Supplements for Better Skin: Fact or Fad?

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Is beauty more than skin deep? The Paula's Choice Research Team been asked often lately about the growing trend of taking vitamins and supplements to fight aging, wrinkles, sun damage, and breakouts. Everyone wants to know if supplements will provide a beauty boost that skin-care products alone can't. Is there any truth to the idea that you can fight skin problems this way, or is this just another fad? Time to separate fact from fiction!

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Supplements for Treating Acne

We've written a lot about acne and how to treat it. It's one of the most-asked-about topics because breakouts are common for so many people, and they can have a big impact on self-esteem and one's sense of beauty. No one wants to deal with the unsightly bumps, scarring, red marks, and pain (both physical and emotional) that comes from acne. Some people find that no matter what over-the-counter or prescription topical products they try, nothing works— so the promise of getting rid of acne by taking a daily supplement is very tempting. Here's a breakdown of three supplements that are billed as "internal acne fighters," and research-based information about whether or not they can really do what's claimed:

  • Vitamin B3: Forms of this vitamin include niacin and niacinamide. It's found in a wide variety of foods that people eat every day, including eggs, green vegetables, meat, fish, milk, and cereal grains. Topical niacinamide is a potent cell-communicating ingredient that offers a variety of anti-aging benefits, and there's also growing evidence that it can mitigate acne and the red marks it leaves behind. But according to the National Institutes of Health, there is not enough evidence to recommend taking vitamin B3 supplements orally to treat acne. Vitamin B3 works better when applied topically than when taken orally as a supplement. Also, because vitamin B3 is water-soluble, any that your body doesn't use right away is quickly excreted, so taking extra amounts – that is, more than provided by a healthy, balanced diet – via supplements doesn't make much sense. In fact, very few people are ever deficient in vitamin B3 because it's so prevalent in the foods many of us routinely eat.
  • Zinc: This mineral is known as an "essential trace element," which means only small amounts are needed for human health. There are studies showing that taking zinc supplements, in combination with applying topical antibiotics such as erythromycin, does have anti-acne benefits. There also are published studies showing that taking zinc orally, without the topical antibiotics, also reduces acne, but most of these studies involved a much higher (and potentially toxic) dose than is normally recommended. There are even reports of people becoming severely ill by taking too much zinc in hopes of treating their acne. If you're considering using zinc supplements to fight acne, speak with a doctor first to make sure you don't damage your health in your attempt to get clearer skin. Actually, we recommend checking with your doctor before taking any supplement, especially if you routinely take prescription medications.
  • Vitamin A: This vitamin is considered a blockbuster cell-communicating ingredient and antioxidant in some of its many forms, including retinol and retinyl palmitate. Topical prescription retinoids (which are related to vitamin A) such as tretinoin and adapalene (commercially available as Differin) are often used to treat acne. In fact, they're considered among the best treatments for breakouts. So, if applying retinoids topically works so well, does the same hold true if taken as an oral supplement? Once again, the jury's still out on this one. The Mayo Clinic states, "Claims that vitamin A is effective for treatment of conditions such as acne… …have not been proven."

    What we do know for sure is that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that builds up in the body. Taking a high-dose vitamin A supplement (above 10,000 IU) can lead to health problems, including headaches, blurred vision, vertigo, skin redness, and loss of muscle coordination.

Anti-Aging Vitamins

Just about everyone knows that vitamins and minerals are necessary for us to be healthy. We know we should be eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and we're aware that vitamins are a popular category of ingredients in skin-care products that claim to provide anti-aging benefits. The thinking is that if vitamins in skin-care product work topically to fight signs of aging, wouldn't they work even better if taken orally? An intriguing question, but the answer is anything but simple.

The supplement industry is well aware of this line of thinking, and has wasted no time in stocking store shelves with vitamins and supplements promising to reduce dark spots, erase wrinkles, and give a lift to sagging skin naturally and, of course, "without painful surgery." Given those claims, it's no surprise our fans have a lot of questions about supplements, especially about the following:

Megadoses of Vitamin C and Vitamin E: Vitamins C and E are potent antioxidants that, applied topically, can have a significant impact in helping to reduce signs of aging, particularly sun damage (think wrinkles and dark spots). The idea is that taking vitamin C and E supplements— especially megadoses— reduces the effects of free radical damage, one of the biggest factors of aging, from the inside. But, as with many other therapies, so far there isn't enough data available to show that consuming high doses of these vitamins can have a significant impact on skin aging, but we do know that taking too much of either supplement, especially long-term, can have detrimental effects on health. For best results, try to get vitamins C and E from whole foods, especially fresh fruits and veggies (for C) and seeds and nuts (for E).

  • Heliocare: Heliocare Natural Anti-Aging Supplement is one of many supplements claiming to make skin "stronger" in resisting the effects of sunlight. Its main selling point is that it contains an extract from a tropical fern, Polypodium leucotomos that claims to offer UV protection "from the inside out." Studies have shown that oral supplements of this fern extract can slightly reduce the risk of sunburn and hyperpigmentation (dark spots), but most antioxidants can reduce, at least to some extent, the damage caused by sun exposure; it doesn't take a special fern supplement. It should also be noted that information about the potential side effects of this supplement is scarce because of a lack of research, and there are no regulations that require manufacturers of supplements like this to prove their claims!
  • Coenzyme Q10: You've likely seen coenzyme Q10 supplements displayed prominently at your local pharmacy or health food store (and even at big box retailers like Target or Costco). It's consistently touted as one of the best "miracle workers" to prevent aging skin. In short, it isn't! Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like substance found throughout the body, especially in the heart, liver, kidney, and pancreas. It helps provide energy to cells, and has been shown to act as an antioxidant, but many substances in the body must work in harmony for it to have this effect. While a handful of studies have shown that coenzyme Q10 can reduce UV damage and stimulate collagen production, their focus was on topical application, not oral supplements. As with many other supplements, there simply isn't enough hard scientific evidence to support taking coenzyme Q10 as an anti-aging supplement. Plus, some of the side effects of coenzyme Q10, such as lowering blood sugar within the body, could be problematic for people who suffer from hypoglycemia.
  • DMAE: (also known as dimethylaminoethanol): Hundreds of websites claim oral DMAE supplements have a benefit for skin, but there's very little evidence this is actually the case (sensing a theme here?). In fact, there are studies showing that DMAE can induce skin cell death, and reduce the proliferation of fibroblasts, which are the cells in skin that manufacture collagen. In short, like most supplements, this isn't one to take without knowing the facts and the potential risks! DMAE is believed to present similar risks to skin when applied topically.

It should also be noted that supplements and their claims are neither approved nor condoned by the Food and Drug Administration, which means that in most cases, the only information you are getting in terms of a supplement's content and recommended dose comes from the company that makes them. The lack of regulatory oversight in this area is of great concern to many health experts because supplements, even the natural ones, can have a big impact on your health if taken improperly or if mixed with other medications you use. If you are considering adding any supplements to your routine, speak with your doctor first.

Our favorite source of objective information about supplements comes from Consumerlab.com. This is a surprisingly non-biased source of dietary, health, vitamin, mineral, and supplement information. It's well worth the subscription fee of $33 a year.

Drinking Collagen

Collagen is the main supportive element in skin. When collagen becomes damaged - whether from UV light exposure, tanning beds, or irritating skin-care products - wrinkles, sagging, and changes in skin texture become visible. Many people believe collagen in skin-care products is good because it must somehow fuse with the collagen in our skin, but it simply cannot.

What about drinking collagen? Can it shore up damaged collagen from the inside out? The collagen-drinking trend is big business, especially in parts of Asia and in the United Kingdom, but it's not one we recommend, regardless of where you live. Here's what happens: When you drink collagen (and the commercial preparations usually contain fish collagen), the body's digestive system breaks it down just like it does any other protein, so it cannot reach your skin as intact collagen. There is no scientific research proving that drinking collagen can affect one wrinkle, spot, or pore on your face, although drinking fluids that don't dehydrate the body – that means not too much alcohol or too much coffee - will have a positive impact on anyone's skin.

What Really Works

The answer is simple: A healthy, vitamin-rich diet with a balanced approach to taking vitamins and other supplements, regardless of your health concerns, is a good thing. It's critical to keep in mind that your body cannot maintain itself with an unhealthy diet. You can't eat mostly processed foods and expect to stay healthy simply by adding supplements. It might be worth experimenting with supplements, but they're not a cure, and they can be dangerous if you overdo them.

When it comes to fighting acne and external signs of aging, it's best to put together a great skin-care routine that treats your skin to the healing ingredients it needs to look and act its best.

You can find out more about what ingredients work - and why you need more than just one for the best results - in our special report, Anti-Aging Superstars. Also check out our articles Better Skin in Less Time: How to Perfect Your Skin-Care Routine and All About Acne. You'll be surprised at the difference good skin care can make - no glass of water or pills needed!

Sources: National Institutes of Health: Niacin and niacinamide (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/924.html); Acta Derm Venereol, 1989, 69:541–543, 1980, 60:337–340, and 1978; 58:443–448; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-information/DR601623; Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, volume 73, number 12, December 2006; J Am Acad Dermatol 2004; 51:910-18.; O'Mara, N. B., Sunscreen in a pill? Sun Pill and Heliocare. Pharmacist's Letter / Prescriber's Letter 2006; 22(7):220708; National Institutes of Health: Coenzyme Q-10 (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/938.html); Pharmazie, December 2009, pages 818–822; and Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, November-December 2007, pages 711–718.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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