Sun and Skin: What's Your Nutrition Protection Factor?


Emma Maitland-Carew, BSc, Nutritional Therapist

Year of publication: 

 Skin cells respond to sunlight by producing melanin, the brown pigment responsible for your tan which protects your skin by absorbing the damaging energy from ultraviolet rays (UV-R). We all need a little bit of sunshine to make vitamin D, vital for healthy bones and prevention against degenerative diseases. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology shows that vitamin D can also protect skin cells against damage from UV-R. But with statistics for skin cancer on the up it seems clear that skin cells need additional protection, which is where good nutrition can make a difference. According to Cancer Research UK, 10,400 people in the UK are diagnosed with skin cancer each year and shockingly, numbers have quadrupled since the 1970s!

Experts believe the increase in foreign travel along with burning as a child and poor immunity are all contributory factors. So the message about skin protection has been pretty clear and well received as many of us now smear ourselves and our children from top to toe in high factor SPF. Which poses the question, why are statistics still on the increase? Alarmingly, unless a sun cream is “broad spectrum”, it only protects against UVB, meaning it’s unlikely to protect against UVA responsible for melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer). There is speculation as to whether ingredients in sun creams are harmful. Last year, the Australian government reviewed the scientific literature on the safety of two main mineral filters, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which together filter UVA and UVB, giving the broadest protection available. The Australians concluded that both ingredients remained on the very outer layer of the skin and did not cause damage. However, there is some horrifying evidence which highlights ingredients like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), phenylbenzimidazole (PBI), octocrylene and octylmethoxycinnamote, found in some sun creams to actually increase melanoma by damaging skin cells. Fortunately there is substantial evidence revealing a number of dietary factors and nutrients to be of great benefit for skin protection. Mediterranean countries have low levels of melanoma rates yet their UV rays are intense. The answer could be their diet of colourful fruits and vegetables full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and omega-9 and 3 fatty acids. Antioxidants have been shown to protect the skin by counteracting free radicals caused by sun exposure. These nutrients are more powerful in synergy which may explain why the Mediterranean diet is so protective.

Some studies reveal that sun damage can be reduced by following a diet that is high in omega-9 (olive oil) and omega-3 (oily fish) fatty acids and dietary antioxidants such as carotenoids, vitamin C, E, selenium, flavonoids, and polyphenols whilst low in red meat, saturated fat and dairy. Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, found in red/orange/yellow fruits and vegetables, are particularly effective. Wilhelm Stahl, a German scientist has shown that carotenoids, when eaten habitually over a long period protect against sunburn and increase the skin’s capacity to reflect UV rays, improving skin protection. Studies also link beta-carotene with reduced risk of melanoma and reveal lutein to protect the skin against UVB.

Lycopene, found abundantly in tomatoes, is potent at combating free-radical damage from both UVA and UVB rays. In one trial, Stahl gave his subjects 3 tablespoons of tomato paste combined with 2 teaspoons of olive oil every day for a period of 10 weeks and results showed a 40% reduction in sunburn.

 Flavonoids found in green tea, black tea and citrus fruits, along with polyphenols found in grape seeds, red wine and cocoa, may be chemopreventive against cancers caused by UV rays. Surprisingly, a recent American population-based study showed regular tea consumption may reduce the risk of non-melanoma cancer. Yet another American study showed that citrus peel with black tea significantly protected against non-melanoma. Cocoa and green teas have similar effects, reducing sunburn by 15 - 25%.

Vitamins and minerals can help too! Dermatologists in Germany discovered that supplementing with vitamins E and C protected against sun damage. Selenium also protects against melanoma by working synergistically with antioxidant enzymes catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidise. If you do get sunburn then choose an Aloe vera after-sun. In 2008, an investigation compared the anti-inflammatory potential of Aloe vera gel and hydrocortisone placebo gel on sunburn. Interestingly, the authors concluded that Aloe vera had superior results. So if you want to enjoy the summer sun, remember to eat a Mediterranean rainbow diet, particularly high in tomato salads and use ample olive oil. Eat plenty of oily fish and cut down on red meat and dairy. Drink tea infused with lemon peel and consider supplementing with an antioxidant formula. Use a natural chemical-free high-factor SPF with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for broad spectrum UV protection. Look also for sun creams containing antioxidants such as beta-carotene, green tea and vitamin E. Don’t forget your Aloe vera after-sun! 

MISCELLANEOUS, melanin, vitamin D, antioxidants, carotenoids, flavonoids, lycopene
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