Beyond sunscreen: protect your skin naturally

Do you use SPF 1000, but still burn?

Pale is the new tan

I’ve certainly been perplexed that no matter how high the SPF on my industrial-strength sunscreen or how diligently I apply it, sometimes I end up a lobster anyway!

A proudly pale gal myself, I am all about protecting my delicate skin!  I’m not a fan of a dark tan and I would rather not turn leathery as I age, yet I also don’t want to slather my body with harmful chemicals while depriving it of the best source of vitamin D.  I’ve long felt that there is something  more to skin protection than sunscreen and that our aggressive approach to sun protection neglects to use our body’s own natural abilities.

This article is all about OTHER ways to protect your skin from the sun and skin cancer, WITHOUT the use of sunscreen!

Dangers of high SPF

This Environmental Working Group (EWG) article What’s Wrong with High SPF? makes some great points:

  • Sunscreens with SPF above 30-50 are fairly pointless
  • High SPF sunscreens still don’t protect well against harmful UVA rays
  • High SPF sunscreens give you a false sense of security
  • Ingredients in high SPF sunscreens pose more health risks

Don’t fall for the hype – just because people want high SPF sunscreens doesn’t mean they are any better!  Remember to make your purchasing decisions based on what’s best for you, not advertising.

Sun protection with nutrition

Did you know that what you eat has a huge effect on whether your skin burns in the sun?  This may be news to you, but it helps to explain why some people burn much more easily than others.

I recently read this short summary from Natural Standard of Integrative Therapies for Sun Protection and Skin Health, and then I delved into some individual studies on nutrients to compile this info.

Which foods and nutrients protect the skin?

  • Lycopene: Tomatoes, red grapefruit, watermelon, guava
  • Carotenoids (such as beta carotene): Dark green and orange coloured veggies, like kale, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes
  • Vitamin C: Papaya, pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, turkey, lamb, chicken,Crimini mushrooms, barley, brown rice
  • EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate): green tea is the highest in EGCG, but white tea and oolong tea also contain this nutrient
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA: fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (acronym = SMASH) are the best sources.

How to eat for skin protection:

  1. Eat 5-6 servings of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables EVERY DAY, emphasizing the specific foods listed above.  Most people are not even close to this, but by making this change you can protect your skin and reduce your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  You are better off getting these nutrients from food, since supplementation does not always provide the same benefits, and in some cases can be harmful.
  2. Choose high quality, properly brewed green or white tea, 1-3 cups per day.  I highly recommend brewing loose tea – the flavour and health benefits cannot be matched by most bagged tea, which use the lowest quality tea leaves and may sit on a shelf for years.
  3. Supplement with a quality, molecularly distilled fish oil liquid that provides at least 1000mg combined EPA and DHA (read the label) per day.  I prefer to get even more, so I take 2-3 teaspoons per day of Ascenta Nutrasea+D.

Expose yourself (selectively)

As Canadians, we spend the winter indoors, covered up, and the little sun we do see is pretty weak.  Then, as soon as the temperature is above freezing, we go wild and strip down to nearly naked and gallivant outdoors!  Wait, you don’t do this?

My point is, why are we surprised when our pale, sun-deprived skin gets burnt to a crisp with a little sun?  It’s like going on a bender after avoiding alcohol for months.  Your body is highly adaptable and can build a tolerance if you just give it some time, but don’t expect it to change gears this quickly.

Build up your sun tolerance

A great way to get ready for summer sun is to start venturing outside in the sun for 15-20 minutes per day, exposing as much of your skin as you can (while abiding by public nudity laws), without sunscreen.  Start in the spring, and as the sun gets stronger, your skin will get the message to prepare for summer.

Cover up, especially your noggin

When you’re going to be out in the sun a long time, plan to cover up using a beach umbrella, shady area, clothing, and especially a good sun hat.  While you may think you can handle it, if you are going to spend hours in the sun, your skin will thank you for these simple measures.

I especially emphasize the importance of a nice, wide-brimmed hat that not only protects your head and face, but also your neck and shoulders.  These are the areas that tend to get burned most easily.

Natural SPF

I recently learned that some plant oils provide their own SPF (sun protection factor)!  How exciting!

Plant oils with the highest SPF values:

  • Olive oil = 7.549
  • Coconut oil = 7.119
  • Almond oil = 4.659

Castor oil actually comes in above almond oil with an SPF of 5.687, but if you’ve ever used castor oil, you know that it is not easy nor pleasant to spread all over your body!

While nowhere near the SPF levels of most sunscreens, these oils can help you protect your skin for shorter periods.  Be careful not to rely only on these oils for long periods of time as you may burn.

Make your own sunscreen

Finally, consider making your own sunscreen!  Here are a couple good recipes, and there are lots more if you do some searching online:

Most recipes call for powdered zinc oxide, which is a safe alternative to more harmful active ingredients in commercial sunscreens.  Here are some links to where you can buy zinc oxide powder:

References:

  1. 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. Epub 2006 Jul 26. Review. PMID: 16872755
  2. Heinrich U, Gärtner C, Wiebusch M, Eichler O, Sies H, Tronnier H, Stahl W. Supplementation with beta-carotene or a similar amount of mixed carotenoids protects humans from UV-induced erythema. J Nutr. 2003 Jan;133(1):98-101. PMID: 12514275
  3. Jackson MJ, Jackson MJ, McArdle F, Storey A, Jones SA, McArdle A, Rhodes LE. Effects of micronutrient supplements on u.v.-induced skin damage. Proc Nutr Soc. 2002 May;61(2):187-9. Review. PMID: 12133200
  4. Katiyar SK, Matsui MS, Elmets CA, Mukhtar H. Polyphenolic antioxidant (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate from green tea reduces UVB-induced inflammatory responses and infiltration of leukocytes in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. 1999 Feb;69(2):148-53. Review. PMID: 10048310
  5. Lee J, Jiang S, Levine N, Watson RR. Carotenoid supplementation reduces erythema in human skin after simulated solar radiation exposure. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 2000 Feb;223(2):170-4. PMID: 10654620
  6. Mantena SK, Roy AM, Katiyar SK. Epigallocatechin-3-gallate inhibits photocarcinogenesis through inhibition of angiogenic factors and activation of CD8+ T cells in tumors. Photochem Photobiol. 2005 Sep-Oct;81(5):1174-9. PMID: 15938647
  7. McArdle F, Rhodes LE, Parslew RA, Close GL, Jack CI, Friedmann PS, Jackson MJ. Effects of oral vitamin E and beta-carotene supplementation on ultraviolet radiation-induced oxidative stress in human skin. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Nov;80(5):1270-5. PMID: 15531675
  8. Pilkington SM, Massey KA, Bennett SP, Al-Aasswad NM, Roshdy K, Gibbs NK, Friedmann PS, Nicolaou A, Rhodes LE. Randomized controlled trial of oral omega-3 PUFA in solar-simulated radiation-induced suppression of human cutaneous immune responses. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar;97(3):646-52. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.049494. Epub 2013 Jan 30. PMID: 23364005
  9. Rhodes LE, Shahbakhti H, Azurdia RM, Moison RM, Steenwinkel MJ, Homburg MI, Dean MP, McArdle F, Beijersbergen van Henegouwen GM, Epe B, Vink AA. Effect of eicosapentaenoic acid, an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, on UVR-related cancer risk in humans. An assessment of early genotoxic markers. Carcinogenesis. 2003 May;24(5):919-25. PMID: 12771037
  10. Rhodes LE, Durham BH, Fraser WD, Friedmann PS. Dietary fish oil reduces basal and ultraviolet B-generated PGE2 levels in skin and increases the threshold to provocation of polymorphic light eruption. J Invest Dermatol. 1995 Oct;105(4):532-5. PMID: 7561154
  11. Rhodes LE, O’Farrell S, Jackson MJ, Friedmann PS. Dietary fish-oil supplementation in humans reduces UVB-erythemal sensitivity but increases epidermal lipid peroxidation. J Invest Dermatol. 1994 Aug;103(2):151-4. PMID: 8040603
  12. Shahbakhti H, Watson RE, Azurdia RM, Ferreira CZ, Garmyn M, Rhodes LE. Influence of eicosapentaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, on ultraviolet-B generation of prostaglandin-E2 and proinflammatory cytokines interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-6 and interleukin-8 in human skin in vivo. Photochem Photobiol. 2004 Sep-Oct;80(2):231-5. PMID: 15362934
  13. Stahl W, Sies H. Carotenoids and protection against solar UV radiation. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol. 2002 Sep-Oct;15(5):291-6. Review. PMID: 12239422
  14. Stahl W, Heinrich U, Wiseman S, Eichler O, Sies H, Tronnier H. Dietary tomato paste protects against ultraviolet light-induced erythema in humans. J Nutr. 2001 May;131(5):1449-51. PMID: 11340098
  15. Stahl W, Heinrich U, Jungmann H, Sies H, Tronnier H. Carotenoids and carotenoids plus vitamin E protect against ultraviolet light-induced erythema in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Mar;71(3):795-8. PMID: 10702175
  16. van der Pols JC, Xu C, Boyle GM, Hughes MC, Carr SJ, Parsons PG, Green AC. Serum omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and cutaneous p53 expression in an Australian population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2011 Mar;20(3):530-6. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-10-0961. Epub 2011 Jan 7. PMID: 21217086

 

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