There is a strong link between the appearance of your skin and what you eat. While fats are often shunned because of their high calorie content (9kcal per gram compared to 4kcal in carbohydrate and protein) they are in fact one of the most important dietary elements in skin health.


Read on to discover which fats you should be enjoying in your diet and why.

Discover what foods are good for your skin, how to eat your way to fabulous skin and find out if collagen supplements really work.

What is skin made up of ?

Your skin is your largest organ and is made up of two main layers – the epidermis and dermis. The outer epidermis provides the main barrier, preventing water loss and protecting from pathogens while the inner dermal layer ensures strength and elasticity and supplies nutritional support.

The skin you show to the world is created deep in the dermis. These skin cells are pushed up, layer by layer, until they reach the surface. This process takes around four weeks, which means changes in your diet, for better or worse, may take a little while to show.

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Each of your skin cells is surrounded by two layers of fat that make up the skin cell wall – this is known as the phospholipid bilayer. This layer incorporates dietary fats and is crucial for giving the appearance of plump, healthy skin and for playing the functional role needed.

Although it may come as a surprise, your skin is a metabolically active organ and this means it can make and modify saturated and mono-unsaturated fats as well as cholesterol. However, there are other fats, known as essential fats, that the skin can’t make and you need to obtain these from your diet.

Which are the essential fats for the skin?

Your skin is unable to make certain types of fats these include:

Omega-6 fatty acids

Linoleic acid is an omega-6 poly-unsaturated fatty acid found in plants including seeds and their oils, it is one of the most abundant fats in the epidermis and plays a crucial role in forming a protective barrier. The second most abundant fat in the epidermis is arachidonic acid – also an omega-6 fatty acid you can get it from poultry, fish, seafood and eggs or it is converted in the liver from plant sources of linoleic acid. Arachidonic acid forms the structural walls of the skin cells in the epidermis.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These are present in only small amounts in the epidermis, they play a more important role in protecting the collagen in the dermis and as a result may have an anti-aging effect. They also have anti-inflammatory properties which means they may help reduce irritated skin caused by conditions like psoriasis or atopic dermatitis.

How can I get the balance right?

One possible cause for inflammatory skin disorders is the increase in omega-6 fats in our diets. A typical Western diet contains far more omega-6 fats because they are found in most of the vegetable and seed oils that we commonly use in cooking, as well as in processed foods, whereas omega-3 fats, have far fewer food sources.

Determining what constitutes the ideal ratio between omega-3 and -6 has proven controversial and more recent studies support the need for a balanced combination of both of these essential fats to help manage inflammatory skin conditions.

Bowls of nuts

Which foods should I eat for skin-friendly fats?

Omega-6 fats are found in sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds as well as pine nuts, peanuts and soybean oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in:

  • Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod, anchovies, trout and halibut, these are rich sources of omega-3 fats, while shellfish such as mussels, oysters, squid and crab are also useful sources.
  • Nut and seeds such as walnuts, linseeds, pumpkin, chia and hemp are good vegetarian sources of omega-3, albeit in a slightly less active form to that found in fish.

Read more about food sources of omega-3 fatty acids in our expert guide.

Which other foods and nutrients may be helpful?

In addition to dietary fats, certain fat-soluble compounds including carotenoids and vitamins like A and E play an important role in maintaining skin health. Here is where you can find them:

  • Avocado – rich in mono-unsaturated fats as well as protective fat-soluble carotenoids, avocado is one of the few fruits that provides significant levels of both skin-friendly vitamins C and E. A 2022 study suggested one avocado daily over an eight week period may enhance skin elasticity and firmness.
  • Fish, soy, egg yolk, almonds, Swiss chard, seeds and sweet potatoes are all valuable sources of biotin, one of the B group of vitamins, biotin is key for the metabolism of fat in the skin which is important for skin hydration and appearance.
  • Liver, fish, eggs and dairy products are some of the best food sources of preformed vitamin A. Although leafy greens and orange and yellow fruit and vegetables are where most of us get pro-vitamin A, the form that needs to be converted in the body. This fat-soluble vitamin plays an important regulatory role in the skin and appears to have an anti-aging effect.

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Have you overcome a skin problem or find certain foods give you a glowing complexion? We'd love to hear your thoughts below...

This article was reviewed on 19 February 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).


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