For maximum benefits to skin, hair and nails at development and growth stages we need to ensure optimum nutrition. The annual spend on topical applications for health and beauty is exceptional especially when we consider that external areas to which we apply products are classified as dead ‘keratinised’ surfaces. British women spend £10 billion on skin and hair products annually!
In this blog we look at the anatomy of our skin and the cell formation for hair and nails, to understand the nutritional requirements, before detailing a range of nutrients with specific and beneficial roles in supporting the structure, quality, growth and condition of our hair, skin, and nails.
The skin on our body has three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous layers.
The epidermis, which is the uppermost layer of our skin serves as a barrier of defence and varies in thickness according to location with the thickest on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The epidermis is composed of multiple layers of cells termed ‘stratified keratinised squamous epithelium’.
The surface layer of the epidermis consists of flat, thin dead cells in which the cytoplasm (the material between the nucleus and the cell membrane) has been replaced by the fibrous protein, keratin. These cells are continually changing, with a complete replacement of the epidermis taking approximately forty days.
The dermis is the ‘second’ layer of skin situated between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissue.
The dermis is formed from connective tissue with the matrix containing collagen fibres interlaced with elastic fibres. Collagen fibres bind water and give skin its tensile strength. Contained within these layers are glands (e.g., sweat and sebaceous glands), hair follicles, blood vessels, nerve endings and part of the nail. The dermis contains phagocytes to protect against potentially harmful pathogens and toxins that have penetrated the epidermis.
The dermis is also referred to as ‘the true skin’ because most of the vital functions of the skin are performed or housed here, for example providing energy and nutrition. Although the visible layer of our skin is the epidermis, it is largely ‘dead’. The dermis is a sensitive layer that performs a range of complex functions, including regulating body temperature, removing toxins and providing the epidermis with blood.
The layers of the skin are in constant communication in order to regulate body processes.
For example, the dermis influences the turnover of cells in the epidermis via the activities of mast cells and a dysfunction of this communication is thought to be at the heart of inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.1
The subcutaneous layer is the third of the three layers of the skin and contains fat, which insulates the body from the cold and protects our internal organs, as well as collagen-rich connective tissue and a network of blood vessels and nerves.
Hair formation, growth and shedding occurs over three ‘phases’ and can take many years. All hair follicles are formed during foetal development, and then new hair is generated in the hair follicle by continually undergoing phases of recession, rest, and growth throughout life.
Hair growth begins with the ‘anagen’ phase. This period can typically last from three to five years for the hairs on your head. During this phase the cells at the root of the hair are multiplying rapidly and pushing upward. At any time, around 90% of the hairs on your head are in anagen phase.28
The second phase is the ‘catagen’ phase which only lasts around 10 days. It signals the end of the active growth of a hair as the hair follicle shrinks and hair growth slows.
The third and final phase is the ‘telogen’ phase where shedding of the old hair and preparation for re-growth of a new follicle occurs. In the telogen stage the hair follicle is finally a dead and fully keratinized hair.
We most commonly associate nails with the ‘nail plate’ which consists of hard, horny keratin plate that is derived from the same cells as the epidermis and hair. The structure of the nail comprises the actual nail itself (the nail plate) and the surrounding tissues involved with the growth and development of the nail plate.
Nail growth relies upon the ‘matrix’ which supplies the nail with a good blood supply and is situated underneath the nail contained in an area of dense fibrous tissue called the mantle. The nail plate is the main body and hard part of the nail, made of translucent keratin protein. The nail plate displays a pink colour due to the blood supply underneath, but this colour may vary (e.g., a bluish or white hue) due to physical conditions or outside influences such as temperature.
Toenails grow much more slowly than fingernails. Nails grow all the time, but their rate of growth slows down with age. If you are unwell, your nails may suffer just like your skin and hair; this is often due to your blood supply concentrating on other parts of the body which need more help at times of illness. Chronic poor circulation is likely to affect the quality of your nails.
Damage to hair, nails and skin
Hair damage – signs and symptoms
We damage our hair by over exposure to sunlight, pollutants, applied chemicals, over brushing, drying, curling and straightening. The predominant damage in these circumstances is to the outer cuticle of the hair leading to splitting and breakage which exposes the inner hair with the result of dry, dull and coarse feeling hair.
Excessive hair loss can occur due to poor diet, physical trauma to the hair, emotional trauma, surgery, crash diets, thyroid problems and post childbirth; in most cases hair will quickly re-grow. Hormonal related hair loss impacts on both men and women, with male pattern baldness tending towards genetic links.2
Immune related conditions where the immune system attacks hair follicles can result in small patches of hair loss developing on the skull and this is known as alopecia areata. In some occurrences, total baldness develops and occasionally the loss of all the hairs on the entire body, called alopecia universalis.3
A range of prescribed medications are known to be associated with hair loss including the commonly used hormonal contraceptives and menopausal drugs.
Grey hair is usually associated with ageing with early greying sometimes seen occurring through the generations in some families. Health issues such as anaemia, oxidative damage, smoking, vitamin B12, D3 and copper deficiency can lead to premature greying.4
Nail damage – signs and symptoms
The most common problem affecting nails are caused by fungal nail infections with a white or yellow discolouration leading to crumbling and destruction of the nail. This problem occurs in both fingers and toes but more commonly the toenails are affected.
White spots on the nails are known as leukonychia and are considered a sign of a previous and minor injury to the base of the nail. The white spots are often thought to be associated with zinc or calcium deficiencies; however, it is unlikely that this is a symptom of a nutritional deficiency.5
Iron deficiency and anaemia can manifest as a pale or white nail and in extreme deficiencies the nail will become concave (spoon shaped). Horizontal marks in the nails are associated with previous illness or infection and pitting of the nail surface is often associated with conditions such as psoriasis.6,7
Vertical marks on the nails are seen as a normal feature of the nails as we age; the marks can also be due to an overgrowth of keratin or damage resulting from physical trauma, particularly where hands are frequently exposed to water and household chemicals.
Our nails can reflect some serious health concerns and total nail discolouration, or colour changes of the nail(s) not associated with bruising and injury should be referred to a medical practitioner for diagnosis.
Skin damage – signs and symptoms
Damage predominantly occurs to our skin from physical trauma such as wounds, rashes and fungal infections, whilst inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, acne and psoriasis can lead to long-term symptoms.
The skin is the largest organ of the human body and is perpetually ageing by both internal and external factors. Visible skin ageing is a concern for many, and skin is considered to age due to reduction in collagen production causing a thinning of the dermis layer with our skin becoming more vulnerable to injury and slower to heal.8 Environmental factors including smoking and long-term excessive exposure to sunlight and sunbeds are seen as detrimental to skin and are likely to promote accelerated ageing.
The Ultraviolet radiation (UV) coming from the sun accelerates collagen breakdown and degradation in the skin leading to the formation of wrinkles; it is also responsible for an increase in ‘free radical’ formation in our body.9 Photo-oxidative damage caused by solar UV light is the main cause of extrinsic ageing of the skin, a phenomenon known as photoaging. The body has several control mechanisms to deal with free radicals by regulating their generation and repairing damage they might cause. When these safety mechanism fail, oxidative damage occurs, damaging cells, releasing destructive enzymes and triggering an inflammatory response. To combat this, we need to ensure our diet provides optimum nutrition together with an increased intake of antioxidants.
Protection for skin, hair and nails
Whilst an unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking and sun exposure would be considered pro–oxidants and responsible for the formation of free radicals, a healthy diet and a number of specific nutrients are considered antioxidants and protective against the damaging free radicals. Specific nutrients are also identified as important for the growth and development of healthy tissue and protective of the destructive enzymes considered responsible for skin ageing. We detail the main ones identified as beneficial for hair, skin and nail health as follows:
Vitamin C is an important vitamin and antioxidant with a wide range of health benefits. Normal skin contains high concentrations of vitamin C, which supports functions such as stimulating collagen and elastin synthesis and assisting in antioxidant protection against UV-induced photodamage. As such, vitamin C could play a supportive role against several challenges that affect structure, function and appearance, including loss of elasticity and wrinkle formation, toxin exposure and direct injury such as wounding or burning.30
Vitamin D, aside from its well-known role in calcium absorption and skeletal health, is also known to regulate cellular functions in nearly all the body’s organs and systems. The skin plays a central role in Vitamin D metabolism; in turn vitamin D plays an important role in skin biology by modulating inflammation, directly affecting lymphocyte function and cytokine secretion. It therefore comes as no surprise that low vitamin D levels have been associated with multiple dermatological disorders, including atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.10
Vitamin D levels have been shown to be lower in patients with hair loss, and D3 supplementation has been suggested as a treatment consideration for such individuals.11
Selenium is an important mineral and antioxidant, with confirmed health benefits including contributing to the maintenance of normal hair and nails and to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
As an antioxidant, adequate selenium levels can protect the skin cells from oxidative stress, cell membrane destabilisation and DNA damage, as well as preventing the effects of UV radiation. Seleno-proteins are essential for proper keratinocyte function, skin development and wound healing. Large scale studies have also showed a lower level of selenium in those with psoriasis.12
Zinc has a variety of functions in human health including a role in the process of cell division. Approximately 6% of the total concentration of the body’s zinc is located in the skin, where it is involved in the morphogenesis, repair and maintenance of skin cells.12
Alopecia is a well-known sign of established zinc deficiency with hair regrowth occurring with zinc supplementation.11 Zinc deficiency may also manifest as acne, eczema, xerosis (dry, scaling skin), seborrheic dermatitis, and may also impair or possibly prevent wound healing.13
Biotin is a water-soluble B-complex vitamin, an important co-enzyme and essential nutrient that contributes to the maintenance of normal hair and skin. Biotin is ubiquitous in foods.
Copper has a stimulating effect on the proliferation of keratinocytes and has a vital role in the activation of key enzyme systems specific to tissue formation and repair and is involved in the cross-linking and maturation of collagen in wound-healing. Deficiency can result in a lowered number of sulphur bridges responsible for strength and elasticity of hair resulting in brittle, weak hair with a tendency to early greying.14
MSM (methyl sulphonyl methane) is an organic form of sulphur, high levels of which are found in the muscles, skin and bones as well as concentrated amounts in the hair and nails.
Sulphur is a component of keratin, the main protein of hair and nails and is vital for the formation of keratin, collagen and elastin, which provides flexibility, tone and strength to muscles, bones, joints, skin, hair and nails. MSM is known to be a beneficial nutrient and a therapeutic substance for the treatment of acne, arthritis, muscle pain, weak nails, dry or rough skin, and other ailments and studies have shown that MSM is effective at reducing visual signs of skin ageing at as little as 1g/day.15
Silica is important for the human body with its role in the normal formation, growth and development of bone, connective tissues and cartilage. Silica is concentrated in all connective tissue including nails, hair and skin, where it contributes to collagen formation.
Pine Bark Extract is a natural plant extract rich in the flavonoid procyanidins and considered to provide antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and photoprotective properties.16 Supplementation with pine bark extract has also shown to reduce hyperpigmentation of the skin, improve hydration and elasticity and strengthening the epidermal barrier.17
Bilberry provides a rich source of anthocyanins which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties and have demonstrated preventative role in UV-induced skin damage. 18,19
Cocoa has a history of human consumption tracing back to 400AD and is rich in polyphenols such as catechins, anthocyanidins and pro-anthocyanidins. Cocoa flavanols have been demonstrated to be more potent than other food polyphenols in terms of their potential to inhibit lipid peroxidation and effectively intercept and neutralise ROS. Due to cocoa’s bioavailability, its intake increases serum antioxidant capacity, protecting the endothelium from oxidative damage. Pertaining to skin health, cocoa components have been utilized in diseases, such as psoriasis, acne and wound healing, and it has been shown that cocoa has great potential not only for the treatments of skin diseases, but also for their prevention.20
Lycopene, a carotenoid abundantly available in tomatoes, possesses photoreceptive action against UV damage to human skin, where concentration in the skin occurs after supplementation and correlates with plasma levels.21 Lycopene is reported to be the antioxidant most quickly depleted in the skin upon UV radiation, suggesting an important protective role.22
Lutein is a xanthophyll carotenoid obtained from various foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables and egg yolk, and demonstrates potent antioxidant activity. It has demonstrated protective effect against UV-induced skin damage, inflammation and immunosuppression. Humans with a diet rich in the carotenoids beta carotene, lutein, lycopene and astaxanthin showed photoprotective effects on skin and enhanced skin elasticity and hydration, skin texture and reduced wrinkles, and age spots.23
Astaxanthin, a powerful carotenoid and extremely potent antioxidant, has been found to possess a range of health benefits and anti-ageing effects. When applied topically, studies suggest that it has the capacity for prevention of DNA damage and enhanced mitochondrial function and DNA repair through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. It has also been seen to stimulate the production of Type I collagen to improve the appearance of wrinkles and promote wound healing.12
CoQ10 – in human skin, levels of this potent antioxidant decrease in correspondence with age and IV light exposure, and supplementation has demonstrated to have the efficacy to prevent many of the detrimental effects of photoaging. Additionally, CoQ10 plays a pivotal role in supporting and maintaining cellular energy levels in human keratinocytes.12 Dietary supplementation with CoQ10 over a 12-week period was shown to significantly reduce fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin smoothness.24
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and, as mentioned, is responsible for the structure, stability and strength within the layers of skin. Type I is the most common type of collagen – found in skin, bone, teeth, tendon, ligaments, vascular ligature, and organs.
As we age, the deposition of collagen and elastin within the skin decreases, and this is accelerated by exposure to the sun. Supplementing with marine sources of type I collagen have demonstrated significantly increased collagen depositions in the skin, increased hydration in dry skin, along with improved elasticity, resulting in greater smoothness and fewer wrinkles after as little as 6 weeks treatment. 11 Collagen peptides have also demonstrated a therapeutic anti-inflammatory effect in atopic dermatitis.29
Marine collagen peptides have also been shown to promote hair growth by inducing the anagen phase.25
Omega 3 fatty acids appear to play a regulatory role in the skin. Through serving as precursors to anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can attenuate the inflammatory response. They offer a promising therapeutic tool for inflammatory skin conditions including atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and acne.26
Sea Buckthorn provides a unique mix of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, including abundant levels of omega-7, very uncommon within the plant kingdom. This ensures multidirectional effects in different layers of the epidermis, thus playing an essential protective and reparative role in skin health. Omega 7 stimulates cell regeneration in the epidermis and plays an important role in wound healing and reducing scars, while Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) is a component of the intracellular cement that binds the cells of the epidermis and improves circulation, increasing the supply of nourishment to the skin and removing excess toxins resulting in improved skin structure, appearance and tone. The saturated fats, palmitic and stearic acids, as well as sterols in sea buckthorn strengthen the skin as a protective barrier, Phospholipids and glycolipids give moisture to the skin, improve elasticity, and reduce inflammation, whilst accelerating skin regeneration and cell renewal.27Sea buckthorn also strengthens the structure of the hair and can therefore be considered as an effective remedy against hair loss and balding.
- A range of nutrients play specific and beneficial roles in supporting the structure, quality, growth and condition of our hair, skin and nails.
- Deficiency in these nutrients can result in outward signs of damage, slow repair and healing, as well as hair loss
- The skin is susceptible to inflammation and oxidative damage, which can contribute to accelerated collagen breakdown and visible signs of ageing
- Unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking and sun exposure are considered pro–oxidants and responsible for the formation of free radicals
- Conversely, a healthy diet of wholefoods and a number of specific nutrients are considered antioxidants and protective against the damaging effects free radicals
- Kobielak A, Boddupally K. Junctions and inflammation in the skin. Cell Commun Adhes. 2014;21(3):141-147. doi:10.3109/15419061.2014.905930
- Asghar F, Shamim N, Farooque U, Sheikh H, Aqeel R. Telogen Effluvium: A Review of the Literature. Cureus. 2020 May 27;12(5):e8320. doi: 10.7759/cureus.8320. PMID: 32607303; PMCID: PMC7320655.
- Juárez-Rendón KJ, Rivera Sánchez G, Reyes-López MÁ, et al. Alopecia Areata. Current situation and perspectives. Alopecia areata. Actualidad y perspectivas. Arch Argent Pediatr. 2017;115(6):e404-e411. doi:10.5546/aap.2017.eng.e404
- Kumar AB, Shamim H, Nagaraju U. Premature Graying of Hair: Review with Updates. Int J Trichology. 2018 Sep-Oct;10(5):198-203. doi: 10.4103/ijt.ijt_47_18. PMID: 30607038; PMCID: PMC6290285.
- Iorizzo M, Starace M, Pasch MC. Leukonychia: What Can White Nails Tell Us? Am J Clin Dermatol. 2022 Mar;23(2):177-193. doi: 10.1007/s40257-022-00671-6. Epub 2022 Feb 2. PMID: 35112320; PMCID: PMC8809498.
- Rathod DG, Sonthalia S. Spoon Nails. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; August 8, 2022.
- Muneer H, Masood S. Psoriasis of the Nails. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; August 1, 2022.
- Zhang S, Duan E. Fighting against Skin Aging: The Way from Bench to Bedside. Cell Transplant. 2018;27(5):729-738. doi:10.1177/0963689717725755
- Rittié L, Fisher GJ. Natural and sun-induced aging of human skin. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2015 Jan 5;5(1):a015370. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a015370. PMID: 25561721; PMCID: PMC4292080.
- Bergqvist C, Ezzedine K. Vitamin D and the skin: what should a dermatologist know?. G Ital Dermatol Venereol. 2019;154(6):669-680. doi:10.23736/S0392-0488.19.06433-2
- Almohanna HM, Ahmed AA, Tsatalis JP, Tosti A. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2019 Mar;9(1):51-70. doi: 10.1007/s13555-018-0278-6. Epub 2018 Dec 13. PMID: 30547302; PMCID: PMC6380979.
- Vollmer DL, West VA, Lephart ED. Enhancing Skin Health: By Oral Administration of Natural Compounds and Minerals with Implications to the Dermal Microbiome. Int J Mol Sci. 2018 Oct 7;19(10):3059. doi: 10.3390/ijms19103059. PMID: 30301271; PMCID: PMC6213755.
- Singh, S. and Dubey, R.P., 2019. Zinc, and its essentiality for human health. The Pharma. Innov. Journal, 8(9), pp.137-139.
- Goluch-Koniuszy ZS. Nutrition of women with hair loss problem during the period of menopause. Prz Menopauzalny. 2016;15(1):56-61. doi:10.5114/pm.2016.58776
- Muizzuddin N, Benjamin R. Beauty from within: Oral administration of a sulfur-containing supplement methylsulfonylmethane improves signs of skin ageing. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2022;92(3-4):182-191. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000643
- Dogan E, Yanmaz L, Gedikli S, Ersoz U, Okumus Z. The Effect of Pycnogenol on Wound Healing in Diabetic Rats. Ostomy Wound Manage. 2017;63(4):41-47.
- Grether-Beck S, Marini A, Jaenicke T, Krutmann J. French Maritime Pine Bark Extract (Pycnogenol®) Effects on Human Skin: Clinical and Molecular Evidence. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2016;29(1):13-17. doi:10.1159/000441039
- Skarupova D, Vostalova J, Rajnochova Svobodova A. Ultraviolet A protective potential of plant extracts and phytochemicals. Biomed Pap Med Fac Univ Palacky Olomouc Czech Repub. 2020;164(1):1-22. doi:10.5507/bp.2020.010
- Scapagnini G, Davinelli S, Di Renzo L, et al. Cocoa bioactive compounds: significance and potential for the maintenance of skin health. Nutrients. 2014;6(8):3202-3213. Published 2014 Aug 11. doi:10.3390/nu6083202
- Scapagnini G, Davinelli S, Di Renzo L, et al. Cocoa bioactive compounds: significance and potential for the maintenance of skin health. Nutrients. 2014;6(8):3202-3213. Published 2014 Aug 11. doi:10.3390/nu6083202
- Petyaev IM, Pristensky DV, Morgunova EY, Zigangirova NA, Tsibezov VV, Chalyk NE, Klochkov VA, Blinova VV, Bogdanova TM, Iljin AA, Sulkovskaya LS, Chernyshova MP, Lozbiakova MV, Kyle NH, Bashmakov YK. Lycopene presence in facial skin corneocytes and sebum and its association with circulating lycopene isomer profile: Effects of age and dietary supplementation. Food Sci Nutr. 2019 Mar 13;7(4):1157-1165. doi: 10.1002/fsn3.799. PMID: 31024688; PMCID: PMC6475749.
- Ascenso A, Pedrosa T, Pinho S, Pinho F, de Oliveira JM, Cabral Marques H, Oliveira H, Simões S, Santos C. The Effect of Lycopene Preexposure on UV-B-Irradiated Human Keratinocytes. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:8214631. doi: 10.1155/2016/8214631. Epub 2015 Nov 17. PMID: 26664697; PMCID: PMC4664803.
- Ahn YJ, Kim H. Lutein as a Modulator of Oxidative Stress-Mediated Inflammatory Diseases. Antioxidants (Basel). 2021 Sep 13;10(9):1448. doi: 10.3390/antiox10091448. PMID: 34573081; PMCID: PMC8470349.
- Žmitek K, Pogačnik T, Mervic L, Žmitek J, Pravst I. The effect of dietary intake of coenzyme Q10 on skin parameters and condition: Results of a randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind study. Biofactors. 2017;43(1):132-140. doi:10.1002/biof.1316
- Hwang SB, Park HJ, Lee BH. Hair-Growth-Promoting Effects of the Fish Collagen Peptide in Human Dermal Papilla Cells and C57BL/6 Mice Modulating Wnt/β-Catenin and BMP Signaling Pathways. Int J Mol Sci. 2022 Oct 7;23(19):11904. doi: 10.3390/ijms231911904.
- Balić A, Vlašić D, Žužul K, Marinović B, Bukvić Mokos Z. Omega-3 Versus Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Prevention and Treatment of Inflammatory Skin Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Jan 23;21(3):741. doi: 10.3390/ijms21030741. PMID: 31979308; PMCID: PMC7037798.
- Solà Marsiñach M, Cuenca AP. The impact of sea buckthorn oil fatty acids on human health. Lipids Health Dis. 2019 Jun 22;18(1):145. doi: 10.1186/s12944-019-1065-9. PMID: 31228942; PMCID: PMC6589177.
- Burg D, Yamamoto M, Namekata M, Haklani J, Koike K, Halasz M. Promotion of anagen, increased hair density and reduction of hair fall in a clinical setting following identification of FGF5-inhibiting compounds via a novel 2-stage process. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2017 Feb 27;10:71-85. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S123401. PMID: 28280377; PMCID: PMC5338843.
- Hakuta A, Yamaguchi Y, Okawa T, Yamamoto S, Sakai Y, Aihara M. Anti-inflammatory effect of collagen tripeptide in atopic dermatitis. J Dermatol Sci. 2017;88(3):357-364.
- Pullar JM, Carr AC, Vissers MCM. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017 Aug 12;9(8):866. doi: 10.3390/nu9080866. PMID: 28805671; PMCID: PMC5579659.
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact our team of Nutritional Therapists.
Last updated on 26th January 2023 by cytoffice