‘Essential Fatty Acids’ - Why are they so essential in skin care?

‘Essential Fatty Acids’ - Why are they so essential in skin care?

At Mokosh, we talk a lot about optimising your skin’s barrier function. That’s because when our skin’s barrier is not functioning at its best, we soon know about it - usually in the form of dry, flakey, irritable skin. A recent study suggests that a poorly functioning skin barrier could accelerate ageing in our whole body - not just in our skin. The theory is that low levels of inflammation in the skin could be the trigger that results in the chronic inflammatory diseases of ageing like Alzheimers and cardiovascular disease (read more here). If this is really the case, caring for our skin becomes important on a whole new level, because using skin care that looks after our skin’s barrier function could slow the ageing process and improve our health overall.

A key, but often overlooked, ingredient in skin care is its content of essential fatty acids. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids -  key nutrients in our diet that also play a critical role in creating our skin’s barrier.

What are essential fatty acids and how do they help our skin’s barrier?

Essential fatty acids are ‘essential’ because they must be included in our diet if we are to remain healthy. They’re called ‘essential’ because our body can’t manufacture them from other nutrients. If we don’t eat enough of them, we start to see problems throughout our bodies. In the skin, symptoms include dryness, scaliness and inflammation. The most important essential fatty acid for the skin is the omega-6 essential fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA).

A deficiency of LA causes excessive dryness - without LA the skin is unable to manufacture the ceramides in the skin’s lipid barrier.  Ceramides make up around 50% of the lipids that keep our skin waterproof, well hydrated, and prevent the entry of harmful microorganisms. These dry skin symptoms disappear when the individual is given LA in their diet or when it is applied directly to the skin.

However, it’s not just a poor diet that will affect ceramide production. Ceramide levels in the skin gradually diminish as we get older, which is why the skin of older people is generally drier. Ceramide levels also drop during the cooler months of the year, which is one of the reasons our skin tends to become more dehydrated during winter. Once again, topical application of oils abundant in LA can boost the ceramides and relieve the accompanying dryness and irritation.

Another omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), is similar in structure to LA and is also incorporated into ceramides. It can relieve symptoms of eczema in some people when given either orally or applied topically. Although GLA is not considered an ‘essential’ fatty acid because it can be manufactured in the body from other nutrients, some individuals may not be capable of manufacturing GLA effectively. For these individuals, GLA becomes an ‘essential’ nutrient for creating an effective skin barrier (read more here).

A poorly functioning skin barrier is not always accompanied by dry, flakey skin. In fact, the sebum produced by oily, acne-prone skin is often deficient in LA. This means that oily skin may have a defective skin barrier, making it more susceptible to inflammation, which is a known trigger for acne. Topical application of LA-rich oils can help normalise sebum, restore the skin’s barrier and therefore reduce the risk of acne.

The other essential fatty acid, the omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), plays a different role in the skin. It is considered to have an anti-inflammatory effect which, as we now understand, could be extremely important for both skin and whole body health.

Which oils include the essential fatty acids that will keep my skin’s barrier healthy?

Fortunately, LA, GLA and ALA can be found in certain plant oils, and for this reason we include oils rich in essential fatty acids in all Mokosh face and body moisturisers. This ensures that your skin will receive these important lipids directly onto the skin so that they can be easily incorporated into your skin’s ceramides and exert their anti-inflammatory effects.

LA-rich oils used in our products include sesame oil, baobab oil, borage oil, evening primrose oil, pumpkin seed oil, raspberry seed oil, prickly pear seed oil, elderberry seed oil, and black cumin seed oil.

GLA-rich oils include borage oil, evening primrose oil, hemp seed oil and blackcurrant seed oil.

ALA-rich oils added to our products include raspberry seed oil, elderberry seed oil, blackcurrant seed oil, hemp seed oil and chia seed oil,.

We also need to protect our skin’s barrier

We can replenish our skin’s ceramides by applying skin care rich in LA and GLA, but we also need to protect our skin’s barrier. Apart from the very important lipids, the skin’s barrier is reliant on an acidic pH that deters the growth of harmful microbes, and a balanced population of microorganisms, the skin’s microbiome, which is important in preventing skin infections, and may also influence our immune responses.

We can protect these components of our skin barrier by:

  1. Avoiding use of detergents on the skin - they deplete the ceramides and other lipids that make up the skin’s barrier.
  2. Avoiding washing the skin in very hot water - hot water will also remove ceramides and lipids from the skin.
  3. Avoiding use of alkaline products like soaps that can disturb the skin’s acid mantle, allowing the growth of harmful microbes. Of course, we do need to wash our hands in soap for hygiene purposes - and bar soap is ideal for this.
  4. Avoiding emulsifiers in skin care - emulsifiers are detergent-like molecules that are added to moisturisers to stabilise the mixture of oil and water. Some of them have been shown to disturb the skin’s lipid barrier function.
  5. Avoiding preservatives in skin care - preservatives are powerful antimicrobials added to water-based skin care to provide a long shelf-life. We believe that preservatives do not belong on our skin because they have the potential to disrupt the skin’s microbiome.

Mokosh skin care products are virtually unique in their ability to boost your skin’s barrier function without simultaneously harming it. Most people do not realise that water-containing skin care may be damaging their skin’s barrier simply because it must include ingredients that stabilise the formula (emulsifiers), provide a long shelf life (preservatives), or cleanse the skin in an unenlightened way (detergents). We believe this is the reason that many of our customers see a marked improvement in their skin’s health after making the switch to Mokosh. Have you tried it yet?

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