While a consistent skin care routine rich in hero ingredients like vitamin C and retinoids can keep your skin healthy (and glowing!), it’s only one piece of a much bigger puzzle. What you eat and drink can have a significant impact on your skin and studies show1 certain nutrients can improve hydration, elasticity, firmness and brightness.
While no single superfood promises to be the cure for your various skin concerns, there’s an antioxidant currently gaining notoriety in the beauty world that can help with many of them.
Carotenoids, which are found in many plant-based foods, are starting to appear in skin supplements and topical products thanks to their ability to defend against the visible signs of aging. Read on to find out why they’re worth adding to your routine.
What are carotenoids?
“Carotenoids are the colored pigments found in nature that produce the bright yellow, red and orange colors we see in some fruits, vegetables and other plants,” he explains. Jessica Shapiro, RD, certified diabetes educator and associate director of wellness and nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in Westchester, New York. “These pigments are produced by plants and cannot be produced by the body, but they act as powerful antioxidants when we eat them,” he adds. Kylie Amanda, RD, certified surgical dietitian and nutritionist.
There are currently about 750 carotenoids that occur in nature, but Shapiro says we come into contact mostly with a select few found in fruits and vegetables that we commonly eat:
1. Alpha and beta-carotene
It’s found in pumpkin, plantains, carrots, sweet potato, winter squash, and green foods like spinach and collard greens (the chlorophyll in these greens hides the yellow-orange pigments).
It is found in orange and red fruits and vegetables, such as sweet red peppers and oranges.
Found in red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon and guava, but more bioavailable and easily absorbed from processed foods such as tomato sauce, tomato paste and ketchup.
It’s found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, as well as egg yolks and avocados (which Shapiro says have low levels of lutein but are highly bioavailable).
It is found in yellow corn (and corn-based products), bell peppers, and egg yolk.
How carotenoids affect the skin
Before we get into the specifics and broad benefits of carotenoids, it’s important to understand skin health, how your skin shows signs of aging, and how ingesting carotenoids helps slow or reverse this process.
Skin aging occurs as a result of both intrinsic (or intrinsic) and extrinsic (or extrinsic) factors. “Intrinsic factors relate to your age and genetics, while extrinsic factors include lifestyle factors such as sun exposure, smoking, air pollution, [and] diet,” he says Carmen Castilla, MD, board certified dermatologist in New York.
Unlike your internal organs, your skin is directly exposed to the elements, making it extremely vulnerable to the aging effects of environmental stressors. “Most of what we recognize as skin aging is a result of the damaging effects of UV radiation from sun exposure,” he says. Richard Granstein, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine and member of the scientific advisory board at Elysium, a supplement brand.
UV damage causes inflammation, which leads to the formation of radical oxygen species (ROS) that disrupt the natural chemical reactions your skin cells need to function properly. This, in turn, causes the breakdown of collagen and elastin in the skin and stimulates the production of melanin, which results in visible signs of skin aging such as fine lines and wrinkles, sagging skin and hyperpigmentation.
Adding carotenoids to your routine can help fight these effects from the inside out thanks to their antioxidant activity, which essentially allows them to devour these ROS before they can cause damage. “Carotenoids can prevent some UV damage by absorbing UV rays and acting as a free radical scavenger,” says Dr. Castilla.
Dr. Grandstein explains that ingesting carotenoids can chemically neutralize—or, stop—the effects of UV radiation on the skin, preventing signs of aging. Plus, because carotenoids are converted to vitamin A in the body (the same vitamin that good retinol comes from), they can help form new collagen.
How to get the skin benefits of carotenoids into your own routine
“Eating a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables will help you naturally increase your intake of carotenoids,” says Dr. Castilla.
Shapiro’s best advice is to “eat the rainbow”—specifically red, orange, and yellow plant-based varieties—both raw and cooked. “The type of processing will affect the bioavailability of the carotenoids,” he explains, meaning that some preparations allow better absorption of carotenoids into the body.
Additionally, because carotenoids are fat-soluble, they are most effective when taken with a meal containing fat. “This is true for both food sources and supplements,” adds Shapiro.
Speaking of supplements, you can also get your carotenoids in capsule form “In general, supplements contain higher concentrations of carotenoids than are consumed from a normal diet,” says Dr. Granstein. “Amount in supplements is geared toward specific endpoints.”
Shapiro recommends 2-3 servings of dietary carotenoids per day (or 20-50 mg per day) for 3-6 weeks to see visible changes in the skin. “It’s hard to get too much from dietary sources, but be careful with supplements, because it’s easy to overdo it,” she adds.
Additionally, Amanda points out research2 This shows that the carotenoids stored in our skin are degraded after a cold or virus. “The levels also drop in the winter, probably due to lower fruit and vegetable consumption, and perhaps the quality is slightly off because it’s out of season,” he says. “For this reason, it’s important to increase your dose in the cooler months to maintain the benefits of carotenoids.”
ONE Study 20213 found that topical application of carotenoids is an effective way to defend against oxidative stress… just not as as effective as their oral consumption.
Dr. Castilla explains that both methods increase the levels of nutrients in the skin, but the results tend to last longer when you consume them. “Topical carotenoids are usually stored in the stratum corneum which is the outermost layer of the skin,” he explains. “This layer is constantly renewed and discarded, which probably explains why the levels drop faster than [with] oral ingestion where carotenoids are stored in fat and slowly released into the skin.’
So, while ingesting carotenoids is the best way to reap their antiaging benefits, there’s something to be said for supplementing the practice with a topical serum.
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Fam, VW, Charoenwoodhipong, P., Sivamani, RK, Holt, RR, Keen, CL, & Hackman, RM (2022). Plant-based foods for skin health: A narrative review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 122(3), 614-629. Published October 30, 2021. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2021.10.024.
Darvin ME, Sterry W, Lademann J, Vergou T. The Role of Carotenoids in Human Skin. Molecules. 2011 Dec 16;16(12):10491–506. doi: 10.3390/molecules161210491. PMCID: PMC6264659.
de Souza Guedes L, Martinez RM, Bou-Chacra NA, Velasco MVR, Rosado C, Baby AR. A review on topical delivery of carotenoids and coenzyme Q10 loaded into lipid nanoparticles. Antioxidants (Basel). 2021 Jun 26 10(7):1034. doi: 10.3390/antiox10071034. PMID: 34206935; PMCID: PMC8300771.
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