise plan. Slow and steady wins the race!
Smoking has long been debunked as a “healthy” part of one’s lifestyle, although it was initially marketed that way. When it comes to smoking, cigarettes or otherwise, there are many short and long-term effects on the skin. In the short term, you can experience yellowing fingers and nails, dry skin, and increased breakouts due to additional toxins in the body. In the long term, you can experience saggy facial skin, dark under eyes, permanent skin damage, and of course, the more severe internal effects of long-term smoking.
Smoking causes a number of serious health problems, like lung, tongue, and throat cancer. However, what is less known is the effect of smoking on your body’s ability to heal. Smoking any kind of inhalant is correlated to delayed wound healing and increased infections. What does that mean? It means that when you get conditions like acne, psoriasis, or sun damage, they are much slower to heal – in some cases, never healing entirely. You’re more likely to develop serious infections from cuts and rashes, and your body’s weakened immune system will be hard-pressed to fight them off.
*TIP - If you’re considering quitting, call in reinforcements! It can be hard, mentally and physically, to stop smoking. Confide in your family and friends when you feel the urge to smoke, and rely on them to support you while you work on stabilizing yourself without a cigarette or vape.
Alcohol, confidence booster though it may be, is certainly not a long-term boost to your appearance. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it will cause you to urinate more frequently. This leads to unnecessary water loss, something that can cause you to become dehydrated. Dehydration is a real pain for your skin, and can make it look dry, sallow, and grey.
If you’re concerned about premature aging, alcohol is one of the most common culprits. Because of dehydration, your wrinkles and lines can appear more pronounced, and combined with dryness, your complexion can be affected after only one night of drinking. If you drink frequently, and are looking to improve your skin, consider curbing your alcohol intake for a week to see if your skin responds to the change.
*TIP - You can’t truly offset the dehydrating impact of alcohol on your body - however, you can minimize it by drinking equal amounts of water and alcohol in a night. If you’re out drinking with friends, make sure to drink a full glass of water between alcoholic drinks.