There is nothing quite so rejuvenating as spending time in nature. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a world traveler, or an urban bird watcher, you already know that getting outside for a few hours can do wonders for both your mind and body. But what is not talked about as often is that it can also benefit your skin.
"My favorite thing to do on a day off is to go on a hike with my puppy and fiancé,” former Olympic figure skater Meryl Davis told Shape. “Getting grounded in nature with my little family is a great way to disconnect from technology and everyday stress and obligations. I think that's when I really feel my best.”
It is those feelings that are at the heart of nature’s benefits for your skin. As long as you adopt appropriate sun protection measures (sunscreen is still a must), getting outside can help bolster your immune system, support your microbiome, diminish stress, and increase your happiness, all things that will have ripple effects for healthy, glowing skin.
Promote Vitamin D Production
Anyone who’s experienced the winter blues knows that our bodies love the sun. When sunlight hits our skin, it sends a signal that it’s time to start producing vitamin D. While this hormone is best known for the part it plays in bone health and the absorption of calcium, vitamin D also strengthens our immune systems.
The immune system supports the skin’s protective barrier, which is what shields us from all the environmental and chemical irritants we come in contact with on a daily basis. The immune response is particularly important when we injure the skin or when something — think pimples or irritation — disrupts the protective barrier. A strong immune response prevents bacteria and viruses from entering the bloodstream, helps protect your overall health, and promotes healing of skin wounds.
Bolster Your Immune System
Research into the Japanese practice of forest bathing — which translates as a leisurely walk in a forest — has found evidence that exposure to nature increases natural killer cell activity. Natural killer cells, or NK cells, are a type of white blood cell best known for helping the immune system fight off cancerous and virus-containing cells.
Recent research from the Washington School of Medicine has shown that patients with eczema have lower numbers of NK cells than their healthy counterparts. Animal trials suggest that boosting NK cell activity in patients with eczema may help treat and prevent the red, itchy rash that troubles so many Americans. And it may be as easy as getting out into nature.
Diversify Your Skin Microbiome
Your skin is home to billions of microorganisms, which together make up your skin microbiome. Most of these microbes are either harmless or beneficial to your health. Like other parts of the body, such as the gut and the vagina, your skin maintains a delicate balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. When something disturbs this balance, it can affect the skin’s protective barrier and increase the chances of an allergic skin reaction.
Studies have found that people with atopic dermatitis have a less diverse skin microbiome than other people. This may, in part, stem from the environment in which they live. According to recent research, there is a link between the diversity of a person’s skin microbiome and the environmental biodiversity of the area around their homes. For example, people who live on farms are exposed to a far more diverse microbial community than people who live in urban environments, and that translates into a more diverse microbiome.
It is possible that spending more time interacting with nature will increase the diversity of your unique microbiome. And more diversity means healthier skin.
Reduce Your Stress
We all have those days when everything seems to be going wrong or piling up on our to-do lists all at the same time. While the health impacts of high stress are well known, what is less talked about is the real number it can do on your skin.
The connection between stress and acne has long been suspected, but clinical studies conducted over the past decade have confirmed the relationship. One study even found a direct correlation between the severity of stress and the severity of acne. This effect is intensified by your body’s physiological responses to stress like inflammation, oxidative stress, and DNA damage, all of which contribute to premature aging.
Fortunately, researchers have figured out how to help: take a 20-minute nature break! A 2019 study found that spending 20 minutes walking or sitting in a place that makes you feel connected to nature significantly reduces stress hormone levels.
According to dermatologist Dr. Sonya Johnson, reducing stress is an important part of skin care. “Being in nature is calming, which is good because it helps reduce internal inflammation,” says Johnson. “[Stress reduction] gives us more time to rest…[And] skin cells regenerate and repair themselves when a person is sleeping.”
So, take a quick walk through the woods and do a little deep breathing — your skin will thank you.
Increase Your Happiness
Did you know that spending time in nature is a scientifically proven way to make almost anyone feel happier and healthier? A 2019 study found that people who spent at least 120 minutes in nature a week reported significantly higher levels of well-being and good health than people who had less contact with nature. All that happiness is actually great for your skin.
When your mood lifts, so do the levels of certain hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Healthy levels of these hormones help increase blood flow to your skin, decrease inflammation, and restore balance and your ability to heal. The link between mental health and skin health is so strong, in fact, that a burgeoning field of medicine — psychodermatology — is specifically dedicated to exploring this connection.
It can be hard to find the time to do the things that we know are good for us amid our busy lives. But now, the next time you feel the pull to take an afternoon off to wander through the woods, you can do so knowing you’re not just playing hooky…you’re doing good for your mind, body, and your skincare routine.