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Skin deep

Vitamins may be just the nourishment your complexion needs.
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Vitamins may be just the nourishment your complexion needs

Distressed by dark circles? Worried about wrinkles? Stressed by too much sun exposure? Vitamins—the kind you spread on your skin, not those you pop in your mouth—can help with all three concerns and, as a bonus, leave your skin with a healthy glow. “Certain vitamins have a skin-smoothing effect and can actually improve your skin’s texture, tone and clarity,” says Laurie Polis, M.D., a dermatologist at Soho Skin and Laser Dermatology in New York City. “Vitamins can decrease fine wrinkling and help prevent the effects of aging."

But you needn’t rush out and buy a year’s supply of vitamin-enriched creams, serums and lotions to get results. Study up before you stock up. Not all vitamins are effective when applied topically, and some work better than others for particular problems. Here’s an ABC guide to how these vital nutrients can help your skin look better than ever.

Vitamin A

Skin is made up of two types of connective tissue: a strong white fiber called collagen and an elastic yellow fiber called elastin. When your skin is damaged by too much sun exposure, the amount of collagen is decreased. At the same time, the elastin is broken down, gradually losing its elasticity. Vitamin A has been proven to help repair the skin’s connective tissue and protect against too much sun exposure. In several scientific studies, vitamin A was shown to be extremely effective at protecting against sun damage and lessening wrinkle lines, says Patricia Farris, M.D., a New Orleans dermatologist who has done extensive clinical testing on this vitamin’s effects on skin.

“In terms of overall skin health, it’s been demonstrated that vitamin A does help,” Farris says. “Study after study shows that vitamin A stimulates the formation of new collagen and stops collagen breakdown, which occurs when skin is exposed to the sun."

Retin-A is the prescription form of this vitamin, and it undoubtedly has the ability to eliminate some of the fine wrinkles of sun-damaged skin. Many users also report a healthier glow and better skin texture. But you don’t necessarily need a prescription to benefit from vitamin A.

Over the counter, look for creams that contain retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, says Lynn McKinley-Grant, M.D., a dermatologist in Chevy Chase, Md. “A cream made with retinol not only helps repair the skin, but it protects against further inflammation,” she explains. “It stimulates cells to turn over and form a new layer, and this layer is softer and has fewer wrinkles."

Since over-the-counter creams aren’t as strong as Retin-A, they may take longer to work, says Amy Newburger, M.D., a dermatologist in Scarsdale, N.Y. “But over time you will definitely see positive results."

Vitamin C

Of all the vitamins, C is the most abundant antioxidant found naturally in the skin, says Sheldon Pinnell, M.D., professor of dermatology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who has extensively studied the vitamin and reported on its many protective effects.

“Vitamin C is depleted when skin is exposed to the sun, and then it needs to be replaced,” Pinnell says. “While ordinarily we would ingest antioxidants when we eat, control systems in the body allow only so much to be absorbed at one time and subsequently transported to the tissues where they will be used.” Thus, even if you eat a truckload of oranges, the vitamin C they contain won’t benefit your skin, he says. But applying a topical preparation with vitamin C can prevent the consequences of prolonged sun exposure. “When the sun hits your skin, free radicals can form,” Farris says. “These damage the skin cells and can eventually result in skin cancer. Using vitamin C preparations on the skin may prevent this free-radical formation, as the vitamin seems to squelch or inactivate free radicals."

While it may not be the fountain of youth, vitamin C can improve your skin’s structure and firmness. “As we grow older, our skin loses its snap-back ability and grows thinner,” Farris says. “Vitamin C can make your skin firmer and improve collagen formation."

This antioxidant may also help skin glow, says McKinley-Grant, and applying creams containing vitamin C can help even the pigmentation under your eyes, lightening those dark circles.

Vitamin E

Although it was once believed that rubbing vitamin E into your skin helped scars to fade, recent studies have shown that this isn’t true. “But vitamin E does feel good on dry, rough skin,” says McKinley-Grant. Pinnell says that creams prepared with vitamin E make great moisturizers and, when combined with vitamin C, also offers a highly protective lotion against sun damage.

The B Vitamins

These vitamins, while not as thoroughly researched as vitamins A and C, still may be good for your skin. In fact, Pinnell says that vitamin B5 has moisturizing properties that make it ideal for dry, rough moisturizers with vitamin E, which can be irritating, he says.

“The benefits of the B vitamins have only been hinted at,” says Marianne O’Donoghue, M.D., a Chicago dermatologist. “But they can give you firm, healthy and vibrant skin.” The B vitamins may also help with tissue repair. Promising new research on B3 indicates that it may be an excellent exfoliator for those with sensitive skin.