We all want to put our best face forward, but every day there are forces that conspire against that simple goal. It’s not a conspiracy theory, just an unfortunate fact. The skin is exposed to free-radical inducing insults every day that can damage our skin, leaving it dull, sagging, and wrinkle prone. Couple this with the fact that natural collagen production declines as we age and you’ve got a double whammy. But it isn’t all doom and gloom—we have vitamin C on our side to fight these offensive forces and help keep our skin radiant and healthy!
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body—it is literally the glue that holds us together, giving strength and structure to our bones, tendons, cartilage, blood vessels, and perhaps the place we might notice it the most, our skin. When the skin is exposed to UV light, ozone, pollution, cigarette smoke, even poor diet and stress, collagen-damaging free radicals are created. We might see the outward damage as rough, dry, sallow, wrinkle-prone skin. Protection and maintenance of collagen is a critical step in maintaining healthy skin, no matter our age. So where does vitamin C come in? Vitamin C is critical for the production of collagen. Without adequate amounts your body can’t make all the collagen it needs. In fact, some of the first signs of scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency disease, are a result of declining collagen production. Vitamin C not only increases the quantity but improves the quality of collagen as well.[i]
Vitamin C is also the most abundant antioxidant in the skin and works in the aqueous compartments of the cells. In this role, it neutralizes free radicals generated in the skin. Vitamin C is especially important for protecting against the damage both UVA and UVB rays can cause. It doesn’t work to block the rays like a sunblock, but instead protects the skin from the damage that can occur, making it a crucial part of your sun-protection routine.
Beyond collagen production and free-radical protection, vitamin C modulates inflammation, a key factor underlying many skin conditions. And it promotes the production of lipids in the skin, which create a protective barrier that helps to prevent water loss, keeping skin hydrated.[ii] Speaking of lipids, vitamin C helps to regenerate the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin E, which ensures the lipid-based cell compartments of the skin are protected. The benefits of vitamin C for the skin are so clear, you can see them. In one study, middle-aged women with a higher intake of dietary vitamin C had less wrinkles and age-related dryness.[iii] Other studies have shown that vitamin C supplementation combined with vitamin E reduces the negative effects of UV exposure in humans, including sunburn.[iv] [v]
While not as acutely sensitive to the same insults as the skin, the hair and nails also benefit from vitamin C. The hair can show outwards signs of damage from UV exposure and oxidative stress too, and changes in hair and hair loss can occur with vitamin C deficiency. Hair and nail health are also related to iron status, and vitamin C helps with that too, enhancing the body’s absorption of iron from the foods we eat.
Getting vitamin C should be easy—it is abundant in fresh fruits and veggies—yet 43 percent of American adults don’t get enough each day.[vi] Of course, it’s always a good idea to increase your daily consumption of vegetables and fruit (they are good for you in so many ways), but to really maximize your intake, consider adding a vitamin C supplement to your diet. You can add liquid vitamin C to your daily smoothie or use a powdered vitamin C to make yourself some homemade vitamin C gummies. Effervescent vitamin C packets are perfect for an on-the-go afternoon pick-me-up, or simply add vitamin C in a pill or chewable to your daily supplement routine.
For beautiful, glowing skin, hair, and nails don’t forget the importance of diet. The simple steps of increasing your brightly colored vegetables each day while simultaneously decreasing your sugar intake can make a big difference. Vegetables are an excellent source of not only vitamin C, but other vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that feed and protect the skin. Sugar, on the other hand, is capable of binding to collagen and damaging it in an irreparable way. (For some tips on how to reduce your sugar intake check out the articles here and here.) You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting enough protein in general, and in particular the amino acids that the body uses to make collagen: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Excellent sources of these amino acids include gelatin and bone broths. And don’t forget those all-important omega-3s, from cold-water, wild, fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon, or from a fish oil supplement. (For those who prefer a non-animal source there are algae-based omega-3 supplements available too.) Simple diet changes lead to big skin changes—changes you can see.
You may not be able to avoid all the things that can damage your collagen and insult the skin, but you can see to it that you are protected from the ravages they cause with vitamin C.
[i] Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013 Apr-Jun;4(2):143-146. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/
[iii] Cosgrove MC, Franco OH, Granger Sp, Murray PG, Mayes AE. Dietary nutrient intakes and skin-aging appearance among middle-aged women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Oct;86(4):1225-1231. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921406
[iv] Eberlein-König B, Placzek M, Przybilla B. Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998 Jan;38(1):45-48. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9448204
[v] Placzek M, Gaube S, Kerkmann U, et al. Ultraviolet B-induced DNA damage in human epidermis is modified by the antioxidants ascorbic acid and D-α-tocopherol. J Invest Derm. 2005 Feb;124(2):304-307. http://www.jidonline.org/article/S0022-202X(15)32158-8/fulltext