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Humans have a sort of love-hate relationship with the sun. Who doesn’t love to be outside on a sunny day, soaking up the warm rays? Not to mention it’s those UVB rays that produce vitamin D in our skin. What we don’t love so much are the wrinkles, sunspots, and potential cancer that come with excess UV exposure. The good news is that a group of antioxidants called carotenoids can protect your cells from UV-induced damage, potentially halting much of sun’s negative effects. Too much UV exposure generates harmful free radicals in the skin and cumulative exposure to these free radicals contributes to the breakdown of DNA, proteins—including collagen and elastin—and fats in skin cells. The consequence is that skin cells are damaged and cannot create healthy new cells, leading to wrinkles, sunspots, thin, and sagging skin. Excessive UV exposure also increases the risk of three different types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. All of this may send you running for cover from the sun, but a growing body of research is showing that a class of plant nutrients called carotenoids has photoprotective properties, meaning they protect our cells from the damaging effects of UV radiation from the inside out. There are more than 600 different carotenoids, but the ones that provide the most protection from UV radiation are lycopene, lutein/zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin.
When it comes to protecting your skin, the antioxidant power of lycopene, lutein, and astaxanthin really shines. You see, when your skin is exposed to sunlight, free radicals are formed. These free radicals are believed to be largely responsible for skin aging, contributing to the breakdown of DNA, proteins, and fats in skin cells. The consequence is that skin cells are damaged and cannot create healthy new cells; this is often referred to as photo-oxidative damage and it is the process that can ultimately lead to skin cancer. Interestingly, one of the main functions of carotenoids in plants is to protect the chlorophyll from photodamage1 and research is proving that carotenoids do the same in humans, in large part through their antioxidant activity. Carotenoids are deposited in the skin and that’s where they begin to really offer protection. It is thought that carotenoids protect against UV damage by their ability to act as antioxidants, as well as their anti-inflammatory and immuno-modulating properties,2 and their ability to decrease DNA damage and stimulate DNA repair processes.3
Astaxanthin seems to be particularly effective at protecting skin against photodamage. A recent study found that astaxanthin “exhibited a pronounced photoprotective effect” on human skin cells exposed to moderate UVA radiation. The astaxanthin prevented cell death, reduced levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and other damaging free radicals, and protected cell membranes. The cells were treated with astaxanthin 24 hours before exposure to the UVA radiation.4
Lutein has also shown promise in protecting skin from photodamage. An animal study found that a diet rich in lutein (fed for two weeks before exposure) efficiently reduced UVB-induced cell proliferation and cell death.5 Another human clinical trial showed that 10 mg of lutein (along with its partner zeaxanthin) daily increased skin hydration, elasticity, and skin lipid content, while reducing oxidation of those beneficial lipids by 55 percent.6
Lycopene, maybe better known for promoting prostate health, has also been shown to exert photoprotective benefits, reducing inflammatory responses, maintaining normal cell proliferation, and possibly preventing DNA damage following UVB exposure.7 It seems that amounts between 10 and 20 mg—the amounts typically used in studies—are sufficient to increase concentrations of these carotenoids in the skin to support skin health. It is important to note that it takes at least eight to 10 weeks of supplementing with these amounts to sufficiently protect your skin.
If you’re looking for a golden glow, forget about tanning, just eat lots of fruits and vegetables. A study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that eating a diet rich in foods containing carotenoids gives the skin a healthier glow than the sun.8 Carotenoids are a group of naturally-occurring plant pigments that are responsible for the red, yellow, and orange hues of fruits and vegetables like mangos, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, and certain animals like shrimp, lobster, and salmon. They are also found in many dark green vegetables like spinach and kale but are masked by the large amounts of chlorophyll in these plants. The study, from the University of Nottingham, found that people who eat more portions of fruit and vegetables each day have a healthier skin color, thanks to the carotenoids in the fruit and vegetables. While this study focused on Caucasian faces, the paper also describes a study that suggests the effect may exist cross culturally.
In addition to their antioxidant activity, carotenoids also support immune and reproductive health and promote proper cellular communication and cell growth. Two carotenoids in particular are especially important for eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in high concentrations in the macula, where they absorb blue light. By preventing blue light from reaching the structures in the eyes involved in vision, lutein and zeaxanthin may protect against light-induced oxidative damage, which is thought to play a role in the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Epidemiological studies provide some evidence that higher intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin are associated with lower risk of age-related macular degeneration.9 The nutrients discussed in this article are a wonderful choice for promoting long-term skin health and protecting yourself from UV rays from the inside out; however, they are not meant as a substitute for wearing sunscreen. This summer, when you’re stocking up on essentials, be sunscreen smart and opt for mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Avoid chemical ingredients like oxybenzone that are easily absorbed into the bloodstream and can act as endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life. Be Sunscreen Smart!
The nutrients discussed in this article are a wonderful choice for promoting long-term skin health and protecting yourself from UV rays from the inside out; however, they are not meant as a substitute for wearing sunscreen. This summer, when you’re stocking up on essentials, be sunscreen smart and opt for mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Avoid chemical ingredients like oxybenzone that are easily absorbed into the bloodstream and can act as endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life.