In recent years ever more of us have started to take care of our skin. For example a growing number of people won’t risk going out in the sun without applying sun cream, as repeated studies have shown that it helps to reduce our risk of skin cancer.
Unprotected exposure to ultraviolet light is also believed to result in aging of the skin, including wrinkling and the potential for discoloration, and to suppress the immune system. But is wearing sun cream enough?
Problems with Traditional Sun Lotion
Recent research has highlighted that sun cream might not be the catch-all solution that we’ve been led to believe.
The most shocking discovery of the last decade is that it may not just be ultraviolet light that is causing problems. Studies suggest that sources of light outside the ultraviolet spectrum may also lead to future skin problems. One wide-ranging study, for example, claimed that “wavelengths beyond the ultraviolet spectrum, in particular visible light and infrared radiation, contribute to skin damage”.
As traditional sun screens are, by their very nature, designed purely to address problems associated with UVA and UVB light, we may be quite as fully protected as was once thought.
Let’s also not forget that wearing sun cream isn’t always possible or practical. For example, modern sun lotions block the ultraviolet light that our skin needs to create vitamin D. One study monitored the vitamin D levels of volunteers when exposed to sunlight, either with sunscreen on or without. They found that levels increased from an average of 1.5 mg per milliliter to 5.6 in sunscreen wearers. For those not using protection, however, the concentration increased to 25.6 – quite a marked difference. As a result, some people opt to go out in the sun for short periods of time without protection.
Furthermore, of course, sunscreen can wash off when swimming or perspiring which can expose your skin to dangerous levels of sunlight.
Lastly, many of us mentally link sunscreen to long-term sun exposure, such as when sunbathing on vacation. In contrast, studies have shown that our UV exposure at such times is a drop in the ocean when compared to more “regular” exposure. The gardener might not think about their exposed hands, or the hiker might assume soft spring sunshine isn’t powerful enough to require protection, but both might be taking chances without even realizing it.
So what is the solution?
Polyphenols to the Rescue
Studies looking at the effects of sunlight on the skin have shown that a major source of potential damage involves free radical damage. At the same time, antioxidants are believed to help neutralize this damage.
A huge range of different substances with antioxidant properties have been discovered over the years, many of which are found in the plants that we eat. Everything from apples to berries and leafy green vegetables are believed to include antioxidants known as “polyphenols”. But do antioxidants in general, and polyphenols more specifically, actually offer any kind of protection against ultraviolet light?
In a simple study, a group of volunteers were provided with a range of antioxidants to consume orally, before their skin was exposed to ultraviolet light. The scientists then tracked how long it took for the symptoms of sunburn (known to doctors as “erythema”) to appear. What they found was a “clear statistical trend” that the participants taking antioxidant supplements took longer to burn than a placebo group receiving no such support. The experts concluded that the consumption of antioxidants can encourage “protection of the skin against irradiation”.
A similar study looking at the activities of plant-derived antioxidants claimed that “polyphenols may favorably supplement sunscreens protection, and may be useful for skin diseases associated with solar UV radiation-induced inflammation, oxidative stress and DNA damage”. In other words, they shouldn’t be considered an alternative to commercial sunscreens, but they may help in combination to offer even more protection than creams used alone.
Vitamin C is perhaps one of the best-known antioxidants, with wide-ranging impacts throughout the body. While vitamin C may help to support everything from collagen formation to our immune function, this same miracle nutrient may also offer protection from sun damage.
One fascinating study involved a group of women demonstrating signs of “photoaged skin”. A skin cream containing 5% vitamin C was provided, with participants asked to apply the cream daily for a period of six months. The treatment revealed a number of positive outcomes, leading the experts to summarize that vitamin C “led to a clinically apparent improvement of the photodamaged skin”.
However the action of vitamin C is not just confined to improving existing skin complaints; growing evidence suggests that it may also help to prevent such damage in the first place. To confirm this a study asked volunteers to consume a supplement high in vitamin C for a period of 3 months. After this the participants were exposed to UV light in order to measure the protective impact of vitamin C on their skin. The results demonstrated that the treatment “significantly reduced the sunburn reaction to UVB irradiation”.
Fortunately a number of plants are rich in vitamin C, and it is also cheaply available in supplement form from many stores. While the best-known sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, high levels are also found in a range of fruits and vegetables including bell peppers, pineapples, tomatoes and squash
Arguably the highest levels of all, however, are found in rosehips – the fruits of wild roses. These can be turned into jams and jellies, or for ease are available as a dietary supplement from some specialist suppliers.
Vitamin E is often used as a food additive, to prevent reactive substances like cod liver oil from fouling. This same antioxidant impact, however, has also been demonstrated in the skin.
One analysis looked at the application of topical creams containing vitamin E – or α-Tocopherol as it is sometimes known. Volunteers applied a vitamin E-enriched cream before rinsing it off again. Oils in the skin were then assessed to identify any changes. The results showed that the active treatment group did indeed see changes, demonstrating “protection against photo-oxidative stress”.
Interestingly, despite these positive findings, some studies have suggested that using both vitamin C and vitamin E in combination may actually offer the greatest measure of protection. One analysis provided participants with either vitamin C, vitamin E or a combination treatment. After seven days of treatment the scientists assessed how long it took each group to show signs of burning after exposure to sunlight. The greatest improvements were seen in participants taking both antioxidants.
Just like vitamin C, there are also numerous dietary sources of vitamin E. Great examples of foods high in this vitamin include almonds, spinach, sweet potato and avocado. Once again, of course, a variety of skin creams and supplements are also available with vitamin E in them.
Milk thistle has a long history of medical use. It was allegedly used by the ancient Romans to relieve indigestion after feasting, and more recently has been shown to help protect the liver from potentially fatal conditions like fatty liver disease. However, a limited number of studies have also suggested that the antioxidant properties of milk thistle may also offer additional protection from sun damage.
The active ingredient in milk thistle is known as “silymarin”. In one study, a topical application of silymarin was found to reduce the appearance of skin tumors by an astonishing 92% in response to ultraviolet light exposure.
Detailed studies have found that this apparently protective effect is thanks to a wide range of different processes. For example silymarin is believed to suppress the activity of a substance known to scientists as “NF-kappa B” which is responsible for inflammation and the growth of tumor cells in the body. At the same time, researchers have demonstrated that it stimulates the activity of tumor suppressor gene p53 which offers further protection against cancerous cells.
Little wonder that scientists studying the effect of milk thistle on sunlight-derived damage suggested that “silymarin may favorably supplement sunscreen protection, and may be useful for skin diseases associated with solar UV radiation-induced inflammation, oxidative stress and immunomodulatory effects”.
Milk thistle isn’t always the easiest product to find for sale. The plants themselves are rarely available, and frankly aren’t particularly appealing as a foodstuff. Instead, try to find milk thistle tablets at your local health food store.
Resveratrol has gained considerable publicity in recent years for its potential impact on heart health. The substance, which is found in the skin of red grapes, may also offer some additional protection from sun damage. This, of course, makes logical sense as grapes typically grow in warm, sunny climates and need protection from ultraviolet radiation just like the rest of us.
Studies have found that the anti-inflammatory properties of resveratrol, as well as supporting heart health, may also inhibit the processes associated with “tumor initiation, promotion and progression”.
Of all the polyphenols discussed here this is arguably the easiest (and most enjoyable) to consume. You’ll find all you need in a nice glass of red wine. Just be sure not to overdo your drinking, which can create more problems than it solves.
The findings outlined in this article help to explain why one scientist claimed that “sunscreen use alone is not considered an adequate protection against ultraviolet radiation”.
We have seen that a range of plant-derived nutrients may help to offer additional protection against the ravages of sunlight. Indeed, one study summarized that “the addition of botanical antioxidants and vitamins C and E to a broad-spectrum sunscreen may further decrease UV-induced damage compared with sunscreen alone.”
If you’re keen to keep your skin in the best condition possible you may therefore want to consider supplementing with vitamins C and E, or selecting a sun cream that includes these nutrients. Enriching your diet with rich sources of polyphenols – mainly through the consumption of more fruits and vegetables – may also prove to be beneficial both for your skin and a range of other conditions.
Lastly, remember that these dietary changes shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to covering up with sunscreen. They may, however, serve as an effective source of additional protection to keep your skin safe long into the future.