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Issue 89: Nature's Sun Defense

It’s fun-in-the-sun season again, so it’s important to protect your skin. Check out these nutrients before you head out!

Sun exposure can be a double-edged sword. We’re made to get some sun exposure and certainly benefit from the D3 our bodies manufacture when we soak up the sun. The downside of these brilliant rays, however, is that overexposure can wreak havoc on our skin. Phyllis Balch, CNC, says that about 90% of what we consider signs of aging are from overexposure to sunlight.

Here’s the kicker, though. Overexposure doesn’t necessarily mean sunbathing or getting sunburned. Balch says that about 70% of sun damage happens during everyday activities like walking to and from your car or driving—something that can accumulate all day long and in all seasons. The sun’s rays can erode the elastic tissues in the skin, among other things.

The sun does this by emitting three types of ultraviolet (UV) rays that can damage skin. The most plentiful rays are UVA rays. They can go deeply through the skin, causing accelerated aging and other unhealthy and unwanted skin anomalies. UVB rays can really pack a wallop and result in sunburns. (Note: Sun protections factor—SPF—listed on sunscreen products are for UVB rays only; there are currently no regulated SPF for UVA rays.)

There are also UVC rays—which are typically absorbed completely by the atmosphere. There is speculation, however, that the thinning of the ozone layer might allow these rays to reach the earth.

When sunscreens are recommended, most should protect against UVA and UVB rays, but that’s not always the case—and there can be other issues with sunscreens or sunblocks. Sunscreens, for example, often contain chemical particles small enough to enter the bloodstream. Even “natural” sunscreens often use only fewer chemicals, but usually don’t contain any artificial fragrances, petroleum products or parabens, which can mimic the hormone estrogen and has been linked to unhealth.

Fortunately, there are some nutrients that can help protect the skin from the damaging rays of the sun and the free radicals the sun creates. Some of those nutrients hail from the sea. For example, you may have heard of fucoxanthin, a carotenoid found in edible brown seaweed.

Carotenoids are a class of natural pigments found principally in plants and algae and can protect against the damaging effects of free radicals. Fucoxanthin has recently been shown to have a protective effect against the oxidative stress (or free radicals) associated with UVB damage.

Likewise, omega-3 fatty acids are also thought to protect against the sun—especially sunburn. A review of medical literature indicates that omega-3s protect the skin from inflammation that occurs after sun exposure and can also support healthy skin cell health.

In particular, the studies showed that when human skin was exposed to UVB radiation, omega-3s reduced the levels of prostaglandin E synthase type 2 (PGE(2)), an inflammatory chemical that suppresses immune response to skin’s unhealthy cellular changes due to sun exposure. Omega-3s also increased the time it took to become sunburned.

Let’s not forget about the antioxidant power of other nutrients that can also work from the inside out. Glen Nagel, N.D., assistant professor at Bastyr University in Seattle, says, “The internal environment often gets ignored, and getting antioxidants in the body is proven to help prevent sun damage.” He suggests taking daily doses of full-spectrum beta-carotene and vitamins E and C.

Cathleen London, M.D., instructor at the Boston University School of Medicine, agrees. She suggests sunscreen rich in antioxidants and eating a diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally rich in free-radical quenchers. 

“I tell people to add tomato paste to whatever they’re cooking [for the lycopene],” says London. Other antioxidant foods are: blueberries, broccoli and leafy greens. She adds that if you can’t get enough fresh produce in your diet, then take supplements.

So go ahead and have your fun in the sun. Just make sure you’re prudent about it.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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