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Beautiful skin – an age-old problem

During the course of ageing, both the function and appearance of skin are affected. Crucially, a change in appearance is an indicator of overall health status and it has been shown that ‘looking old for one’s age’ is linked to an increased risk of mortality.

A new angle

Skin ageing research is an area that connects with Unilever’s vision to help people look good, feel good and get more out of life.We are committed to understanding the processes that relate to healthy longevity including keeping skin looking younger, for longer.

Whilst past studies have examined the relationship between supplements and vitamins and skin health, we wanted to explore the effects of nutrient intake through a person’s diet. Using data from the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, we conducted epidemiological analysis on over 4000 women aged between 40 and 74 years.

As far as we know, this research is unique. Led by nutritional epidemiologist Dr Maeve Cosgrove from Unilever R&D, the scientific analyses were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and cited in the prestigious University of Tufts Health & Nutrition newsletter.

Key findings

Our study found, for the first time, that a diet containing higher levels of vitamin C was associated with a lower likelihood of developing wrinkles and skin dryness. Vitamin C supports different biological functions including regeneration and wound repair. It is an established antioxidant and an essential co-factor in the production of collagen, the protein that plays a major role in skin strength and elasticity.

There were two further results of note. Higher intakes of linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid, were associated with a lower risk of having age-related skin dryness and skin atrophy (thinning); whereas higher intakes of fats or carbohydrates were associated with a greater likelihood of displaying the features of skin ageing.

Fruits and vegetables are the best way to ingest vitamin C into the body. At the time of the original research, the main sources were orange juice, citrus fruits and tomatoes. Nuts and some oils, such as sunflower, are high in linoleic acid.

We are what we eat

Maeve concludes, “Whilst our research had limitations, such as the historical nature of the data, it adds evidence to the hypothesis that what we eat affects our appearance. It supports current recommendations that promote aspects of a healthy diet such as higher intakes of fruit, vegetables and nuts. Importantly, it indicates a new direction for nutrition research in relation to public health.”

As a direct result of this research paper, Maeve was invited to write a book chapter on nutrition and skin ageing. This was co-authored with Dr Gail Jenkins (Unilever R&D) and is due to be published in late 2009 in "Aging Skin: Therapeutic Strategies" (eds Rhein and Fluhr).

By focusing on the links between nutrients and skin ageing appearance, this research has given us a greater understanding of the specific roles played by a range of dietary components. The findings may also be used to provide alternative motivations for individuals to adopt healthier, more balanced diets.

Reference: Dietary nutrient intakes and skin-aging appearance among middle-aged American women. Maeve C Cosgrove, Oscar H Franco, Stewart P Granger, Peter G Murray and Andrew E Mayes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007, 86, 1225 – 1231

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