Beautiful skin is never just skin deep. What you massage into your skin is likely to be absorbed into your bloodstream, and what you subject your body to shows up on your skin. Clear, radiant skin is a mark of vitality while good skin contributes, in turn, to good health.
That's because your skin is more than a body wrapper. It's your body's largest organ, and the trillions of cells that compose it serve as your first line of defense against microbial invasion and help regulate your body temperature. Skin covers an astonishing 19 square feet of area, weighs in around seven pounds and is teeming with sweat glands, sebaceous glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, heat and cold sensors and nerves.
How smoothly, easily and flexibly your skin performs its many duties and how well it looks has a lot to do with your health.
Those in search of the per-feet complexion will be delighted to know that nature turns out an entirely new epidermis every 28 days, but generally, it takes longer than that to clear up all your skin problems. In addition to the time it takes for skin to manifest bodily dysfunction--a stage in which your skin might look worse--it takes time to bring your body systems into balance.
Take It Off
The big cosmetic companies don't want you to know it, but those who use no products at all often boast better skin than those who buy every wonder cream that hits the market. The reason is that the average consumer is coating her face with petroleum--or worse.
Propylene glycol, for instance, is commonly used in cosmetics to hold moisture and promote skin elasticity. "But in high concentrations, it can be irritating to people with sensitive skin," says Mike Helman, who is in charge of product testing at Revlon and Almay.
Mineral oil, another prevalent component, is attractive to cosmetic manufacturers because it is cheaper and more stable than vegetable oils, but it clogs the pores, causing allergic reactions such as hives and rashes. Isopropyl alcohol, isopropyl myristate, sodium lauryl sulfate and triethanolamine can also cause problems.
"People come to me with severe allergic skin reactions caused by cosmetic chemicals that strip the skin and cause breakouts," says Zia Wesley-Hosford, an esthetician and cosmetologist.
The picture is a lot prettier with products labeled "natural," but these cosmetics may contain binders, emulsifiers, artificial colors and fragrances that irritate the skin. For more on this subject, refer to A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, by Ruth Winter (Crown, 1994).
Department store "natural" skincare products, such as Clarins, contain artificial colors, fragrances and mineral oil. Many natural food store brands do not, but you might want to scan the label for multisyllabic ingredients that sound chemical in origin. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer.
If you suffer from sensitive skin, acne or other persistent problems, don't hide under a blanket of foundation and concealer--you might worsen your condition. Your best bet is to go au naturel and lead a healthy lifestyle. You don't want to go without makeup? Then buy or make natural products that don't contain any of the previously mentioned culprit chemicals and monitor the results very carefully.
Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar of East Barre, Vt., makes her own skincare products to guarantee the quality of what she puts on her face. According to Gladstar, the cosmetics on store shelves can damage our skin because they often sit around for months, dry out and become rancid.
Put It On
Many women with beautiful skin use remedies as simple as sesame oil for cleanser and apple cider vinegar mixed in olive oil for a moisturizer.
Don't care to walk around smelling like a Caesar salad? Add one drop each of the essential oils of lavender, rose and/or myrrh to a generous teaspoon of almond or olive oil in the palm of your hand and massage it in.
"My favorite skincare product in the world is raw honey," says Gladstar. "There's nothing better to make dry skin look lively. Add a few drops of essential oil of lavender or rose to it and gently massage into temples, cheeks and chin. This concoction wakes the face up by stimulating blood circulation."
For oily or acne-prone skin, Gladstar recommends a mask of volcanic green clay, available in most natural food stores. "It has minerals that draw out toxins," she says. If you have very sensitive, fair skin, she recommends white kaelin clay.
Feed Your Face
Most doctors and dermatologists declare that food choices have nothing to do with skin problems--especially not acne. But many herbalists and naturopaths beg to differ. "If your doctor says your skin problems have nothing to do with diet, find another doctor," advises Gladstar. Indeed, the debate among natural healers is not over whether diet has an effect but what the ideal diet is. For healthy skin, most recommend a varied and balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole, unprocessed products, one that excludes junk food, pasteurized dairy products and hydrogenated fats. Because skin eruptions (urticaria) and rashes can arise from food allergies--most often as reactions to wheat, corn, soy, dairy products, eggs, peanut butter, food colorings and preservatives--many naturopaths advise testing for allergies.
Ironically, health seekers obsessed with low-fat or even no-fat diets often have dry skin and hair and brittle nails because of essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency, a nutritional shortfall that is widespread in our population, according to nutritionists at the Tufts University Center for Nutritional Research on Aging. Experts estimate that approximately 80 percent of our population eats too little EFAs, which are components of nerves, cell membranes and the chemical messengers involved with hormone regulation (prostaglandins). Prostaglandins are protective against many conditions including inflammation and allergic reactions of the skin.
"The right type and quantity of fat is for maintaining skin moisture as well as smoothness and immune protection," says Michael Murray, N.D., professor of natural medicine at Bastyr University in Bothell, Wash. Murray recommends consuming two tablespoons a day of flaxseed oil on salads and using olive oil in cooking.
Once you've fine-tuned your diet, you'll probably want to consider supplements. Recently, cosmetic companies have been jumping on the supplement bandwagon by marketing assorted "skin formula" supplements.
The question is not, however, whether you need vitamins and minerals to enjoy good health but whether extra amounts above and beyond the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) will improve your skin. For example, vitamin C plays a central role in collagen synthesis, which is needed to keep the dermis supple and young, but will a high dose contribute to the production of collagen? Early results of studies underway at Duke University Medical Center suggest that the surprising answer may well be "yes."
What about vitamin E? Will extra vitamin E protect the skin from the sun and heal acne scars? Will B vitamins regulate hormonal flux? Will the wound-healing properties of zinc clear up acne? Debates about these and other nutrients rage on.
If you study the symptoms of vitamin deficiencies, you're likely to conclude that you need huge amounts of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. But what are the viable dosages, balances and forms? The real problem may not be what's ingested but what the body can assimilate and use. And the answers to these questions might only become clear after a complete physical and biochemical workup by an alternative physician.
"Dry, dull skin, acne and other skin problems are all signs that there may be an internal metabolic imbalance," says Janet Zand, N.D., D.O.M., founder of Zand Herbals. "Due to diet, lifestyle and other stress factors, our bodies are confronted daily with more toxins and impurities than can be eliminated from our systems.
Though powerful Chinese herbs exist to remedy toxicity, Zand recommends two American standbys: echinacea and goldenseal. "In combination, they help regulate infection and inflammation and are, therefore, effective for clearing the skin." She also uses red clover, a blood cleanser with a long history of resolving various skin disorders.
Because hormones play a role in skin troubles such as acne--most notably at puberty, premenstrually, at menopause and during times of stress, Zand recommends two herbs that support the endocrine system: Dong quad, which nourishes the reproductive cycle, and red raspberry leaf, a long-time favorite of Western herbalists.
Here is Zand's four-week herbal cleansing program for radiant skin: During the first and third week, one dose each of a combination formula of echinacea and goldenseal, three times daily; plus 20 drops of a red clover extract, three times daily. During weeks two and four, one dose of a combination formula featuring dong quad and red raspberry, taken three times daily.
While you're nourishing your skin with the best of natural care, try not to fixate on every crease and fold. Instead, think of your wrinkles as "life lines"--hard-won reminders of years well-spent.
Three Musts for Beautiful Skin
Drink Up. More than half our body weight (60 to 70 percent) is water. Every cell needs it to help flush wastes out of the body, to stay hydrated, and to keep skin moist, supple, clear and youthfully plump. "Drink at least eight glasses of water a day," says Janet Zand, N.D., D.O.M., founder of Zand Herbals.
De-stress. Feeling tense, overwhelmed? Your skin is exquisitely sensitive to emotions and your complexion Meditation, massage and other de-stressors can all be beneficial. So can getting enough sleep (six to eight hours), which helps the skin and you rejuvenate.
Take Care In The Sun Most dermatologists consider the sun to be the number one cause of damage and premature aging. Sounds doubtful? Consider that the face and hands are the first places on your body to show aging-and the only parts exposed every day. Some exposure to sunlight (15 to 30 minutes daily) is needed for the skin to manufacture vitamin D, essential for the assimilation of calcium and other minerals. But don't burn! If you do, the best way to repair the damage is by applying aloe vera gel or pure essential oil of lavender (not a fragrance or blend). Either substance can prevent blisters and peeling.