This will be the first in a series of blogs on fatty acids and how they are fundamental to healthy skin. Lucky for us, we can get fatty acids two ways: we can eat them in our foods and we can apply them directly on our skin. First let’s look at fatty acids.
What are fatty acids?
Fatty acids are considered to be “good” fats and are used by mitochondria in our cells for energy. We need them in our diets for several reasons including cell membrane development and healthy functioning of our organs and tissue. They are therefore essential in keeping our skin healthy. There are many different categorizations of fatty acids including: saturated vs. unsaturated, the length of the chain of fatty acids; and if they are essential (meaning that we cannot produce them). We can produce all of the fatty acids we need within our own bodies except for two fatty acids (the essential fatty acids).
Essential Fatty Acids Overview
The two essential fatty acids which we cannot adequately manufacture within the human body because we lack the enzymes are alpha-linolenic acid (Omega 3 fatty acids) and linoleic acid (Omega 6 fatty acids). Oils rich in Omega 6 fatty acids include grapeseed oil, palm kernel oil, evening primrose oil, pumpkin seed oil and sesame oil. Generally we think of foods rich in Omega 3 being fish or seafood, but there are some plants, such as hempseed or flax, that are also sources of it.
Classifications of fatty acids
Fatty acids are classified according to the length of their chains into one of the following four categories: short chain, medium chain, long chain and very long chain fatty acids. The determining factor is how long the aliphatic tails are in the acid.
Fatty acids are also broken down into whether they are saturated or unsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids have more than one double bond between carbon atoms whereas saturated fatty acids have no double bonds. These double bonds make unsaturated fatty acids more prone to rancidity.
Saturated Fatty Acids:
- Behenic acid
- Lauric aid
- Myristic acid
- Palmitic acid
- Stearic acid
Unsaturated Fatty Acids:
- Alpha Linolenic acid
- Erucic acid
- Linoleic acid
- Oleic acid
- Palmitoleic acid
And now let’s turn our attention to the skin, the most wonderful of organs. The skin is not only our largest organ, it also has a very complex job. It must both provide a barrier (keeping bad stuff out and good stuff in) and behave as a passage (allowing bad stuff out and good stuff in). What do I mean by this?
Barrier function of skin
- Keep good stuff in: skin must hold in all of our blood, organs, fat, moisture, and basically anything that should be contained in the human body. It helps reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL).
- Keep bad stuff out: skin in our first line of defense in keeping out harmful bacteria, viruses, fungus, chemicals, and pathogens. If they can break the skin barrier, then our systems need to work hard to fight them off or we get sick. It’s much easier to keep them out in the first place.
Passage function of skin:
- Let in the good stuff: skin must allow things like moisture, oxygen, nutrients, and sunlight (to make vitamin D) in through our skin in order for us to function properly.
- Let out the bad stuff: skin must allow things like our sweat, toxins, and other waste product to be expelled out of the skin. It’s the body’s way of cooling and cleansing and necessary to our health.
Human skin is comprised of fatty acids in varying amounts. Here’s one table I found breaking them down (but I can’t vouche for the veracity of this table):
- Oleic acid- 30.8%
- Palmitic acid- 20.2%
- Linoleic acid- 15.1%
- Stearic acid- 11.2%
- Palmitoleic acid- 3.8%
- Myristic acid- 2.1%
- Linolenic acid- 0.3%
So we can see that skin has a very complicated job indeed! How does it both create a barrier and a passage way letting things in and out and keeping things in and out? In order to do this, skin must be flexible, soft, supple and healthy. It does this by utilizing fatty acids to create a flexible barrier that can also prevent and repair any damage to the skin. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how fatty acids help the skin.