Essential Fatty Acids & Skin Health

by Keri Berardinelli

Not surprising that essential fatty acids, also known as EFA’s, are actually good for your skin’s health and function. We hear so much about eating fresh fruits and vegetables to aid in supporting healthy skin, but not enough about the role of fats and how they affect our skin.

It’s outrageous to think there was a time, in the late 80’s and throughout the 1990’s, that fat was deemed as “unhealthy” and to be avoided. At that time, “fat free” and “low fat” became the buzz words within the grocery store shelves, as people madly bought into the propaganda and avoided as much fat as possible. The belief was fat made you fat and fat contributed to disease, but the more people avoided fat, the fatter and sicker they became; and truth be told, fat is a very necessary macronutrient, supporting many processes within the body. When it comes to the skin, a deficiency in fat manifests as hyperproliferation (seen in psoriasis), dermatitis and Transepidermal Water Loss. [1] “Dermatitis” is described as dry, scaly, itchy patches on the skin. Dermatitis is probably an extreme case of EFA deficiency, manifesting after months of being deficient; however, the deficiency has an effect on the skin within days, so anyone who has dry skin will benefit their skin by increasing healthy fats in his/her diet.

Topical versus Internal Supplementation of EFA’s

The epidermal cells (top layer of the skin) are comprised mostly of LA, Linoleic Acid, or Omega-6 fatty acids. A deficiency in LA compromises the skin’s barrier function resulting in TEWL (Transepidermal Water Loss) and a decline in the skin’s immunity. The dermal portion of the skin, which is below the epidermis, and feeds the epidermis nutritionally, utilizes ALA, Alpha Linolenic Acid, or Omega-3 fatty acids, by attenuating inflammatory signaling that affects the surface of the skin (epidermis). Hence, in my professional opinion, feed your skin their Omega-6 oils topically and Omega-3 oils internally.

One of the best oils to use topically is sunflower oil. Sunflower oil, in clinical studies, has shown to enhance skin barrier recovery after applying daily for just two weeks [1]. Coconut oil is another oil that is well-suited topically, as well as, internally, because of its MCFA (medium-chain fatty acid) chemical structure. Topical application is readily absorbed, enhancing the skin’s immune functions and preventing premature aging of the skin. Consuming MCFA’s require less energy for absorption, so less action from the liver and gallbladder, in order to emulsify and absorb these fatty acids. People who suffer from the malabsorption of fats may benefit from consuming coconut oil. Additionally, internal consumption of coconut oil offers many benefits, supporting the immune and gastrointestinal systems.

Photoprotection with EFA’s

We’ve all been taught about the harmful effects of the sun and the on-going effects of sun damage; yet, there are many healthy benefits of receiving the sun’s rays, from the manufacturing of Vitamin D, via the skin, to the balancing of male and female hormones, the sun offers us many life-giving benefits. So, rather than avoiding the sun altogether, or relying on chemical sunscreens, what can we do to raise our skin’s resistance to the sun?

Well, research shows us, that in addition to our endogenous defense mechanisms that protect us from sun damage, dietary fats, specifically, Omega-3 fatty acids, provide a layer of systemic protection from the sun [1]. Even topically-applied Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the effects of UVR damage. Why is this so? Omega-3 fatty acids protect our skin by modulating the UVR-induced inflammatory response that accelerates aging and breaks down the immune defenses within the skin. Omega-3 fatty acids serve as the skin’s protection.

Evidence also shows us that overall diet effects how the skin responds to the sun, along with the amount of skin damage that accumulates because of exposure. A diet that is rich in whole foods, such as, fruits, vegetables, MUFA’s (monounsaturated fatty acids- olive oil, avocados), and legumes had a more positive impact on skin health and skin resilience from sun exposure. Yet, in contrast, a diet high in processed foods, “bad” fats, milk and sugar showed a propensity towards accelerated skin aging when exposed frequently to sun exposure [1].

We were all made to live in harmony with nature. God has given us all that we need to live in perfect balance with the sun, such as foods and herbs that are protective and that cycle with the seasons. Let’s not fear the sun, but we should use common sense when it comes to sun exposure. Understanding the role of fats in protecting the skin from the sun, should empower us to make better dietary decisions.


When dealing with skin issues that includes premature aging, sun damage, dryness, dehydration, dermatitis, and psoriasis, it is important to assess one’s diet and over-all digestive processes. Assessing the types of fats that are being consumed and also any weaknesses in digestion, may give a clue into the skin condition being treated. Since the skin can be nourished topically, application of LA and ALA fats prove beneficial in treatment and prevention of skin damage, along with certain conditions and symptoms. Remember, that when you’re healing a skin condition naturally and holistically, you must look internally at the bigger picture, as opposed to treating solely the symptoms on the surface. This will give you the best outcome.