Sun Protection from Within
Now that you have sunk your teeth into the basics of effective natural sun protection, let’s delve even deeper into the skin itself.
Skin really is a vast, fascinating topic, seeing there are so many types of skin that are affected by many different things. For example, my South Asian/Pacific Islander skin tone is rich in pigment aka melanin, which is internal pigment that scatters and absorbs UV light. On the other hand, you have individuals like my French/Irish BFF—who is so fair, that I like to say that she rates as -0.5 on the Fitzpatrick scale. There are extremes to say the least, but at the end of the day, skin is skin—our biggest organ, and it needs to be as well cared for as our dental and cardiovascular health.
Now that we have established the perplexing facets of our central star’s solar radiation—we cannot survive without it, yet it’s the number one factor in the majority of skin cancer cases. Alas, I feel it’s safe to say that it’s a razor sharp double edge sword. That said, what if I told you there was a way to simplify and safely strengthen this seeming conundrum? Well there is, and the story I am about to tell may very well blow your mind.
Before I do so, let’s examine what actually happens when someone who is low on the Fitzpatrick scale incurs a nasty sunburn. Because there are low levels of pigment in this population segment, there isn’t a naturally built in mechanism to protect against Ultra Violet radiation (UVR). However, this is not to say that darker skinned individuals don’t burn—although much less common, they absolutely can if the conditions are right. Remember, we have been eating through the Ozone layer (Earth’s protective barrier) for UVR for decades, so the old rules of structural adaptation are no longer applying in all cases. That said, low levels of pigment allow the UVR to aggressively create oxidative stress to the surface of the skin, i.e., generation of highly damaging free radicals which result in direct injury, aka sunburn. Now, unbeknownst to many, our skin actually has a sophisticated antioxidant system built into its design for this very reason, but concentrations rapidly dwindle when exposed to oxidative stress caused from UVR exposure and with age. Furthermore, here in the West, we are one of the most over fed, yet undernourished segments on the planet, so one could argue that the skin’s reserves of antioxidants are not effectively maintained, let alone readily replenished in the majority of the population.
So, after my BFF suffered a wicked sunburn whilst out one summer day, this knowledge got me thinking… If concentrated pigment is one way to negate burning while suffering from sun generated oxidative stress to the skin, what if she were to consume large amounts of naturally occurring pigments found in plants and microorganisms? Would this suffice as a mechanism to further protect her fair, delicate, skin, and assist in replenishing the skin’s antioxidant system?
Then I happened to stumble across some super cool research on eye health and had what I would like to believe was a eureka moment. Lutein—the dihydroxy form of a-carotene, is a carotenoid pigment found in many dark leafy greens and bright orange vegetables and fruits. Furthermore, it’s the major carotenoid that concentrates the macula pigment of the retina. It effectively filters blue light and is believed to protect the retina from light induced oxidative stress from UVR. This series of mechanisms got me thinking even further, if lutein can protect the retina from damaging UVR, would it not do the same for skin? The fact it was a rich pigment seemed kismet with respect to my previous hypothesis as well. So, what is an eager beaver nerd to do with this information? Conduct an experiment, that’s what!
I called my BFF explaining my logic and asked if she would be my Guinea pig, she obliged and we got to conducting our very own baby experiment. Seeing she is so fair, my logic dictated that she would need some time to allow the pigment to concentrate in the skin. So, in approximately April of 2015, she started on a lutein, astaxanthin (another incredible antioxidant pigment), and a stellar antioxidant combination. She did this for 3 months prior to intense sun exposure and throughout the entire summer months. Amazingly, when summer hit, she stopped burning! Mind you, she was still practicing safe sun exposure and using raspberry oil and her 30 SPF sunscreen. However, it was incredible to say the least, but made so much sense when the science was carefully examined. Remarkably, she has not burned to this day, but adheres to the strict aforementioned regimen before and during the summer months. Now, for me, the part that is kind of hilarious is that I always thought that this was just anecdotal and couldn’t really be shared in a public space, but unbeknownst to me, there were actual human clinical studies and animal models that prove this! Is that not the coolest thing ever?!
So now that the anticipation is out of the way, let’s get to the hard data on this subject.
There have been a variety of studies on nutrients that abate the damaging effects of UVR. These include carotenoids such as, b-carotene, lycopene, lutein and astaxanthin; vitamins E and C; and the flavonoids quercetin and epicatechin and catechin.
a-Tocopherol—one of 8 isomers present in vitamin E, has been shown to increase in concentration within the skin as a result of oral supplementation. Studies have shown that vitamin E in conjunction with other antioxidants, such as vitamin C, showed increased resistance to UVB induced sunburn. Interestingly, when supplemented individually, a-Tocopherol and vitamin C were not effective photoprotectants; thus, synergy appears to be key here. The use of vitamin E directly on the skin was also shown to assist in protecting the skin from UVR damage.
Quercetin appears to not only reduce the damaging effects of UVR, it also appears to be very stable in the presence of UVR when applied topically; therefore, does not break down rapidly.
Epicatechin and catechin from cacao seems to also have photoprotective ability when ingested. One study demonstrated that 18 weeks of ingestion of a cacao beverage with the equivalent of 329 mg of flavonals reduced UVR induced burning by 25%.
Catechins from green tea seem to be a bit of different story, however. It appears that in both human and animal models, direct application of green tea to the skin had the most photoprotective effect. Given its wide accessibility, perhaps a concentrated spray could be used before, during and after sun exposure? Again, do a patch test when applying anything new to your skin.
Although b-carotene—the precursor the vitamin A, is the most widely studied of all carotenoids, and has demonstrated photoprotection, its safety comes into question at high doses, so I will focus on other strong carotenoids herein. Further, because carotenoids are pigments that function to protect a plant or organism against excess light, they logically seem to be the most potent natural photoprotectants.
Lycopene is mostly known for being present in tomatoes, but is also found in papaya, red carrots and watermelon. This particular carotenoid has been shown to reduce the redness and severity of sunburn when ingested in the form of tomato sauce for a minimum of 10 weeks (approximately 16 g of lycopene per day).
The most promising photoprotective carotenoids in my opinion are astaxanthin and lutein. Astaxanthin in particular is best known as the “anti-aging, skin antioxidant” and for good reason. It not only protects plants and animals from the damaging effects of UVR, it has the same effect in humans too! Recall my BFF’s protocol? It also enhances moisture within the skin, improves elasticity and reduces fine lines. Further, it’s one of the most stable antioxidants, which is good news while basking in the sun. When delivered directly to fibroblasts 24 hours prior to UVR exposure, astaxanthin exhibited pronounced photoprotective effect against UVA.
Now last, but not least, the carotenoid that took me down this rabbit hole in the first place— lovely lutein. In a 12 week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 46 subjects consumed 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin daily. The study demonstrated that both carotenoids increased MED (how long it takes the skin to redden from UVR) and no sunburn was observed in the control group as compared to placebo. Further, the researches cited that both carotenoids have demonstrated more resistance to breakdown from oxidative stress as compared to b-carotene and lycopene. Over all skin tone and skin health was greatly improved.
Although this research is extremely valuable, and way exciting, it in no way justifies not participating in safe sun care practices, nor does it replace the use of sun screen. It does; however, offer another sound strategy for effective, logical, sun protection. Further, seeing increases in overall antioxidants immensely benefit our overall health, additions of the aforementioned substances offer a multifaceted solution with the respect to the prevention and management of many of the diseases we face as a modern society. So, depending on what your geographical location, it may be wise to start an internal sun protection protocol before your next tropical getaway or in the spring in order to be fully prepared for summer.
- Evans, J. A., & Johnson, E. J. (2010). The Role of Phytonutrients in Skin Health. Nutrients,2(8), 903-928. doi:10.3390/nu2080903
- Juturu, V., Bowman, J., & Deshpande, J. (2016). Overall skin tone and skin-lightening-improving effects with oral supplementation of lutein and zeaxanthin isomers: A double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, Volume 9, 325-332. doi:10.2147/ccid.s115519
- Lee, E. H., Faulhaber, D., Hanson, K. M., Ding, W., Peters, S., Kodali, S., & Granstein, R. D. (2004). Dietary Lutein Reduces Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Inflammation and Immunosuppression. Journal of Investigative Dermatology,122(2), 510-517. doi:10.1046/j.0022-202x.2004.22227.x
- Maini, S., Fahlman, B. M., & Krol, E. S. (2015). Flavonols Protect Against UV Radiation-Induced Thymine Dimer Formation in an Artificial Skin Mimic. Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences,18(4), 600. doi:10.18433/j34w39
- Sies, H., & Stahl, W. (2004). Nutritional Protection Against Skin Damage From Sunlight. Annual Review of Nutrition,24(1), 173-200. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132320