Fat must have one helluva spin doctor. The stuff that was accused of being the root of all evil in the ’70s and ’80s has undergone a resurgence that would make the Spice Girls proud in recent years. Now, it’s being talked about in beauty circles with the same enthusiasm as retinol and 12-step regimens. All of which might come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever witnessed the impact of a choc heavy diet on their complexion. So how can fat be good for the skin?
First, a quick science lesson. Your skin has two main layers: the dermis (base layer) and the epidermis (outer layer). A sheet of fat cells covers the epidermis like a blanket, locking in water. Essential fatty acids, or EFAs (you’ll know them as omega-3 and -6), are a crucial part of this lipid matrix and help form your skin’s structure and function. And since your body is unable to manufacture EFAs, the upshot is this: they need to come from your diet. Dietary fat also helps you absorb vitamins A, D and E – micronutrients vital for healthy skin. But while fats play a role in skin hydration, quality research showing a direct link between the two is lacking, and existing evidence linking fat intake with skin health is contradictory, depending on which markers you look at.
In one study of 300 healthy adults, in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, higher fat intakes were linked with lower skin hydration levels. However, in other research, they’ve been associated with better skin elasticity but also an increased likelihood of wrinkles. Hmmm. What seems more important is the type of fat you consume. As anyone who’s ever felt the need to justify their avo habit will know, not all fats are created equal. Higher intakes of monounsaturated fat (MUFA to its mates) – the kind in olive oil, nuts and, yes, avocados – have been linked with protection against photo-ageing, or skin damage caused by sun exposure. In a PLOS One study, French researchers found the lowest risk of severe photo-ageing in those chowing down on the highest levels of MUFA, specifically from olive oil. Positive effects have also been shown on skin elasticity, and higher intakes of EFAs have been linked with less age-related dryness in more mature skin.
Favouring fats with a specific skin complaint in mind? Several studies have shown that high-dose omega-3 supps can lead to wins for inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and acne, likely due to the inhibiting effects of omega-3 on pesky hormones. The skinny? If you’re not eating for a specific skin condition, you should be able to get all the fats you need from a balanced diet. Omega-6 deficiencies are rare, but omega-3 is less abundant, the richest source being fatty fish, especially salmon. Since plant-based diets are on the rise, supplementing is smart if you’re going fish-free, as the conversion of plant-based omega-3 (from foods including walnuts and chia seeds) to longer chain anti inflammatory omega-3 is poor.
The skin-quenching truth is there’s scant evidence that a diet particularly high in fats can be recommended as a treatment for skin health. But research does complement existing dietary advice like olive oil atop a tricolore salad: a moderate fat intake focused on MUFA and EFAs alongside a high intake of colourful fruit and veg (for those fat-soluble vitamins) is most likely to protect your skin. But, like Baz Luhrmann, if I could offer you only one tip for the future of your skin, it’s this: wear sunscreen.