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The Role of Antioxidants in Sun Protection

Posted July 5, 2018

By: Dr. Colin O’Brien ND, Medical Director, Cyto-Matrix

The sun is shining and summer is officially here! This is great news for many of us Canadians that find the winters to always be a bit too long…but it’s not so great for our skin health if we aren’t well prepared.

Proper sunscreen application, skin coverage and avoidance of direct sun during peak UV hours (11am-3pm) are all important factors when it comes to sun safety and reducing your risk of sunburn and skin cancer. But few people acknowledge the role of diet and antioxidant protection in sun protection. What we put in our bodies matters, too.

For example, excessive alcohol consumption has been correlated with higher rates of sunburn, and interventional evidence confirms that alcohol consumption reduces the time it takes for your skin to become red after UV exposure. Essentially, alcohol decreases the efficiency of our antioxidant network in the skin, thereby decreasing the protection from UV rays. Not such great news for patio beers and summer drinks on the dock.

This all makes sense, though, when you consider that tanning or becoming sunburnt is simply damage caused by ultraviolet rays. Our skin darkens to naturally protect against future exposure to these same UV rays. As this process is occurring, tons of free radicals are produced in the body that need to be quenched. Antioxidants to the rescue!

In addition to a diet high in antioxidants and bioflavonoids from fruits and vegetables, specific natural health ingredients have been targeted and identified as beneficial for sun protection. Consider the following antioxidants for extra support:

 

  • Cocoa: As if you need more reason to consume regular amounts of dark chocolate, research has shown that a daily cocoa powder drink led to less redness after UV exposure at 6 and 12 weeks. Improved hydration and circulation of the skin was also noted in those consuming the flavanol-dense cocoa drink but not those in the control group.
  • Vitamin C and E: Multiple studies have explored the effects of these commonplace anti-oxidants in UV protection. It turns out that both topical application of vitamin C and oral supplementation of vitamin C in combination with vitamin E can provide numerous benefits. One study explored an oral combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, carotenoids and proanthocyanidins, finding that the blend led to a decrease in matrix metalloprotease levels after UV exposure, possibly explaining part of the mechanism involved in antioxidant photoprotection.
  • Carotenoids: Various carotenoids, alone and in combination, have shown promise for UV protection. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 20 women found that 30mg of beta-carotene per day, for 10 weeks prior to 13 days of sun exposure, led to less skin redness. Another study of 24mg of Beta-Carotene, in combination with 8mg Lutein and 8mg Lycopene showed benefit. A combination of lutein and zeaxanthan, orally and topically, also show benefits. Two poorly done studies found that mixed carotenoids allowed for greater tolerability of the sun and more time until redness ensued. It should be noted that other studies have found limited or no benefit for sun protection with carotenoids, but the vast majority show benefits.
  • Green Tea Extract: Although animal research and human study have only shown benefits for the topical application of green tea and its constituents, it stands to reason that regular oral consumption of the anti-oxidant powerhouse tea would be a good idea for the prevention and treatment of sun damage, too. At the very least, daily intake of green tea can be used to promote optimal metabolism and perhaps replace other bad habits!
  • EPA Omega-3 Fatty Acid: In a double-blind randomized study, either 4 grams/day of EPA or 4 grams/day of oleic acid was supplemented for 3 months. After 3 months of supplementation, those in the EPA group had an 8-fold increase in EPA skin content and, most importantly, significantly reduced sunburn sensitivity (meaning a greater resiliency or threshold until burning). Markers of DNA damage in the skin were also reduced.  

 

Animal research, anecdotal evidence and mechanistic data suggests that there are many other antioxidants to consider for UV protection of the skin such as astaxanthin, CoQ10 and resveratrol. Preliminary research also indicates that nicotinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is photoprotecive as well, and that quercetin and rutin may be effective when used topically. The recurring theme is antioxidant support and it seems that a blend is best. If you’re headed to the beach, be sure to get your fruits and veggies in!

A Final Note on Sunscreens: When it comes to sunscreens, it is important to mention that they are not all created equal. Here is a quick summary of what to look for in a sunscreen:

  1. Avoid retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, as these compounds have been associated with hormone disruption and carcinogen activity
  2. Ensure there are active ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium oxide, avobenzone and mexoryl SX.
  3. Choose lotions instead of sprays

Check out the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) for more info.


References: 

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