Once upon a time fat and cholesterol were public enemy number one. Salads were periodically left ‘undressed’ or disrespected with a low fat variety. Popcorn was purposefully unbuttered or replaced with something nature never intended. Eggs were a food that you could have ‘on occasion’ but not to be eaten with abandon. Even coconut oil was demonized. Times, research and opinion have changed and not a moment too soon, because it turns out food tastes better with a little fat.
Yes, fat and cholesterol rich food tastes good, satiates us and deters us from wanting to fill the void with something else. Fats are now understood to be not something to be feared but rather embraced as an undisputedly critical component of nutrition; vital in so many ways that we now wonder how we really got on without it. Any good fat/cholesterol deficit or conversely bad fat overload (canola, you know who you are) in our diet can potentially cause havoc. Deficiencies may show up simply in the guise of lacklusture skin or prematurely greying hair. But over time more serious conditions such as impaired brain function, chronic fatigue, hormonal disruptions and neuro-degenerative issues may present themselves as well. This has forced a serious rethink about the importance of getting enough fat and cholesterol in the diet.
So get the coconut oil. Eat the butter. Go crazy with avocado. Eggs, eggs and more eggs.
In the midst of this healthy fat revolution we naturally began to wonder: if fats are good to take internally what about the external application? Of course we are not simply talking about the use of facial oils (we love those already) but what about the targeted, topical use of specific lipids to give our skin renewed glow and structure? The tendency in skincare circles has for eons been so narrowly focused on one thing – how to maintain and increase the moisture content of the skin. In doing so have we neglected and even dismissed that all important component of our dermis, it’s lipid content?
You’re the one for me, fatty
Think of your skin in terms of bricks and mortar. Over time and as we age the mortar that holds the bricks in place begins to break down and lose its ability to uphold the integrity of the structure. This ‘mortar’ comprises the outermost layers of the skin and has many names: acid mantle, protective barrier, hydro-lipid film etc. As the name implies, it is a protective layer of skin with many important functions, the first being our primary line of defence against bacteria, pollution, and other harmful environmental assaults. It is strong, but not infallible. The ravages of time, toxins and the environment take their toll. Arguably most problematic though is the damage we do ourselves. Our well intentioned but misguided habit of over-cleansing and scrubbing does in many cases the lion’s share of damage. The use of harsh soaps and cleansers and exfoliation leads to a weakened stratum corneum; vulnerable to attack and compromised in ways that are difficult to reverse. Common symptoms of a struggling acid mantle is anything from increased sensitivity, dryness, redness and a ‘thin’ looking dermis to increased incidents of blackheads, acne, and rosacea. Glowy-healthy skin? Forget it.
But all is not lost. We are beginning to understand the error of our ways. We now know that a significant portion of the outer layer of skin is composed of fats. This is not surprising at all really since great skin has an appearance of not only being hydrated but also ‘fat’ or ‘plump’. These all important lipids keep the ‘mortar’ of our dermis smooth, without cracks and give our faces fullness and structure. In other words, they make our skin structure stronger and healthier and we need more of them. The strategy is two-fold: 1) protect the lipids you have already by laying off the harsh soaps, acids, peels and exfoliators (use oil based or no soap cleansers instead). Let’s give our skin a bit of a break. And 2) we can begin a strategy of adding these vital lipids directly to the skin on a regular basis. This will add density to the lipid layer and protect us from the decline that naturally occurs over time.
The essential components of the lipid layer and the ones you need to know about are Ceramides, Cholesterol and Fatty acids.
Ceramides: These lipid molecules are mainly comprised of sphingolipids and are found in high concentrations within cell membranes. In the top layer of our dermis, ceramides collectively hold skin cells together forming a protective layer that helps to retain moisture and ‘plumpness’. It does this by virtue of its ‘wax’ like texture which acts like a barrier, sealing in moisture. (Newborn infants have this waxy or cheese like skin when they are born. This coating is called vernix caseosa and it is composed primarily of ceramides). While there are several different varieties of this lipid depending on which fatty acid it is linked to, they are all good. Again, we can get these by virtue of our diet. We are happy to report that ceramide rich foods include carbohydrates such as rice, rice flour products, sweet potatoes, whole wheat bread and wheat germ, butter, cream and eggs. So eat these in good faith knowing that you are feeding your skin. While adding these to your diet will have some effect research has shown that topical ceramides are particularly effective, increasing moisture content and retention, firmness and an overall smooth complexion. Interestingly, ceramides are also said to be especially relevant in the treatment of disorders such as eczema. Those with this condition are believed to have both a compromised acid mantle and lipid deficiencies such as ceramides.
Cholesterol: while the image of a plate of bacon and eggs might still be jarring for some people, times, they are a-changing. Having been misinformed for decades we now understand the importance of having enough cholesterol in our diet. Cholesterol importantly forms the backbone of our hormone production, those magical chemical messengers that we desperately need in order to feel and look good. When we fail to make sufficient estrogen and testosterone, all hell breaks loose and a multitude of chronic conditions and accelerated aging can set in. In terms of the health and youth of our skin, it is safe to say that cholesterol is critical. Externally cholesterol forms another major component of our lipid layer. Along with ceramides it is an integral part of ‘mortar’ that maintains the strength and structure of our skin. Cholesterol levels in our dermis are always decreasing (some 40% by age 40) with the usual factors of time, environment and skincare habits. We can combat this by again, limiting the aforementioned environmental assaults on the skin. But we can also do so by adding cholesterol lipids topically to reinforce the ones we already have. In creams and potions look for wool extract or lanolin extract as cholesterol is commonly derived from both.
Fatty acids: these substances are considered ‘essential’ because we cannot produce them ourselves. The only way to obtain them from is supplements, food and topical applications. The two primary ones are linolenic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). Both are critical for a laundry list of biological functions such as heart and brain function as well as neurological health. In terms of the skin, these fats have an important role as well. Omega 6 is said to be vital for the production a specific ceramide (1 linoleate) the most important ceramide for keeping the top layers of your skin supple and smooth. While most of us have no problem getting enough omega 6, it is the omega 3 variety that is more challenging. It is a potent anti-inflammatory and is excellent for alleviating dry skin issues. Both omegas create potent signalling molecules known as eicosanoids which influence the inflammatory response in the skin and may have a role in dictating how our skin responds to stress.
Holding the Mayo
While the cosmetic aisle is still flooded with products that advocate the virtues of being super-clean, super-exfoliated and free of annoying oil content, increasing numbers of us aren’t buying into it. Tired of the vicious cycle of extreme cleaning and general skincare toxicity (including the overpriced varieties), we are beginning to look elsewhere. Thankfully this has led to the rise of oil based cleansers and balm moisturizers with substantial healthy fat content (avocado, shea, cacao butters). There are even those who have simply thrown their hands up in the air and use coconut oil for everything, and we mean everything.
Who can blame them.
There are some iterations of lipid based treatments now the market that may offer some benefits and have the sought after lipid ratio of 50% ceramides, 25% cholesterol, and 15% free fatty acids. While they look promising, a close inspection at the ingredient list however makes it difficult for us to recommend any one brand at the moment.
Until the industry catches up and for those of us who are looking for an inexpensive and very effective topical DIY lipid treatment we suggest looking no further than the back of your fridge. There you will find the humble mayonnaise. I know what you are thinking…. mayo on my skin? No way. But before you dismiss it entirely, hear us out. Although mayo may not have the perfect bergamot fragrance, the lipid content is spectacular. Containing primarily eggs and oil, mayonnaise possesses a lovely and sought after mix of naturally occurring ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. You can of course easily make your own or you can seek a natural store bought variety, preferably one using sunflower or olive oil instead of the all too common and hazardous canola oil. After a gentle cleanse, apply mayonnaise generously on face and neck and leave on for up to an hour. Although it may feel quite heavy initially, you will be surprised at how easily and quickly it is absorbed. You also may feel like the receiving end of a hamburger bun but that is the point: topical lipid restoration.
The results are well worth it.