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The Fat You Want: Fatty Acids Explained

March 29, 2021

Why are fatty acids important for skin health

If you heard a medical professional talk about fat being good for you, you’d probably wonder what he or she was talking about. After all, you’ve always heard that fat, both in your diet and elsewhere, is bad, right?

Years of ads have advised you to avoid fats in your diet for heart health and many studies have linked high fat diets to a variety of health problems. The fact of the matter is that there are some fats, particularly fatty acids, that are extremely beneficial to your health. These fatty acids are essential for good skin health, which is why you’ll find them in a variety of quality skincare product formulations.

The trick, of course, is to be able to identify which fatty acids are most beneficial to your body, and to understand the role they play in skin appearance and health.

Fatty Acids versus Essential Fatty Acids

So what's a fatty acid then? Fatty acids are the name for lipid-carboxylic acid chains found in both vegetable oils and animal fat. There are dozens of known fatty acids, but you're probably most familiar with omega-3, 6 and 9 - types of fatty acids. There are many more than that, but let's start with those to explain what fatty acids do.

  • Omega-3s - polyunsaturated fats including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), EPA and DHA. Important for brain and heart health, reducing inflammation, and risk of high cholesterol. Found in flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, and several fish like tuna and salmon.
  • Omega-6s - polyunsaturated fats including linoleic acid, GLA and archidonic acid. Important for heart health, joints, bones, and healthy cholesterol. Found in almonds, pistachios, grapeseeds, walnuts, eggs, olive safflower, and sunflower oils.
  • Omega-9s - (usually) monounsaturated fats including oleic acid, erucic acid, and gondoic acid. Helpful for skin heart health, blood pressure, energy, brain health, and more. Found in chia seeds, sesame seeds, olives, walnuts, macadamia nuts, avocado, eggs, and peanuts.

There are many other fatty acids as well, including omega-5, powerful for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Omega-5 polyunsaturated fats includes myristoleic acid, found in palm oil, coconuts, and butter. There is an omega-5 in pomegranate seeds, which yield a unique fatty acid called punicic acid.

Omega-7 fatty acids are known to be helpful digestion, cell metabolism, and for antiaging. These monounsaturated fats include palmitoleic acid and vaccenic acid found in grass fed meat and dairy, wild salmon, macadamia nuts, and sea buckthorn berries.

Saturated fatty acids are common in the diet, but are regularly seen in skincare formulations as well, especially lotions and creams. These include things like:

  • Capric and Caprylic acids (naturally found in coconut and palm oil and butter).
  • Lauric acid (naturally in coconuts and palm kernel oil).
  • Stearic acid (high in animal fats, butter, eggs, and sunflower seeds and peanuts).
  • Palmitic acid (high in palm oil, animal fats, and peanuts).

What makes Essential Fatty Acids Special?

No discussion of beneficial fatty acids would be complete without explaining what essential fatty acids are. While your body is capable of producing most fatty acids, two cannot be naturally produced and must be obtained through diet or topical application. These are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid - termed essential fatty acids (also known as EFAs).

Since these are ones we must obtain from environmental sources, EFAs are very important to know about. EFAs are crucial for building healthy cell membranes in your body, especially your skin cells. Omega-3 alpha-linoleic acid and omega-6 linoleic acid are both polyunsaturated fats, which produce a natural oil barrier on your skin. This keeps your skin fully hydrated, more plump, and youthful.

When you don’t get enough of the EFAs in your diet, your skin can end up inflamed, dry, and often susceptible to acne, including both whiteheads and blackheads. But the essential fatty acids do a lot more than help prevent acne!

Current research has shown that these EFAs also work to reduce your skin’s sensitivity to sun, along with reducing skin inflammation that is often related to outbreaks of acne. Other research has found that treatments for psoriasis that included medication and EFA supplements was more effective than treatment with medication without EFA supplementation.

While EFAs are crucial for healthy skin, they are also extremely important for helping to prevent other health problems. These include heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, stroke, and many other chronic health problems.

Good Sources of Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found mostly in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish that includes salmon, mackerel, and sardines, along with flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and other foods. Many doctors feel we don’t eat enough omega-3in particular in the standard western diet.

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in a variety of oils like grape seed, safflower, soybean, evening primrose oil, and others. Foods high in omega-6 include poultry, eggs, nuts, whole-grain breads, cereals, and many other foods.

Many people are confused about the correct ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 and how much of each to eat. The “ideal” ratio is 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3. Some who specialize in anti-aging recommend an even higher ratio of 1:1, with an emphasis on omega-3. Surprisingly, most Americans are eating a ratio in the range of 12:1 to 25:1 of omega-6 to omega-3.

Some of the omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory when consumed in high levels, while omega-3s are not. So the more omega-3s you eat, the healthier you will feel (and look!).

Fatty Acids Strengthen & Defend Skin from Damage

As we’ve seen, omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of our body’s cell membranes, and this is particularly important regarding skin cells. Fatty acids offer protection from the harmful UV rays of the sun. Ultraviolet radiation causes damage to the cells through inflammation, while suppressing the immune response in the skin.

Your body converts EFAs into various compounds that help in both inflammation and immune reactions, so having higher levels of EFAs in your skin will influence your cellular response to the ultraviolet rays.

While sunscreens provide protection from the sun’s damaging rays, their protection is temporary at best and some areas of the skin are left exposed. Studies show that both dietary omega-3s and topical omega-3s add an extra layer of protection from UV radiation.

When skin is exposed to UV radiation and environmental toxins like smoking, dirt and pollution, a condition called photoaging occurs. This condition causes wrinkles, tissue changes in the skin, and loss of elasticity in the skin, causing it to sag. It is different from the wrinkling and loss of elasticity that comes from older age and genetics.

These changes are mostly due to collagen destruction in the skin cells. A diet high in EFAs showed a more youthful skin appearance while providing more photo protection from UV rays. Another side effect of UV radiation is hyperpigmentation. Studies that used topical EFAs on animals that had UV-induced hyperpigmentation showed a decline in pigmentation after only 3 weeks of treatment.

Initial studies show that oils like flaxseed and evening primrose oils have beneficial effects from EFAs on skin sensitivity. Subjects who ingested various EFA oils for 12 weeks had significantly improved skin properties, including less inflammatory response to skin irritants. The skin also showed reduced skin roughness and scaling.  

There is more work to be done in order to identify the specific EFA responsible for the improved sensitivity response. Wound healing has also shown to improve using EFA-rich oils (by their anti-inflammatory abilities) but again, more studies are needed. 

Supplement EFAs Versus Topical

A diet rich in EFAs is important to obtain the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our bodies. But does eating the proper foods do enough for improving skin cell membranes?

Dietary EFAs can be delivered to the body’s skin cells, and studies do show improvement in skin conditions using supplements rich in fatty acids. But the problem with dietary intake of EFAs on skin is that only a small amount of the EFAs will reach the skin, as the rest is absorbed in the body’s organs or oxidized by the liver.

Topical applications have been shown to be an effective method of delivering EFAs directly to the skin. That’s why many quality skincare products contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or oils rich in them. The ideal solution would be to utilize a combination of a better diet, with the proper ratio of omeg-3 to omega-6, along with topical application of products that contain quality EFAs.

Beginning Your Essential Fatty Acids Routine

Whether your skin is youthful and radiant or it is showing signs of photoaging or wrinkling due to chronological age and genetics, it’s never too late to start using your own essential fatty acid routine.

You can keep your firm, plump look or you can help to minimize fine lines and wrinkles using an ongoing, consistent EFA routine. Start by adjusting your diet to foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Be sure to try to adjust to the “ideal ratio” of 4:1, omega-6 to omega-3.

Also, apply moisturizers and other skincare products that are high in essential fatty acids from oils and butters from nuts and seeds (and some fruits like Acai berries and cucumbers) that help to soothe irritated skin while providing many rejuvenating benefits.

Tip: Use our helpful guide on oils and butters to find the right one for your skin type!

Since essential fatty acids benefit skin in so many ways, a routine incorporating these essential items can help to keep you looking your very best.