Looking Good from the Inside - Cosmetics vs Nutrition

The UK cosmetic industry was worth over £8b in 2014 and making up nearly half of the market (49.9%) was the sales of skincare, haircare and deodorant products(1).  Globally, the male demographic accounts for 1/5th of this market and is expected to continue growing through 2020(2). Although many men still don’t want to admit to using skincare products, the sales growth speaks for itself and suggests that the moisturizing man is coming out of the closet. With big money at stake an increasing number of cosmetic products are emerging to fight for their share of the male wallet.

The skin is fundamental to one’s looks and is unquestionably the primary target of cosmetics. It’s the largest organ of the body incorporating hair, nails and glands and is the most exposed organ to the elements. Cosmetic scientists are increasingly looking to essential nutrients found in foods to achieve better results from skincare and haircare products. This begs the question, “is it better to nourish the skin from the inside out or the outside in?” With this in mind let’s look at how nutrition can achieve some of the claims of cosmetics aimed at men.

Men’s haircare products
Product: Hair conditioner
Claim: “Visibly thicker, stronger looking hair”

Hair is made mostly of a fibrous protein called keratin. Diets low in protein can lead to thinner hair that falls out more easily.(3) Two essential amino acids particularly important for healthy hair are lysine and methionine,(4) abundant in beef, dairy products and shellfish. For vegans, legumes such as beans and peas are good sources of lysine but are low in methionine, which is found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and asparagus.

Lysine is believed to play a role in improving the uptake of iron and zinc,(5) two minerals vital for hair growth found in foods such as red meat, pumpkin seeds and spinach.

Methionine supplementation was found to increase the number of hairs and their diameter in a study examining hair growth in mink.(6)

Product: Dandruff shampoo
Claim: “Helps reduce the appearance of visible flakes”

There are several theories to the cause of dandruff ranging from dry or oily skin to an overgrowth of the yeast ‘Pityrosporum ovale’ and there are several nutritional angles that can be pursued. 

B-Vitamins are needed to metabolise fats and studies have shown that deficiencies in pyridoxine (B6)(7) and biotin (B7)(8) can produce dandruff-like symptoms that can be corrected through supplementation.

Flaxseed Oil, rich in omega-3 fats, has also been reported effective at reducing symptoms of dandruff.(9)

Excessive sugar consumption seems to make dandruff worse(10) although the precise correlation is not known.

Men’s body odour products
Product: Deodorant-Antiperspirant
Claim: “Fights body odour. Antiperspirant protection in stressful situations”

Sweat, for the most part, is odourless, but it’s what the bacteria on our skin do in the presence of sweat that leads to body odour (BO). While some degree of BO is normal and relatively easy to control using soap and deodorants, excessive body odour can be a sign of compromised liver function. If the liver can’t keep up, your body will find other ways to eliminate toxins, i.e. through sweat glands. Following a detox diet may help which may include eliminating red meat and dairy products, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, going organic wherever possible and drinking plenty of filtered water each day. Aim for between 1.5-2.0 litres.(11)

Stress is another consideration, which can cause excessive sweating. Consider ways to manage stress such as meditation and exercise while reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

Men’s skincare products
Product: Moisturiser
Claim: “Hydrates the skin”

Preventing your skin from dehydrating starts with keeping your body hydrated by drinking adequate amounts of water (roughly eight glasses a day).

Skin cells hold water and essential fatty acids found in foods such as oily fish, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds enables the skin’s protective barrier function, which, if compromised, can lead to dry skin.(12)

Product: Moisturiser with SPF sunscreen
Claim: “Anti-wrinkle, prevents premature aging caused by UV exposure”

Pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene), the principle carotenoid found abundantly in red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, has been shown in studies to increase the sunburn threshold of our skin.(13) Skin cells convert carotenoids into Vitamin A.

Vitamin C is necessary to synthesise collagen, a component of connective tissue, and this, combined with its anti-oxidant properties, makes Vitamin C an essential anti-ageing nutrient for the skin.

Vitamin E is a group of fat-soluble molecules that reduce oxidative stress and maintain the integrity of cell membranes throughout the body. 

The levels of both Vitamin C and Vitamin E within the skin decline with age and with exposure to Ultra-Violet (UV) light suggesting that the older we get, and the more time in the sun, the more of these vitamins we need. Studies show supplementing Vitamin C with Vitamin E provides the skin with an increased tolerance to UV radiation.(14) Another study showed a decrease in wrinkles.(15) Vitamin C can best be found in fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, strawberries and citrus fruits while foods high in Vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds and wheat germ.

Skin aging however is not all about free-radical damage from sun exposure as cosmetic marketing might lead us to believe. We need the sun to shine on our skin in order to synthesise vitamin D, which, among many other uses in the body, is needed for healthy skin.(16) The key is not to expose yourself to the point of burning. Getting fifteen minutes of exposure before applying your sunscreen is a good strategy as long as your skin is not already sun damaged.(17)”

Avoiding anti-nutrients can be just as important in preventing skin ageing. Smoking has been shown to be a “greater contributor to facial wrinkling than even sun exposure.(18)”

Rancid fats found in roasted nuts, processed foods made with cheap vegetable oils, and even so-called healthy fats that have been exposed to excessive heat, light or oxidation are thought to accumulate as toxins in the subcutaneous fat layer under the skin and may cause free radical damage to the skin surface.(19, 20)

The skin is unique among organs in that it is absorptive and can therefore be nourished to a degree by the topical application of nutrients found in some skincare products.(21) However, without the right nourishment from within, there are limits to what can be achieved with cosmetics. After all, the skin is a reflection of our inner health and if we truly are what we eat, as the saying goes, then there is truth in the phrase “What we eat today we wear tomorrow.(17)”


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  6. Zhang, H. H., Jiang, Q. K., Sun, W. L., Xu, C., Cong, B., Yang, F. H. and Li, G. Y. (2013), Effects of different dietary protein levels and DL-methionine supplementation on hair growth and pelt quality in mink (Neovision vision). J Anim Physiol An N, 97:1036–1042.
  7. Wright CS, Samitz MH, Brown H (1943) Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) In Dermatology. Arch Derm Syphilol, 47(5):651-653.
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  15. Greul AKGrundmann JUHeinrich FPfitzner IBernhardt JAmbach ABiesalski HKGollnick H (2002) Photoprotection of UV-irradiated human skin: an antioxidative combination of vitamins E and C, carotenoids, selenium and proanthocyanidins. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol, 15(5):307-15.
  16. Drake VJ (2011) Vitamin D and skin health. Accessed: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrients-health/skin-health/nutrient-index/vitamin-D, 23rd January 2016.
  17. Holford P, Burne J (2012) Keep your skin youthful. The Secrets of Healthy Ageing. London, Piatkus, p165-176.
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  19. Kubow S (1992) Routes of formation and toxic consequences of lipid oxidation products in foods. Free Radical Bio Med, 12(1):63-81.
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