Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND
Skin is the body’s largest organ and it’s our first line of defense against foreign invaders like microbes and environmental toxins. More than any other part of the body, this protective outer layer is exposed to damaging environmental conditions like the winter weather that leaves skin dull and dry. Fortunately, skin is always repairing and renewing itself, and we can support that natural process. With summer just around the corner, it’s a good time to give our skin some extra special care. These 7 steps will get you started.
Skin has 3 layers. The outermost one, the epidermis, is made up of layers upon layers of dead skin cells. New cells are continuously generated from the bottom and as they are pushed up toward skin’s surface, they become farther away from the blood vessels that feed them. Once they’re cut off, the outer cells die and form a waterproof barrier that protects the deeper dermis and hypodermis layers, along with the glands, hair follicles, and connective tissues found there. Because new skin cells are constantly replacing the dead ones, losing some on the outside is only natural. It’s necessary for preventing the build-up of dead cells that can clog pores and hair follicles and interfere with the function of skin as an organ. Occasional exfoliation can facilitate the removal of dead skin cells and leave skin softer and smoother.
Plenty of natural ingredients can be used as exfoliants, like ground oats, which are good for irritated or sensitive skin, or ground nuts. I like using sea salt because it’s something I always have on hand and it dissolves in water without clogging the drain. It’s easy to make a salt scrub by mixing fine sea salt with just enough coconut or almond oil to make a loose paste. You can add pure essential oils for a fragrant or therapeutic effect, but any additional ingredients are optional. Rub it on delicate areas of skin using gentle, circular motions and rub it on vigorously everywhere else, then rinse with warm water. Avoid applying salt to areas of broken skin like cuts and scrapes. After exfoliation, skin is more susceptible to sunburn, so be especially vigilant about using sunscreen.
Helping skin retain moisture is important for keeping it soft and preventing dryness and infection. Natural fats like cocoa butter, shea butter, coconut oil, and almond oil do this very well. So does honey. One variety in particular, manuka honey, which comes from bees that gather nectar from manuka trees in Australia and New Zealand, has been shown to reduce inflammation and stimulate skin cell growth.1
You can apply honey or natural fats directly to the skin, or you can mix them together. I combine almond oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and manuka honey to make my Manuka Honey Skin Saver. I use it as an overnight moisturizer on my face, body, hands, feet, and hair. It can also be used as a spot treatment for dry and irritated skin.
The UV Index is a scale from 1 to 11 that estimates the risk of harm the sun’s rays can have on unprotected skin. When the UV Index is low (1 or 2) it’s safe to be outside without using sunscreen. When the UV Index is moderate (3, 4, or 5) you should wear sunscreen outdoors. When the UV index is high (6 and above), stay out of the sun. If you can’t seek shade, cover your skin with long sleeves, long pants, and a hat.
You can check the UV Index any time using the free smart phone app “EPA’s SunWise UV Index” from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Or visit their website to sign up for free email alerts.
Diet can help determine the effects that sun has on our skin. Studies show that certain compounds found in fruits, vegetables, tea, and herbs can protect skin against damage from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation without interfering with vitamin D production.2 These compounds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.2 They also modulate the immune system and turn on genes that repair mutations in DNA, helping to prevent cancerous changes.3
Sun-protective compounds include vitamin C, vitamin E, flavonoids, ellagic acid, and carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein.
Find them in these foods and make them a regular part of your diet:
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and radishes
- Dark green leafy vegetables including kale, spinach, aruglua, chard, collard greens, watercress, beet greens, and mustard greens
- Tomatoes, especially tomato sauce and tomato paste
- Berries including raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries
- Unprocessed cocoa powder and dark chocolate with high cocoa content
- Green tea and black tea
Natural moisturizers may prevent moisture loss, but they don’t add moisture to skin. Because skin has a waterproof outer layer, hydration has to happen from the inside. It depends on water balance inside the body and if you’re not drinking enough water, your whole body will be dehydrated, skin included. Unless you have kidney disease, a good goal is to drink the number of ounces equal to half your body weight in pounds, which means that a 150-pound person should drink about 75 ounces of water daily.
You can substitute bone broth for a portion of your daily water intake. The nutrients in bone broth are particularly well absorbed and they support the growth and repair of connective tissues in the skin. Bone broth is a rich source of collagen, one of the essential proteins that provides skin with structure, strength, and building blocks for repair and regeneration. You can find my recipe for Bone Broth here.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses 12 products containing 168 unique ingredients every day, while the average man uses 6 products daily with 85 unique ingredients, and most of them have not been tested for safety. Minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals by streamlining your personal care routine. Start by rounding up all of the personal products in your home. Throw away the ones that you don’t use and any that have expired. Research the rest using the Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database from the Environmental Working Group. You can search by product, ingredient, or company to read safety reviews and find better choices if necessary for items like soap, shampoo, makeup, toothpaste, deodorant, bubble bath, hair styling products, and baby products. For sunscreen, use EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens to find effective products that are free of harmful chemicals.
Chemicals in our environment interact with our skin and sometimes they’re absorbed into our bodies. The Environmental Working Group, in partnership with laboratories around the world, has found 493 different chemicals in people of all ages and 232 in the cord blood of newborn infants. Already at birth, babies’ bodies contain mercury, multiple pesticides, more than a dozen different flame retardants, and air pollutants from fossil fuels, plastic production, and coal-fired power plants.
Detox is the removal of these chemicals and it’s like spring cleaning for the body. The skin is an important part of detox because some waste products and environmental toxins are eliminated through the skin. Learn more about detoxification in my recent article Detox Facts and Fiction or my book The Prediabetes Detox.
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.
- Eteraf-Oskouei T and Najafi M. Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. 2013;16(6):731–742. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3758027/
- Korać RR and Khambholja KM. Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation. Pharmacognosy Review. 2011;5(10):164–173. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263051/
- Katiyar SK, Singh T, Prasad R, Sun Q, and Vaid M. Epigenetic Alterations in Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Skin Carcinogenesis: Interaction of Bioactive Dietary Components on Epigenetic Targets. Photochemistry and Photobiology. 2012;88(5):1066–1074. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288155/