A Primal Look at Skin Care

inline_skin_careBy next year, Americans are expected to spend nearly 11 billion dollars on skin care annually. By some estimates anyway, the biggest share of this market goes to “anti-aging” products. Anti-aging… As I noted in an offhand way a few years back, there’s a certain enjoyment in looking good naked (or just looking good), and there’s nothing wrong with that. Looking “good” is largely a reflection of optimum inner health—nothing un-Primal about that. Great health is what we’re all here for. The “extra” rewards that come with it aren’t anything to shake a stick at—or to be sheepish about.

But the health ambition isn’t really what’s behind the statistics above. At their best, anti-aging products boost the body’s natural processes (or at least don’t undermine them with toxins). At their worst, these products promise a way to cheat effort as well as time. While taking care of your skin is part of basic hygiene, too often the claims have more in common with a hat trick than genuine wellness. But which is which?

Let’s discuss….

As our largest organ, and one which is constantly on display to the outside world, our skin is critical to this healthy outward appearance. Conventional wisdom dictates that, as we age, our skin declines, and to a certain degree it’s true. Were we intended to be immortal beings, the Primal strive towards nutritional and lifestyle perfection might be sufficient to maintain your skin’s vibrant status. But…reality is different.

The basic Primal prescription will take your skin’s health far beyond any cream will. (And for today’s purposes, I’ll keep the focus on aging and clarity rather than specific skin conditions.) How far you go beyond that Primal prescription for the sake of your skin’s appearance is up to you, but let’s look at what the basics can accomplish.

Sleep and Skin Aging: You Know There’s a Connection!

Let’s begin with the most obvious. Sleep—it’s when all the cell-healing, hormone-regulating, skin-rejuvenating magic happens, and it might be what people skimp on the most.

Part of that magic involves the production of collagen. Sleep deprivation has a direct impact on the integrity of the skin, including the production of collagen…and the result is saggier, more wrinkle-prone skin. Skimping a few hours on sleep every night can accentuate the number or severity of fine lines on your face. Not only that, your body dials up blood flow to your skin while you sleep. Inadequate sleep sets you up for an ashen, vampire-esque complexion. Probably not what you were going for.

The beauty here is that small changes can make a huge difference to your sleep regime, and hence your skin. Improving your sleep hygiene may just upgrade your appearance. In fact, you can bet on it.

The More Superficial Benefits of Good Nutrition

A couple of years ago, researchers embarked upon a curious quest to determine the effect that skin color has on our perception of attractiveness in the opposite sex. Using a bunch of caucasian men and women, the study designers played around with varying degrees of facial coloration using carotenoids and melanin as precursors. They found that those faces which had increased carotenoid coloration were more attractive than those that had increased melanin coloration. Faces with increased coloration in general were also found to be more desirable than those with less pigmentation. The takeaway is this: nutrition may be an even bigger factor in skin health and attractiveness than the sun. A tan is still nice, but the effects of a carotenoid-rich diet comes out on top.

And that doesn’t even take into account the major boon to skin health (and appearance) that comes with avoiding the chronic systemic inflammation of a high-carb diet…

Obviously, good overall nutrition itself is a key for maintaining healthy skin through the years. The continuing media frenzy over antioxidant-rich superfoods may be old news, but it’s good news at that. Nutrient-dense foods do indeed protect your skin from time-induced degradation by slowing the oxidative forces behind aging of the skin (and everything else). For example, upping your vitamin C intake can enhance collagen production and lowers the incidence of wrinkles and “senile dryness.” The polyphenols in your green tea may have a photoprotective effect against excessive sun exposure. Increasing essential fatty acid consumption from the likes of wild-caught salmon or walnuts reduces skin atrophy and wrinkling, as does eating more healthy fats. Many antioxidants and fish oil can reduce inflammation associated with acne and other skin conditions.

Being Primal, this shouldn’t be much of an issue for you. But if you’re not seeing an improvement in your skin after adopting a more Grokish way of life, try playing around with some of these nutritional focal points and add supplementation in the form of a potent, comprehensive multi and a quality fish oil. And you know how I feel about collagen….

Speaking of supplementation, products known as nutricosmetics are more recent arrivals on the scene. These “beauty pills” derive their claims from doses of anti-aging, free-radical-fighting nutrients like collagen and antioxidants such carotenoids and polyphenols. There you go, right? Well…

I can’t speak to the quality of any of these products, but maybe some of you have had good experiences, and I’m all ears. In cases of specific deficiencies, they might have a role to play. Biotin, a common ingredient in these pills for example, can improve skin’s moisture retention and smoothness and can strengthen brittle hair and nails. For most people, however, a nutrient-rich diet and a good quality multi and fish oil offer more overall benefit and the same result for skin appearance.

Topical applications of nutrients are more complicated still. Many nutrients won’t retain potency in cream or serum form (especially coupled with other ingredients), but science is gaining on those limitations. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll do a follow-up piece on promising topical formulations.

Alcohol’s Effects?

While we’re on the subject of nutrition… If you’re a regular to MDA, you’ll know that I’m not an alcohol hater. I’ll be the first to admit that alcohol has its uses and enjoyments, but overindulgence takes a considerable toll on the skin (among many other aspects of health…and life). Alcohol abuse has long been associated with various conditions of the skin, including jaundice, hyper-pigmentation, flushing and psoriasis. While I doubt that you take your alcohol consumption to abusive proportions, these extreme cases indicate that alcohol isn’t particularly skin-enhancing. A booze break may end up being a boon to your appearance.

And Then There’s Gut Health….

Yup, here it is again. The state of your gut biome is central to basically every aspect of your health…so why not your skin?

At the more extreme end of the spectrum, there’s plenty of well-documented links between skin disorders and gut dysbiosis. A 2008 study showed that SIBO is 10 times more prevalent in folks with acne rosacea, and that this skin condition showed marked improvements after treating the SIBO. Moreover, a Japanese study found that patients with atopic dermatitis had lower counts of (friendly) Bifidobacterium and higher counts of (less friendly) Staphylococcus in their gut. Probably not a coincidence. Other GI disorders, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease, have all been linked to negative skin conditions.

From an everyday perspective, it’s all about permeability. I’ve posted about leaky gut plenty of times in the past, and it’s relevant here, too. The condition contributes to less-than-ideal skin conditions by increasing the level of inflammation in your body. A classic example was provided in one study, whereby patients suffering from acne problems showed positive reactivity to E. coli in the blood while those with no acne showed no reaction at all. Whatever contributes to leaky gut (e.g. sugar, gluten, anti-nutrients, stress, conventional dairy) may also be undermining your skin health.

Leaky gut is a self-sustaining condition that worsens over time, meaning you need to get your gut under control in order to allow your skin to age gracefully. Avoid the aforementioned culprits, and invest in some good probiotics. I can help with that, by the way.

On Sun and Sunscreen

As it happens, both. I’ve talked at long length about how vitamin D is one vitamin that we simply can’t do without. Not only that, there’s plenty of evidence to show that living in areas with more sunshine hours can have a protective effect against many types of cancers. Yes, there may be a relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer, but from an evolutionary perspective it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. And there’s research that speaks to this logical mismatch. With the exception of a select few, most living organisms are designed to thrive in direct sunshine – so why would our skin treat it as public enemy number 1? Not only that, the vitamin D3 that we process from none other than the sun has actually been shown to kill melanoma cells. That’s quite the paradox.

And then there’s the evidence that ample vitamin D can actually inhibit the hallmarks of skin aging.

As with everything, moderation is key. Everyone’s skin is different. And atmospheric filters today aren’t what they were in Grok’s day. It doesn’t make sense to burn or sit in front of a glass window day after day without some kind of shield for your skin.

But before you reach for your pump-action bottle of SPF 50+, take a moment to really think about what you’re slathering on your skin. For starters, that same aluminum that you’ve been taught to avoid in deodorants is often present in conventional sunscreens. Studies show that a slathering of your run-of-the-mill sunscreen can provide up to 200 mg of aluminum. Your average sunscreen also contains both organic and inorganic UV filters, such as benzophenone, which can cause oxidative damage. The jury is still out on zinc oxide nanoparticles, but I’m inclined to use these products very sparingly.

A Bit about Skin Products

As a rule of thumb, unless it specifically states otherwise, your average skin cream, toner, makeup or face wash will degrade your epidermis over time…despite claims of anti-aging grandeur. A few years ago, I provided five reasons why. Those reasons include parabens, pthalates, fragrances, triclosan, and our old friends the UV-filtering chemicals. Cosmetic companies love these ingredients. Your skin (and your health in general) doesn’t.

To really do as Grok did, sure, we’d abandon all soaps, shampoos, toners, cleansers and lotions. Most of us have at least a few things we’d prefer to use, however, which means the next logical step is to seek out products that do what we want them to do while minimizing toxin exposure and disruption of the skin’s own balance. To that end, a few years ago I put together an extensive list of “safer” alternatives to common cosmetics. Since then, the market for these has skyrocketed, and I’ll leave it to sharing on the comment board for updated options. I’ll only note that I choose to sell a particular line of skin and hair products that cleanse and nurture without stripping the skin of its natural oils or beneficial organisms (quite the opposite if you’re interested in reading more on them). I don’t often sell other companies’ goods, but this one was a personal preference for me.

But back to the big picture…

Research is continuing to highlight the importance of the skin microbiome in ensuring its continued good health and protective functioning. In an excellent article published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, the authors note that the skin is an “interface with the outside environment and, as such, is colonized by a diverse collection of microorganisms — including bacteria, fungi and viruses…many of these microorganisms are harmless and in some cases provide vital functions that the human genome has not evolved. Symbiotic microorganisms occupy a wide range of skin niches and protect against invasion by more pathogenic or harmful organisms. These microorganisms may also have a role in educating the billions of T cells that are found in the skin, priming them to respond to similarly marked pathogenic cousins.”

Most products, whether washes or creams, end up stripping the skin’s critical microbiome in addition to the natural secretions that support it. Less is definitely more here.

To Shower or Not to Shower

Water…the most basic element of hygiene. How could we possibly go wrong there? Grok for his part had access to mineral-rich, relatively pristine lakes, rivers and spring. Not so much for moderns. We know that professional swimmers can suffer from a wide range of skin conditions as a result of the chlorine they regularly immerse themselves in. Sure, your shower water isn’t quite as intensely chlorinated, but it’s still got a reasonable amount, and your skin has a way of absorbing far more contaminants than you might think. If your skin is particularly sensitive, you may see effects from exposure to regular tap water.

If your water is chlorinated to the point where you can smell it or if you have chronic skin conditions of any kind, consider fitting a filter to your shower head. And ease up on the soap lathering. Your skin was designed to produce it’s own oils to provide natural protection against the elements, and a good lather is going to reverse all that hard work.

Thanks for stopping by, folks. What changes have you seen to your skin since going Primal? What kinds of practices and products do you use for good skin health? Also, what have you stopped doing or buying that made a positive difference?

TAGS:  Aging

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “A Primal Look at Skin Care”

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  1. Well I’ll kick it off. I don’t use soap then I batch unless its been a particularly dirty day and there is visible grease, etc to wash off. I changed to this about two years ago and my BO is negligible and my hair stays in good shape. I do occasionally put coconut oil on my arm pits. and use a salve of Coconut oil, thieves oil and bees was to help soften my feet

  2. Hi Mark,

    I struggled with debilitating acne through my adolescence and early adulthood. I experimented with a lot of different treatments. A Kiehl’s regimen finally helped a little, although I think I was also growing out of that stage too.

    Now I’ve settled on a simple routine –

    -Use a Japanese charcoal towel on my face, then armpits daily

    -Shower or bathe in dead sea salt a few times per week (note, not daily!)

    -Use a salt crystal deodorant daily

    -Use a few drops of organic argan oil on my face, beard and hair in the morning (total cost of skincare, about $12 every 15 months!)

    And that’s it!

    I do believe my diet has contributed too. I switched to a primal lifestyle 4 years ago and stopped eating meat a year ago. I stopped drinking just over a year ago too. I drink a lot of water each day.

    I’m also an avid cyclist. So unless those close to me are too polite to tell me otherwise, I think my skin looks and feels healthier than ever and this simple routine keeps body odor at bay too 🙂


    1. A Japanese charcoal towel? Makes me wonder where someone would find that.

    2. I love using the charcoal infused sponges (and use charcoal on my teeth, as I mentioned in my previous comment.) But I haven’t seen a charcoal towel…now I’m curious!

  3. Hy Mark. If tap water can damage our skin, what about soap? Even when considering soft and neutral ones? Grok probably didn’t use many?

  4. Re: sunscreens. Important for beach goers to know that most sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which is thought to contribute to coral bleaching. Look for reef-safe labels, or at least read the ingredients and avoid oxybenzone.

  5. Coconut oil! I wipe my face with a washcloth to clean it, and then apply coconut oil as a moisturizer. I haven’t used soap (let alone fancy cleansers and toners in years), and my skin is clear!
    Actually, after going primal for about a year, I was able to stop taking the birth control pill, which I had been on due to acne. I had tried to give it up before, and always broke out in an acne rash on my chest/back. But once I was primal, I was able to just stop taking it and no worries!
    I also use coconut oil as a sunscreen…I think it falls at about SPF 8. Not great for a full day at the beach, but works well for general exposure.

    1. Coconut oil is at least non-toxic but it is very far from our skins own natural oil, it is really a barrier over your skin making it hard for your skin to balance itself. I used to use it until I realised this. I have a small skincare range and I only have hemp in one product but hemp is said to be the closest to our skins own natural oil (you have to be careful with the shelf live though). I agree that it is quite good in the sun although we have had such a hot summer over here in Australia this year, nothing seems to work!

      1. Yes to hemp oil! Just made my own formula with hemp, marula, and evening primrose oil. Massaging it into my face I can feel it slowly working junk out of my pores.

  6. As a 90% or so primal eater for the last few years (and a male), I figured I didn’t really have to worry about skin care. I was doing it from the inside out. I have pretty sensitive skin, though, and I’ve recently started using a simple moisturizer–made at home from the tallow we request when we order grass-fed beef–and noticed a difference. The dry winters and constant heated environments here in New England can wreak some havoc on our skin.

  7. This post is pretty much what I’m all about! Going primal cleared up my life long struggle with cystic acne. Adding more skin friendly foods like sardines and collagen made it even better. I totally swear by collagen. My skin is firmer now, at age 50, than it was ten years ago. (I always have a Primal Kitchen bar in my purse.) As far as skincare, sometimes I’m really girly and love trying some clean natural products (I’m very fortunate that I am often asked to sample them for my blog!). Other times I keep things super basic and just cleanse my face with coconut oil at night. Brushing with activated charcoal from time to time keeps my teeth crazy white. I’m a big believer in using safe products on the outside, but will always feel that the biggest difference comes from what you are putting into your body.

    1. Elizabeth what do you use for collegan? I would like to try it and there are always so many options to choose from. At 51 I think it might be a good addition to the mix.

  8. I use raw honey in the shower with perhaps a quick Star Trek wash using a very mild non-anti-bacterial soap with a spot of coconut oil here and there after and a salt block deodorant. That’s it. Works very well for me.

  9. Im a farmer, so I often come home filthy. Like it or not, soap is a quick and effective way to remove grease and dirt at the end of the day – or from the hands at meals.

    I’d be happy to hear of alternatives.

    1. Dr Bronners is a great natural Castille soap. It works great and you can get it in liquid or at form. Coconut oil is also a good cleanser. Put it on and let it sit a bit then get in the shower and wipe it off.

  10. Mother Dirt misting spray to restore good bacteria to the face. Has helped enormously with my kid’s acne (and helps my skin, too!). I highly recommend it as a natural way to combat acne.

  11. I’ve never noticed that expensive skin care creams and lotions ever did much for me. If anything, they often made my skin break out due to the multitude of toxic ingredients. Healthy skin comes from within, not from some product that’s long on promises and short on results.

  12. Does anyone use Kiss My Face olive oil soap, which I like? I just checked and saw that it has salt – I don’t know if that’s considered bad for skin.

    I, for one, would be interested in an undated post on products – if there is enough interest. I just looked back at the previous post in July, 2013 and saw that it got over 300 comments.

    Thanks for the great articles all week, Mark.

    1. I have been using Kiss My Face olive oil soap for years and I love it.

  13. I’m curious about the claim that ‘your average skin cream, toner, makeup or face wash will degrade your epidermis over time’. I’m not sure about that. I think that there’s a definite difference in the quality of skin tone amongst women who maintain a basic skin-care routine, including makeup, and those who never use anything. I’m not talking about expensive creams and products – just a basic cleanser and moisturizer. I’ve always used pretty inexpensive products, but people are always surprised to hear I’m almost 50. But – yes – I sleep 9 hours a night, always have. And, aside from a good diet, I truly think yoga and meditation have a big influence on facial skin tone – the constant practice of relaxing your muscles, and feeling lightness.

    What I’m finding increasingly difficult is to find a moisturizer which doesn’t include sunblock,, which is frustrating.

    For a good all-rounder, I like pure almond oil.

  14. I actually only use some gentle unscented soap under my arms and crotch area and quickly rinse.
    For my hair, face and rest of the body I just use plain water.
    I have not washed my hair with anything but water for probably 3 years and although it’s short it doesn’t seem to make any difference if I use shampoo or not so I just don’t bother.
    As for deodorant I use coconut oil. mostly nothing for my face except a little coconut or avocado oil after shaving.
    I am not a big fan of sunbathing but when it’s summer I make sure I expose as much skin as possible to the sun daily for about 20-30 minutes then seek shade. wouldn’t dream of slathering on any kind of sun screen and let’s face it – sunbathing in hot weather is slow, boring torture anyway. I am a bit weary of taking vitamin D pills ( or any pills except magnesium ) during winter so I found a tanning shop that has Vitamin D sunbeds with minimal tanning, maximal Vitamin D production. 5 minutes on that every two weeks and I have a healthy, ever so slight tan ( although I cover my face ) and Vitamin D levels above the recommended healthy range even during winter months.

  15. With alcohol there’s a very specific mechanism at play – the breakdown of alcohol by the liver into acetaldehyde (a toxin) seriously depletes levels of glutathione, in order to detoxify it. Acne patients have been shown to have 20% less glutathione in their skin than average, and this winds up affecting other skin factors such as psoriasis, ageing, and the grimy skin tone boozers get. So there’s a very clear connection to alcohol right there. The solution is to keep your glutathione reserves strong, with selenium, magnesium, the right amino acids (glycine), and so on.

  16. Thoughts on NERD skincare? It’s pricey, but it looks like it could be amazing.

  17. Yes please to the post on topical ingredients!
    For the few face products I use I like Acure organics. They’re both fairly affordable and have good ingredients. I also make my own shampoo soap and face oil.

  18. I am struggling with this! I have been primal for about a year and a half with no change to my acne. I feel like my skin does not reflect how good I eat and feel.

    I suspect a leaky gut is my root problem as my diet is pretty great but I still fluctuate with stomach and digestion problems. I’ve started taking evening primrose oil and using jojoba oil as a moisturizer to try to help with acne.

    Any advice on where to get help with a leaky gut? I’m so skeptical of doctors that I tend to just stay away. I’m very skeptical online too as I feel like everyone is just trying to make money. Anyone had any success healing a leaky gut?

    1. I suffered from leaky gut and Crohn’s most of my life. For me, it’s been hit or miss on how to improve my health. I stopped ALL grains and dairy, initially and that helped a lot. Having my gut bacteria analyzed via UBiome was a major help. I added kefir and fermented vegetables. In January I went on the Whole30 and the first week I had so much energy I was stunned. The bottom line, keep plugging and trying something new. We’re all unique and don’t respond to the same stimulus. Good luck!

  19. I use three products, all from Lush. I use the Blousey shampoo as face wash, body wash, and shampoo. The shampoo is so mild that I never need conditioner. I use Dream Cream as an all over moisturizer. Last up: lip balm. It’s also great on nails and dabbed at the base of eyelashes if my eyes feel taut and dry.

  20. I live in the high desert where the sun seems a little intense (elevation around 5,000). Is there a sunscreen or sunscreen alternative that you would recommend? I don’t burn after an hour, but after spending most of the day outside I will turn pink. Thank you for the suggestions!!

  21. Ladies, what about makeup? I don’t suppose Mrs. Grok worried about it, but I like to look nice. I have products with no parabens or anything like that. What do you use?