Are Superfoods the Secret to Glowing Skin and Great Hair?

Superfoods are booming in the beauty biz, but whether you put them on your body or in it, are they the key to glowing skin?
By Michelle Stacey ,

Photography by Trunk Archive

Food: what you eat to live. Beauty products: what you swipe on to look lovely. Once upon a time, these were two distinct categories, and we lived in a universe where no one would consider slathering yogurt all over their body. Those days are long gone. Superfoods are cropping up in all kinds of jars and bottles, from berry-infused shampoo to skin creams replete with green tea. Is this a good thing? It depends on who you ask—and whether you’re applying or ingesting them.

“Skin is the largest organ we have,” says Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., medical director of Mudgil Dermatology in New York City. “There is not one superfood that, if ingested, will turn back time, but a healthy diet helps our skin, just as it does our hearts, brains, and joints.” Credit for good skin is probably owed to the microbiome, the helpful bacteria that live in your intestines. “The gut is the body’s largest immune mediator, so the state of your gut microbiome can have a significant impact on all areas of your body, including your skin,” says Maya Feller, a dietitian nutritionist in Brooklyn.

When it comes to using food-based products externally, the evidence is less clear. Mudgil is also skeptical: “Topical applications generally have minimal effect, if any. And the benefits of ‘natural’ products with food essences or extracts are mostly overstated.” Yet food has traditionally been a go-to for beauty and grooming, says Romain Gaillard, founder of the Detox Market, a California-based retailer that tests and sells green-beauty products. “Beauty products have historically been made using natural ingredients, until the last hundred years, when beauty became industrialized,” he says. The situation is similar to what’s been happening at the grocery store, Gaillard adds: “Once you know the difference between organic food versus processed food, you can’t really go back.”

Words like natural and organic carry a visceral appeal, but the question of whether they automatically mean “better” is far from black and white, says Cincinnati-based cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos: “There’s certainly a perception that something not modified by man is better and a suspicion of ingredients that are unpronounceable. But even vitamin C can be given a multiword name that simply describes how the molecule is put together.” Natural materials can sometimes be problematic, explains Dobos: “For example, limes and lemons contain organic compounds called furanocoumarins, and when those get on your skin and then are exposed to the sun, they can cause blistering and redness.”

Simply put, it’s complicated. But many foods have been proven to foster your inner and outer beauty in different ways. Here’s a road map to some of the best.

Photography by Claire Benoist/The Licensing Project

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These provide building blocks for healthy cell membranes, support and strengthen the skin’s barrier, and enhance new collagen production.

What To Eat

Fatty fish, chia seeds, walnuts, spinach, flaxseeds

What To Apply

Chia seeds are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The moisturizing Maya Chia Supercritical Omega-3 Chia Face Oil ($60) distills and concentrates the seeds’ potency into a lightweight oil that absorbs quickly.

"There's certainly a perception that something not modified by man is better, but natural materials can sometimes be problematic." —Kelly Dobos, cosmetic chemist

Salicylic Acid

The go-to acne fighter also exfoliates and deep-cleans pores—and you can find it in some foods!

What To Eat

Aloe vera, turmeric, paprika, endive, zucchini

What To Apply

Willow bark is a source of natural salicin, which may then be chemically converted into salicylic acid. Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Pore Scrub ($8) pairs willow bark with jojoba beads for deep exfoliation. Breakout-prone but also in need of oil-free hydration? Spritz your skin with Garnier SkinActive Balancing Facial Mist ($9), which combines salicylic acid with the balancing power of green tea.

Antibacterials

These babies help ward against bacteria and infections, treat acne and dandruff, and promote wound healing.

What To Eat 

Honey, garlic, ginger, tea, cumin

What To Apply 

Cajeput, a relative of tea tree oil, joins with soothing black cumin oil to clear the appearance of blemishes in the super-concentrated Odacité Black Cumin & Cajeput Serum Concentrate ($36). Use just two to three drops morning and night as a skin antibacterial. On the hair front, the Clarifier Shampoo by Siam Seas ($25) is infused with kaffir lime, an ancient Thai treatment for dry scalp. The citrus-scented formula, which includes rice and ginger extracts, clears excess oil and calms the scalp.

Vitamin E

It helps reduce the appearance of aging and protects against free-radical damage to skin cells.

What To Eat 

Avocados, nuts and seeds, sunflower oil, green veggies, spinach

What To Apply 

The flavonoids and antioxidants in cucumber are why it’s so popular in skin products like SkinOwl Eye+ Concentrate ($46). The cuke and vitamin E in this lightweight product visibly calm and soothe the skin around the eyes. Vitamin E is blended with shea butter, pomegranate, and sea kelp in One Love Organics Vitamin E Eye Balm ($49) to smooth and firm delicate skin. Applied liberally at night, it’s a deep-moisturizing treatment; during the day, it can be used sparingly for layering.

Photography by Claire Benoist/The Licensing Project

B Vitamins

B vitamins, like riboflavin, play an important role in the growth and repair of tissues, improving skin elasticity and circulation, which makes skin glow.

What To Eat 

Salmon, legumes, meat, beans, eggs and dairy, dark-green leafy veggies

What To Apply

Dark leafy greens are a key source for B vitamins and riboflavin. The nourishing and soothing Dr. Alkaitis Organic Universal Mask ($39) is packed with greens, including seaweeds, herbs, and raw plant extracts. Like a meal for the skin, a vitamin B mask repairs, rejuvenates, and calms.

Vitamin A

A naturally occurring retinoid, vitamin A encourages skin-cell production and wound healing and softens scar tissue. It also improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and skin texture, tone, and color.

What To Eat 

Sweet potatoes, carrots, beef liver, kale, mangoes, cantaloupes, goat cheese

What To Apply

Andean rose hip oil, renowned for its skin-healing properties, is the base for Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil ($40), which sources its vitamin A from carotenoids. It helps regenerate any skin type, repairing visible damage and restoring balance.

Antioxidants

These support cell regeneration, help smooth lines, moisturize skin, defend against environmental stressors, and renew skin elasticity and firmness.

What To Eat 

Beans, potatoes, peppers, avocados, green tea, pomegranates, berries, cherries

What To Apply

Trilogy Rosehip Oil Antioxidant ($44) includes cold-pressed certified-organic seed oil from wild rose hips along with tomato seed oil and acai seed oil. The result: a facial oil that improves skin tone and brightness by protecting against free radicals. Cacao is also packed with antioxidants and increases blood flow to the skin. Along with boosting hydration, assisting in collagen production, and slowing skin-cell decline, it also makes the rich Josh Rosebrook Cacao Antioxidant Mask ($65) smell like a brownie.

Vitamin C

It calms inflammation, supports wound healing, evens out complexion, and is key to building collagen.

What To Eat 

Citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts

What To Apply

Ferulic acid, a potent plant antioxidant, joins up with vitamins C and E to do double-duty in Marie Veronique Vitamins C and E & Ferulic Serum ($90): By day the serum protects skin from free radicals, and at night it promotes collagen production.

Antifungals

Antifungals fight molds and candida yeast—which can cause rashes, itchiness, and breakouts—and protect skin from infection.

What To Eat 

Carrots, ginger, onions, pumpkin seeds, lemons and limes, garlic, cinnamon, cruciferous veggies, oregano

What To Apply

Tea tree oil is a rich source of terpenoids, which have both antiseptic and antifungal activity. Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo ($15), incorporating peppermint and lavender as well as tea tree oil, stimulates the scalp and helps prevent flaking and drying. Jojoba oil also has great antifungal properties, making it a key ingredient in Odacité Jo & L Clogged Pores Treatment ($36) for sebum blockages and breakouts.

Photography by Lucas Zarebinski/The Licensing Project

Anti-Inflammatories

Inflammation destroys collagen, making skin thin and uneven. Anti-inflammatories brighten skin, calm redness, and reduce irritation.

What To Eat 

Turmeric, berries, peppers, tomatoes, matcha, olive oil, fatty fish

What To Apply

Combining turmeric, aloe, and other anti-inflammatories, CV Skinlabs Rescue & Relief Spray ($34) calms skin that’s sensitive from rosacea, shaving, or other irritants. If you want your beauty routine to work the night shift instead, Beuti Skincare Beauty Sleep Elixir ($65) infuses skin with 14 plant oils overnight to support skin-barrier function and fight inflammation.

Join the Conversation