When I was a teenager, my summer’s goal was to get as tan as possible, so needless to say, my friends and I spent a good portion of our summertime sun bathing as much as we could.
And to make matters worse, no sunscreen for us, no sir, we used baby oil to bake our skin.
Sunscreen was for sissies.
I still remember the lectures (that went unheeded) from my dad about too much sun exposure.
That I would get wrinkly, leathery-looking skin when I was older, that I could get skin cancer if I didn’t stay out of the sun, and that I needed to be slathering myself with chemical-laden sunscreens.
Well, eventually the super summer bronze glow became a thing of the past, as free time was replaced with college, full-time jobs, and families.
As a fair-skinned blonde, I worried about my skin.
Would I become wrinkly and leathery-looking by the time I was 30?
I watched and waited, and it never happened.
Never a fan of expensive creams, lotions, potions and cosmetic medical procedures, I just used soap and water and hoped for the best.
What I did not realize at the time was that the diet I was eating was helping my skin tremendously.
I actually reversed the sun damage with my healthy diet.
Today at 51, my skin is smooth, soft and relatively wrinkle-free—far from the leathery, wrinkly face my father predicted.
I’m now experiencing another phenomenon—as a competitive cyclist, I spend long hours out in the sun riding my bike. Since most conventional sunscreens are full of chemicals that are far worse than the sun exposure and cause more damage with their poisonous chemicals than the sun itself, I am not a big fan of sunscreens.
But, surprisingly enough, I rarely get burned out in the sun, just lightly tanned most of the time.
What is going on?
Turns out, my diet has come to the rescue, again.
A recent study shows omega 3 fatty acids actually protect the skin from the inflammatory response (sunburn) after too much sun exposure and that these super nutrients also reduce the risk of some skin cancers.
The study’s findings also show that omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in preventing and reducing the damaging effects of sun. In humans, omega 3 fatty acids also increase the time it takes to become sunburned, the review concluded, very similar to what sunscreens do.
In experimental animal studies, the reviewers noted, there is direct evidence that dietary omega 3 fatty acids inhibited the cancerous changes that occur after ultraviolet radiation, including decreasing tumor growth and reducing the cancer cell’s ability to multiply.
However, equivalent levels of omega 6 fatty acids actually increase the cancerous changes that occur after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In mice and in human skin exposed to ultraviolet B radiation, dietary omega 3 fatty acids dramatically reduce levels of prostaglandin E synthase type 2 (PGE(2)), an inflammatory messenger chemical that suppresses immune response to pre-cancerous cell changes. Dietary omega 6 fatty acids increase levels of PGE(2).
So the “Standard American Diet” that most Americans consume containing the skewed higher ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3’s not only contributes to a worse sunburn, but it also contributes to the aging effect of sun on the skin.
It is a known fact that people who regularly eat a diet higher in saturated fats and omega 3 fats have much smoother, softer skin.
In contrast, a diet high in trans fats and omega 6 fats ages skin and those that consume that type of diet have older-looking skin and wrinkles.
So obviously, the best way to avoid damaging your skin and minimizing the effects of sun damage start on the inside, not the outside.
Lets look at ways to best protect our skin from the inside out:
One of the best ways to prevent sun damage, while absorbing healthy vitamin D, and protect your skin, is with diet. Your body can actually create its own natural sunscreen with the right dietary components:
- Omega 3 fatty acids–Research studies show that eicosapentaenoic acid (also called EPA), a kind of omega 3 fatty acid, helps prolong the time that it takes skin to get burnt during sun exposure, and also helps reduce the risk of skin cancer. The best omega 3 fatty acids containing EPA and DHA, are found in animal products such as grass-fed meat, cold-water, wild caught, fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, and free range chickens/eggs.
- An optimal balance of omega 3’s to omega 6’s (3:1, or better) is critical for many, many health factors, including heart health and skin health. According to another study published in the American Health Foundation Journal:
“Epidemiological, experimental, and mechanistic data implicate omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) as stimulator’s and long-chain omega 3 PUFAs as inhibitors of development and progression of a range of human cancers, including melanoma”.
- Eliminate vegetable oils in favor of grass fed butter, lard or tallow, and healthy fats like virgin olive oil and coconut oil. Plastic surgeons even note that those people who eat a diet purely made up of vegetable oils tend to have much more wrinkly, aged looking skin than people of the same age who eat a diet rich in saturated fats. And unfortunately, vegans tend to age more quickly than omnivores, since they are missing out on collagen, protein, and saturated fats that all contribute to more skin elasticity, better skin cell membranes, and more collagen to add structure under the skin.
- Eat Carotenoids. Carotenoids are nutrients that protect plants and animals from excess sunshine. When we ingest carotenoids, they are deposited into the skin to prevent sunburn and oxidative stress, which can lead to wrinkles and skin cancer. Best sources of carotenoids are free-range organic eggs, dark-green leafy vegetables (kale, collards, baby greens and organic spinach), and yellow-orange fruits and vegetables (mangoes, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash).
- The most potent carotenoid is the red pigment found in salmon, trout, shrimp, and lobsters. It is known as astaxanthin. Once ingested, astaxanthin is 1,000 times more effective at protecting skin from UV damage than other carotenoids. A research study by Köpcke & Krutmann concluded that beta-carotene is effective in protecting against sunburn and that time is important: the longer the duration of supplementation, the stronger the effect. A minimum of 10 weeks was needed to see results, and the protective effect increased with each additional month of supplementation.
- Include lycopene in your diet. It’s pretty easy to get lycopene in the summer, since it is found in red fruits such as tomatoes, red bell pepper and watermelon. Lycopene’s potency is actually increased with cooking, so tomato sauce and tomato paste have more concentrated amounts of lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
In studies with lycopene, it was shown that people who consumed 55 grams (5 tablespoons) a day of lycopene in tomato paste had 33% more protection against sunburn compared to a control group after 12 weeks. It also boosted the level of procollagen in the skin, which suggests potential reversal of the skin aging process.
- Drink 3-4 cups of green tea a day for its antioxidant and skin-protecting benefits. (It’s delicious iced and sweetened with stevia.) Green tea contains antioxidants called polyphenols that boost the ability of skin to protect itself from the sun. The polyphenols in green tea actually reduce the damage caused by ultraviolet rays and protect it from photo aging, both when applied externally as a topical cream or a lotion, and when consumed internally as food.
- Snack on vitamin and flavanol-rich fruit this summer instead starchy carbohydrates and sugary snacks. Summer months bring us delicious, antioxidant-heavy berries and other fruit such as mangoes, kiwis, peaches and plums. These fruits are also rich in vitamin C, known for its role in building collagen, and preventing wrinkles and photo damage through its anti-inflammatory action. Toss some berries into your yogurt, make a smoothie out of different summer fruits, add some fruit to a lunch salad; the possibilities are endless.
Bottom line–if you must spend a long amount of time out in the summer sun, you will probably need to protect your skin with a sunscreen too.
Most sunscreens contain inherent dangers as well, so choose carefully. While there is still some risk in spending long periods of time in the summer sun without sunscreen (even with a skin-healthy diet), the sunscreen itself can pose a bigger health risk.
The chemicals in sunscreen are very harsh and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, and have been proven to cause several types of cancers. “Octyl-methacinnamate”, “phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid”, “octyl-dimethyl-PABA”, and “oxybenzone”, are all standard sunscreen ingredients. Numerous studies have raised concerns about these chemicals safety:
- Octyl-methacinnamate has been shown to damage skin cells, and many people are highly sensitive or allergic to this ingredient.
- Bensopenone-3 (BP3), homosalate (HMS), 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC), and octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA) were all found to have estrogenic effects in the body, which can lead to certain cancers, including breast cancer.
- Oxybenzone has been shown to decrease sperm count and lengthen the estrous cycle in mice; again a possible carcinogen in humans.
The best and most natural sunscreens are sunscreen products with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active ingredients. Both block UVA and UVB rays, are natural, safe products for your skin and have raised no health concerns.
So this summer, protect your skin inside and outside with a healthy diet and natural sunscreen when needed. You will not only soak up the vitamin D with all its health benefits, but have soft smooth skin as well.Sources: Mercola, “If You Use Sunscreen, This is Urgent Information You Must Have”, May 13, 2010, Mercola.com. Shane Ellison, “Chemist Forces Children to Eat Sunscreen” www.thepeopleschemist.com 2008. Arathi, “How to Eat For Internal Sun Protection”, eHow.com, accessed May 7, 2010. Jennifer Barrett, “On the Bright Side”, Experience Life Magazine, July/August 2009, Lifetime Fitness. Black HS, Rhodes LE. The potential of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of non-melanoma skin cancer. Cancer Detect Prev. 2006;30(3):224-32.