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Science of Skin Care: Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Always incorporate essential fatty acids into your diet for adequate skin health.
Always incorporate essential fatty acids into your diet for adequate skin health.

Popular culture is not always the best source of nutrition information. Although well-meaning, blogs, articles, talk shows, etc. that try to distill the complex interplay of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients into “Eat this, not that” info bites can often lead us to oversimplify what’s good and bad for us. For example: fat is bad; a fat-free diet is good.

But such a simplistic view of a “balanced diet” has lead us to cut out essential nutrients, like essential fatty acids. And their absence can be seen in less than optimal skin health.

Chemistry 101

Chemically speaking, a fatty acid is a carbon-based molecule with a chain of 4 to 28 carbon atoms. They are classified as short-, medium- or long-chain fatty acids depending on the number of carbon atoms in the “tail.” Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that the human body cannot synthesize on its own but needs for biological functions. The only way to get them is from food.

There are really only two essential fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid)
  • Linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid)

(The classification of essential fatty acids into omega groups is based on characteristics of their chemical structure. For instance, omega-3s are polyunsaturated whereas omega-6s are unsaturated, and the double bonds in the chain occur at different points on the tail.)

Skin Health Essential

Essential fatty acids play an integral role in several biological functions, many of which directly impact skin health. Essential fatty acids are necessary elements for preserving cell wall integrity and conducting cell transference—importing nutrients into cells and eliminating wastes out of them.

When cells get the essential fatty acids they need, cell membranes provide strong barriers that prevent water loss. Adequate water retention allows skin cells to remain plump, which diminishes fine lines and wrinkles and contributes to a more youthful appearance. Essential fatty acids also help dissolve fatty deposits, like sebum, which can lead to clogged pores and acne break outs.

Research is beginning to uncover the role essential fatty acids play in the inflammatory response. Essential fatty acids are components of eicosanoids—signaling molecules that either incite or inhibit the inflammatory response. A lack of omega-3 essential fatty acids often results in poor anti-inflammatory signaling, which allows the inflammatory response to continue unchecked. On the skin, chronic inflammation may present as dry, irritated (red), acne-prone skin.

Balanced Diet for EFA Balance

Most modern diets do not provide the proper balance of essential fatty acids. Most diets are heavy on omega-6 fatty acids, which can be found in poultry and grains, which are themselves staples of many refined food products. Omega-3 fatty acids, however, come from fatty fish and other plant sources, and the typical American diet contains much fewer of such foods.

To boost your omega-3 intake to achieve a better balance in essential fatty acids, boost your intake of:

  • Flax seeds
  • Safflower oil
  • Walnuts
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Soy

If you do choose to boost your omega-3s through fishy sources, make sure to select sustainably caught fish and fish from populations that have not been identified as having high mercury content (wild-caught Alaskan and Pacific Coast salmon, for instance).

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