When it comes to personal beauty, taking care of your skin—your largest organ and first point of contact with the world—is perhaps the most important daily ritual you perform. This means more than finding the right cream to apply to your face—although that’s part of it too. It’s a holistic process involving eating right, exercising, and living healthfully. When all these things converge, good health illuminates your face. In treating your skin with love and respect, you reacquaint yourself with your natural being and allow your inner beauty to shine through.
The Science of Skin
Supple, glowing, unblemished skin is something we all want because it’s the face we present to others. Your face reveals your emotions. Stress and worry can be etched on it, or if you’re in love, color will blush your cheeks. So it’s no surprise that your health status can easily be read upon your visage. Illness, poor nutrition, even a sedentary lifestyle will sooner or later show up as dull, lifeless skin, acne, or dark circles under the eyes. If you think of your skin as an indicator of your overall health, you’ll understand its purpose within the body as a whole.
Functioning as an organ of elimination that removes waste and toxins, the skin is integral to the body’s overall well-being. It protects the body’s fluids from the moisture-robbing elements, and acts as a thermostat to cool body temperature via perspiration. A discriminating gate-keeper, the skin allows oxygen and other tiny molecules in while barricading against others. The home of nerve endings, it also helps us experience the world through the sense of touch.
The skin consists of three layers: the bottom subcutaneous layer filled with connective tissues and fat; the middle dermis, containing fibers of collagen (for skin strength) and elastin (for elasticity), hair roots and oil glands; and the outer epidermis, which includes the germinating layer where new cells constantly form to replace the dead cells that congregate on the outermost layer. And our skin reflects our gender: Male skin is generally thicker, with larger pores, and it contains far more hair roots and follicles than women’s.
A Clean Slate
To facilitate the function of these complex layers of tissue, you need a holistic approach to caring for the whole body. Many skin care experts recommend detoxification as the first step to glowing, unblemished skin. “Your skin is a reflection of your internal health,” says Tara Skye Goldin, N.D., a naturopathic physician in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s an eliminative organ, not just a covering for the body.” If your diet is full of processed foods, your bowel flora are depleted, or your liver is overtaxed, then the primary organs of elimination—the liver, intestines, and kidneys—require help from the skin, she explains. The result can be eczema, pimples, rashes, a pale or waxy complexion, and dull-looking skin. She often places patients with chronic skin trouble on a liver-cleansing, organic foods diet. She also has them “sweat it out.” “Body toxins are expelled through the sweat glands,” she explains, “so I encourage patients to sweat often—preferably by exercising, but saunas and steam rooms are also great ways to achieve skin cleansing.”
Feed Your Face
A clear complexion depends on a healthy diet. “The skin is the first to show signs of health problems caused by diet,” says Melissa Diane Smith, a holistic nutritional counselor in Tucson, Arizona, and co-author of All About Vitamin E. “The good news is that skin cells are replaced every few days, so if you change how you eat, your skin will show signs of renewal fairly quickly.”
Smith emphasizes the importance of eating whole foods, which supply vital nutrients and fiber, both of which influence your skin. Lack of dietary fiber can cause constipation, and if your colon isn’t excreting wastes, that toxic buildup may eventually manifest as blemishes. Since the typical American diet is high in processed foods and low in nutrients, it’s helpful to include a few skin-saving antioxidants as well.
Another way to ensure a smooth complexion is by eating healthy fats and oils. “Don’t be afraid of fats. The right ones are your skin’s best friends,” says Smith, noting that people on a fat-free diet wind up with dull skin and hair. Fats make up part of the cell membranes, which form a shield to protect cells from losing too much water. You especially need essential fatty acids (EFAs), including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can be obtained by eating flaxseed or flaxseed oil, or cold-water fish, or by taking supplements of evening primrose, borage, or black currant oils.
Triple Threat: Stress, Sun, and Aging
Adopting a holistically based skin care routine is the first step to take for maintaining healthy skin. Beyond this, you’ll need to factor in the three main challenges to skin that can eventually result in a wrinkled or leathery appearance: stress, sun exposure, and the normal aging process. All three are the result of a cellular chain reaction in which unpaired hydrogen ions called free radicals run amuck in the body. These rogue ions damage the skin cell membranes, causing collagen breakdown, which leads to wrinkles. Free radical damage triggered by the sun’s ultraviolet rays can also result in premature aging and skin cancer.
Fortunately, antioxidants such as selenium, vitamins C and E, the bio-flavonoid quercitin, and the herbs green tea and ginkgo can prevent or reduce this cellular damage by gobbling up free radicals, Goldin says. You can increase your free radical fighting power by eating foods rich in these nutrients and using antioxidant skin creams and masks applied directly to the area that needs help. Taking antioxidants internally after a mild sunburn can even help your skin bounce back more rapidly, adds Smith.
Another way to preserve your skin is to minimize stress, which also heightens free radical activity. The skin can be an alarm system for what’s happening in your body, Goldin says. For instance, people sometimes get eczema because their adrenal glands are weak due to too much stress or excessive coffee drinking. However, if you deal with stress in a positive, constructive way, the endocrine system will function optimally and the skin will stay in peak condition.
Growing older is a fact of life, but prematurely aged skin doesn’t have to be. Collagen, the fibrous protein that creates dermal structure, breaks down with age, so skin gets thinner and begins to sag. In addition, mature skin often becomes dry, since oil production slows down, says Goldin. Antioxidants help slow collagen breakdown while EFAs lessen the dryness. Using beauty products that address dryness and cellular rejuvenation becomes more important for people over 40, says Annemarie Lindner, cofounder of Bˆrlind, a natural skin care line based in Calw-Altburg, Germany. She’s living testimony: At age 78, after 50 years of using herbal products for her complexion, Lindner’s skin looks firm and supple.
“The most important part of a beauty regimen is rejuvenating ingredients that you find in nature,” Lindner says. “It’s never too early to look into ways to regenerate your skin, because its function begins to slow already during your 30s.” She recommends mild, soothing cleansers and adequate moisturizing properties from botanical ingredients such as calendula (marigold), shea butter, chamomile, and jojoba.
Simply spending time every day caring for your skin may ultimately do more to encourage your inner beauty to show than any other measure. If your morning beauty routine is a slap-and-dash affair, then make a commitment to slowing down enough to pamper your skin.
Shafalika Saxena, cofounder of Better Botanicals in Washington, D.C., advocates an Ayurvedic approach to skin care. “In Ayurveda, beauty is all about balance,” she says. “When your body is out of whack, you’ll notice it first in your hair and skin. Ayurvedic skin care never tries to mask skin problems; it works with rhythm and balance from the inside out. It’s care—not camouflage.”
Much like the practice of Sun Salutation, Ayurvedic skin care involves a series of movements performed mindfully and ritually to prepare you for the day. Saxena suggests a four-part approach: cleansing, steaming, bath therapy, and full-body massage therapy.
“The first step, cleansing, should be a calm, conscious act, done mindfully,” Saxena says. “Don’t do it with the radio blasting in the morning.” Gently pat facial cleanser onto your skin, and with your fingers, make small, slow, circular motions on your face to relax the muscles. Then splash your face with warm water 24 times to get all the residue off and pat dry.
Practice the next step, steam therapy, once or twice a week to open the pores and detoxify the skin. Prepare a basin of hot water to which you add herbs suited to your skin type. Make a tent over your head with a towel and hold your face over the steam. If your skin has broken capillaries or rosacea, however, don’t use steam; it may aggravate the condition, Saxena says. Instead, substitute facial massage for the steaming.
The third step, bath therapy, “helps us reconnect with the key element within us,” says Saxena, who prescribes it daily. Don’t use bubble bath since the detergent that causes foam can dry your skin. “Throw in milk, essential oils, Dead Sea salts, or even fistfuls of herbs you collect from the garden,” Saxena says. Then light a candle and take the time to allow your muscles and joints to relax.
Reduced tension and better sleep are just two rewards of the final step: regular massage therapy. Massage also increases the flow of cerebral/spinal fluid, thereby strengthening the nervous and immune systems, says Saxena. Treating yourself to a weekly body massage may sound like a luxury, but in Ayurveda it’s considered a necessity for boosting circulation and accomplishing total relaxation and good health. You need not always visit a massage therapist, but can give yourself this therapy or exchange massages with a partner. Gentle but firm massage strokes should always move toward the heart to help blood return to the pumping organ more easily.
In all you do to care for your skin, remember that lovingkindness and a sense of your own beauty are most important. If you cultivate inner beauty and true health, your face—your whole being, in fact—will express that sense of joy. That’s the secret to true beauty.