22 Jun HEALTH HERO: DR THIVI MARUTHAPPU9 minute read
Dr Thivi Maruthappu is the UK’s first and only dual-qualified Consultant Dermatologist and Nutritionist, and the pioneer of the (much-needed!) Nutritional Dermatology field.
She runs busy NHS dermatology clinics, conducts academic research and delivers lectures worldwide. She’s also recently authored her first book, Skin Food, which aims to make holistic skincare accessible for everyone.
In this interview, Dr Maruthappu shares her philosophy on looking after our skin and ourselves—covering everything from SPF to mindfulness. I was fascinated to hear her insight, and I know you will be too.
How would you describe your job?
I wear many hats. I’m a consultant dermatologist, a registered associate nutritionist and an academic researcher.
Every time I see a patient, I put on all those hats at the same time. So whether I see someone with acne, psoriasis, or other skin condition, I bring dermatology, nutrition and research together to create a holistic approach to patient care.
What inspired you to work in this area?
I had a skin condition myself when I was a medical student. It was a rare one, which no one could diagnose, so I went from doctor to doctor with no answers. I ended up seeing one very well-known professor, and he was finally able to treat me.
I was lucky it was just a short period of my life. But it completely changed the way I thought about skin conditions: I realised they can ruin every aspect of your life.
That’s what interested me in dermatology as a field, and I went on to run a service for severe eczema and psoriasis in the NHS. We had lots of beneficial treatments, but I noticed most patients only wanted to ask me about their diet.
“Is it really worth eating this?”
“Should I try this supplement?”
“I’m going on a juice cleanse. What do you think?”
And I didn’t have a good answer. I thought, Why am I able to tell you about new treatments and their side effects—but I can’t tell you what to eat for breakfast?
It wasn’t just me. I realised nobody had a good answer. I’d been told early on in my career not to talk about food. If someone asked if chocolate caused their spots, I should tell them, “No” and give them the treatment.
We now have a lot of evidence on how nutrition plays a role in skin health. But there’s a lot of misinformation online, too—with patients trying strange and sometimes worrisome diets—so a part of my job is saying, “Don’t do that. There’s no evidence for it.”
So, it came out of the need to be a useful source of information for my patients. And then when I learned about it, lots of people wanted to know more, so I ended up teaching it. That led me to research and my job at King’s College London—so it’s all escalated!
I'd been told early on in my career not to talk about food
What does your typical day look like?
My days are all very different!
Today, I’m working from home. I dropped my three boys off at school this morning, and then I had a call with a junior doctor who wants to do research in nutrition. We have a project at King’s that looks at the role of diet in psoriasis, so I’ll have a team meeting for that this afternoon, and I’ll also be reviewing some papers.
Yesterday I was in the clinic from 8am to 8pm. It was a full clinic day, and I saw people with acne, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and other skin conditions. I have limited appointment time, but people understandably want to talk a lot—about diet, stress and medical treatments.
It’s always busy, but I love seeing patients. I learn so much from them, including which new skincare products to try!
What does health mean to you?
It’s about balance and doing the things that make you feel good.
For me, that means having a strong mindfulness practice. That’s my heritage anyway; my grandmother meditated for three hours a day. She was extremely smart but also very calm, and she lived to 97 and never needed any medical treatments.
I also love being out in nature. All my best ideas come when I’m on a long walk in the woods. Whatever stress I have when I go in, it’ll be gone when I come out, and I’ll have a solution.
I love food and cooking too, and I’m not overly restrictive about anything. I’m not a big meat eater myself—that’s just personal preference—but I’ve seen so many patients who have heavily restricted diets, with negative consequences, that I think it’s really important to be as inclusive with your diet as you can.
I also love to spend time with my family. And I get pleasure from my work. But I need all those bits of the puzzle to feel my best—and if I drop one, I feel rubbish.
I talk to my patients about this all the time. There’s a strong link between the brain and the skin, just as there is between the gut and the skin. All three are connected. I think you need to look after your mental health and your brain health just as much as your physical health.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
That there’s only one way of doing things.
I have some patients who think that eating a keto diet is best. I have other patients who believe that a vegan diet is best. But actually, you have to find what works for you, your belief system and your ethical values.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, and that’s fine! I think people need to be more accepting of their dietary choices.
There’s a big misconception that you need a multi-step, complicated, expensive skincare routine
How do you look after your skin?
I have very sensitive skin, so I have to be careful about the products I use.
At the moment, I’m using a Curél cleanser, which I tried because one of my colleagues liked it. I also use an eczema moisturiser from Eucerin, and an SPF, and that’s it!
I don’t do peels, or lasers, or any of those things. I wish I could, but I would come out as red as a tomato. If I get pigmentation—like the bit of melasma I got on holiday recently—I’ll use some vitamin C as an extra. But apart from that, I keep it very simple.
There’s a big misconception that you need a multi-step, complicated, expensive skincare routine. An effective routine can be a cleanser, an active ingredient, a moisturiser and an SPF.
In the clinic, particularly with my acne patients, I often slim people’s routines down to make them protective and supportive with the right active ingredients.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning skin, what would it be and why?
When it comes to skin, there are many different parts of the puzzle. Many things affect how your skin looks, reacts and feels, including nutrition, how you manage stress, your skincare routine and your genetics.
Just like your diet, your skin is individual. And just because you have a skin condition, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong with your diet.
I see far too many people who beat themselves up about what they eat and blame themselves for their skin condition—but genetics, hormones, and all those things matter. That doesn’t mean nutrition isn’t part of the puzzle, but the driving force is often outside someone’s control.
Whom do you look up to, and why?
My granny. She was so special to me.
In terms of research, my research collaborator Professor Christopher Griffiths OBE has been an important mentor and friend. He has been driving the role of nutrition and mindfulness in skin before it became popular.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect.
I do a lot of public speaking, but I’m actually quite introverted. My ideal Friday night is to stay at home with my family and then read a book. I have some lovely vintage cookbooks, which make a great evening read.
Aside from good health, family and friends, what do you cherish in your life?
I cherish doing the work I’m doing now.
For a long time, I felt that while my work was useful to people, it wasn’t fully addressing their concerns. I was helping their skin improve, but I wasn’t supporting their overall health.
Now, when I’m helping someone to improve what they’re eating to help their skin, I’m also supporting their long-term health. I cherish having that holistic view now. It’s an amazing part of my job.
Skin Food: Your 4-Step Solution to Healthy, Happy Skin is available on Amazon.