Why Are Fatty Acids So Important for the Skin?

Woman applying serum on fingertip
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There are so many ingredients out there that are touted as must-have’s when it comes to skin care, although much of this is just marketing hype. 

However, fatty acids are ingredients that you definitely do need to be aware of…

No matter your age, skin type, or the skin conditions you are dealing with, fatty acids are key when it comes to a healthy complexion. 

What Are Fatty Acids?

To get into the nitty gritty of it, fatty acids are long hydrocarbon chains that are essential for so many different parts a person’s health. They are needed for everything from immune response and function to blood pressure regulation. 

What about the skin? 

Well, the skin is made up of three main layers. 

The outermost layer is known as the stratum corneum, and a significant portion of this is composed of fatty acids. This means that fatty acids are absolutely essential when it comes to ensuring that your skin’s outer layer functions properly. 

When it comes to fatty acids, there are several different types out there, but these can usually be categorized into one of the following: 

  • Essential Fatty Acids – these are fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own, meaning that obtaining these from your diet, as well as applying them topically, is important
  • Non-Essential Fatty Acids – although these are still important, your body naturally produces them 

As you can imagine, since your body cannot produce essential fatty acids, these are the acids that you need to primarily focus on…

Fortunately, this is not too difficult since there are only two types of essential fatty acids out there: 

  • Alpha-linolenic Acid – this is a type of omega-3 fatty acid 
  • Linoleic Acid – this is a type of omega-6 fatty acid 

Why Are Essential Fatty Acids Needed by the Skin?

As mentioned above, the outermost layer of your skin consists primarily of fatty acids, and these are essential fatty acids. 

But what do these acids actually do? 

Well, think of the outermost layer of your skin like a brick wall…

Essential fatty acids would basically be the cement that holds all of the bricks together. Without them, the wall wouldn’t be standing. 

The same applies to your stratum corneum…

Without essential fatty acids, the outermost layer of your skin would severely suffer.

To begin with, this outer layer is responsible for keeping irritants, allergens, bacteria, and so much more from entering into the skin. When the stratum corneum isn’t functioning properly, all of these are able to easily penetrate the skin’s layers, resulting in sensitivities and other types of skin reactions. 

Not only is your stratum corneum responsible for keeping the bad guys out, but it is also key when it comes to keeping your skin’s moisture in…

When your stratum corneum is thin or weak, this means that the water from within your skin will quickly evaporate out in the air, leaving your skin parched and thirsty.

Layers of skin illustration

Dry and dehydrated skin means an exacerbation in fine lines and wrinkles, as well as a rough and crepey complexion. 

Oily Skin and Essential Fatty Acids

There is a common misconception that those with oily skin do not need essential fatty acids in the same way that those with other skin types do. 

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth…

Essential fatty acids can actually be used to counter excess oiliness. 


Because essential fatty acids help to encourage the cell transference process. 

Never heard of this before? 

It is the process during which the skin flushes itself of the oils and fats that clog up the pores. After all, while essential fatty acids may be good fats, there are plenty of other fats that you don’t want in your skin. 

The fact that essential fatty acids can help to prevent clogged pores, can go a long way in preventing breakouts.

Plus, essential fatty acids also ensure that the skin stays properly moisturized. This then means that the skin does not end up producing more sebum to make up for dryness, once again preventing breakouts. 

Where to Get Essential Fatty Acids From

Making sure that your skin is being nourished from within is so important. This is why your diet should be the first place you look when trying to ensure that your skin is getting enough essential fatty acids. 

So, which foods are the ones to eat if you want to increase your intake of essential fatty acids?

The best foods for omega-3 fatty acids would be: 

  • Cold water oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel, wild Alaskan salmon, herring and anchovies 
  • Flaxseed oil, flaxseed meal and flaxseeds 
  • Hemp seed oil and hemp seeds 
  • Nuts, such as Brazil nuts and walnuts 
  • Seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds 
  • Avocados 
  • Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, mustard greens, kale and purslane 

The best foods for omega-6 fatty acids would be: 

  • Flaxseed oil, flaxseed meal and flax seeds 
  • Hemp seed oil and hemp seeds 
  • Seeds, such as sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds 
  • Nuts, such as pistachios and pine nuts 
  • Certain oils, such as grapeseed, evening primrose and borage 
  • Acai 

Food sources for omega-3 and -6 fatty acids

Of course, there are many other sources of essential fatty acids too, from fried foods to corn and soybean oils. However, all of these foods have undergone high temperatures while being processed or cooked. 

Why does this matter? 

Because heat oxidizes essential fatty acids. Not only does this mean that the essential fatty acids won’t be able to provide your body, as well as your skin, with many benefits, but the oxidized essential fatty acids can actually lead to damage. 


Oxidized ingredients lead to the formation of free radicals in the body. These free radicals are basically damaged molecules that go around attacking healthy cells in order to heal themselves, therefore turning those healthy cells into free radicals too.

Free radicals significantly speed up the skin aging process due to the way in which they degrade the skin’s collagen and elastin, while also damaging skin cell DNA. 

So, back to essential fatty acids…

In order to ensure that heat has not damaged them in any way, try to obtain your essential fatty acids from raw, whole foods. As you can see from above, there are plenty of options available for you to do this. 

Essential Fatty Acid Supplements

Essential fatty acids can be found in quite a wide range of foods. 

However, if you feel as though your skin could do with an added boost, you may want to look into essential fatty acid supplements. 

These can be especially beneficial when you are trying to treat a specific skin condition, such as: 

  • Acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema 

Not only that, but essential fatty acid supplements could also possibly be useful when it comes to preventing certain types of skin cancer

When it comes to choosing a supplement…

You will need to first decide whether you want your supplement to be plant or animal-based. 

Animal-based supplements tend to be more prevalent, and this is because many of them, such as fish oil, contain the ideal ratio of fatty acids. They also boast several other nutrients. 

However, certain plant-based supplements, such as algal oil, are actually more dense in essential fatty acids than fish oil. This is because the acids actually originate in the algae, after which they are then eaten by the fish. 

Applying Essential Fatty Acids Topically

While consuming essential fatty acids is important, applying them topically can also be useful. This means that the fatty acids will be absorbed directly through your skin, rather than having to go through the rest of your body first. 

As you have already seen, there are so many different sources of essential fatty acids, meaning that incorporating any of those above-mentioned food ingredients into your skin care routine would be beneficial. 

But which essential fatty acid sources are best for the skin? 

This all depends on your skin type, as well as any skin conditions you may be dealing with:

  • Dry Skin – just about every essential fatty acid source would benefit you, although oleic acid, which can be found in almond oil, olive oil and avocado oil, is especially useful. It encourages the skin to produce more of its own natural sebum, enabling the skin to then keep itself better moisturized 
  • Oily Skin – grapeseed oil has been proven to reduce the frequency and severity of breakouts in just one month
  • Sensitive Skin – olive oil and coconut oil are both extremely nourishing and gentle 
  • Scarred Skin – essential fatty acids, especially the ones in rosehip seed oil, almond oil and olive oil, can help to reduce the appearance of scarring by increasing skin cell turnover 
  • Aging Skin – certain essential fatty acids, such as those found in avocado oil, olive oil and rosehip seed oil, not only help to increase the skin’s natural production of collagen and elastin, but also contain the antioxidants needed to fight free radicals 
  • Damaged Skin – almond oil, olive oil and coconut oil all promote skin regeneration and healing, while also providing a small amount of SPF (keep in mind that these should never replace your sunscreen, especially if your skin is already damaged)

Wondering if it’s worth applying essential fatty acids topically, especially when you are already consuming plenty through your diet? 

It is most definitely worthwhile! 

Research shows that topically applying essential fatty acids to the skin on a daily basis not only means that your skin is 52% more protected against the loss of elasticity, but is also 76% more likely to stay better hydrated.  

Woman applying moisturiser to the skin around the eyes

What About the Non-Essential Fatty Acids?

Although your body produces other fatty acids itself, it is still a good idea to make sure that you are still obtaining these other fatty acids through your diet. 

The main one to be concerned about are omega-9 fatty acids, which are also known as oleic acid. 

They are named after olives because of the fact that olives, along with their oil, are packed with this fatty acid. 

However, there are other good food sources of omega-9 fatty acids too, such as: 

  • Avocado
  • Most nuts, including pecans, cashews, macadamia, peanuts, almonds and hazelnuts 
  • Certain oils, such as sesame, mustard and, of course, olive

Should you be looking into omega-9 fatty acid supplements if you don’t eat many of the above foods?

This isn’t usually required. Since the body produces omega-9 fatty acids on its own, supplements are not usually needed unless the body is failing to produce the standard amounts for whatever reason. 

But what do omega-9 fatty acids do for the skin? 

There isn’t as much research on the omega-9’s as there is on the omega-6’s and 3’s, but the studies that have been carried out so far all show that omega-9 fatty acids are extremely important…

Their main benefit is the way in which they help to support the immune system, and are also able to reduce inflammation in the body. 

While these may not be direct skin benefits, both of those functions have a huge impact on the skin…

Your skin actually contains a number of immune cells, and when your immune system is functioning optimally by keeping away the bad guys, this will usually be reflected through a healthy complexion. 

When it comes to inflammation in the body, this is something that you want to reduce as much as possible, because this is really so detrimental to the skin. 

What does inflammation to do the skin?

So many things that you don’t want, such as: 

  • Increases fine lines and wrinkles by breaking down collagen 
  • Reduces skin elasticity 
  • Increases acne breakouts 
  • Exacerbates rosacea 
  • Increases eczema flare-ups 

As you can see, fatty acids are so important for your skin, for a number of different reasons. In addition to making sure that you are consuming the right fatty acids through your diet, adding a few essential fatty acid sources to your skin care routine could also make a huge difference to the health and appearance of your skin. 

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