Are you getting sun protection from your diet?

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Are you getting sun protection from your diet?

Last week we shared the benefits of transitioning from chemical sun protection to natural sunscreens, a crucial step in reducing free radical damage and toxin exposure, but you may be surprised to learn that sunscreen alone doesn’t offer enough protection from the sun. Let’s take a look at why this is the case and what you can do in addition to a natural sunscreen to keep your skin healthy.

The sun’s rays

There are two main types of UV rays in sunshine; UVA and UVB. UVB rays are responsible for sunburn, but they only penetrate the top layer of the skin and are the type of UV rays that allow us to make vitamin D. They are only present for a few hours a day between the months of October and March. UVA rays on the other hand, are present year round, all day long and account for about 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. UVA rays also penetrate deeper into the dermal layer of the skin, where we find collagen and elastin- two proteins that give our skin structure and elasticity (1). When these proteins become damaged by UVA rays, it sets us up for sagging, wrinkled skin and premature aging.

Despite the damaging effects of UVA rays, UVB has mostly been the focus of the cosmetic industry because it causes sunburn and many types of skin cancer. This means the majority of sunscreens protect only against UVB rays. In fact, the SPF rating only indicates how long it will take for UVB rays to cause sunburn when using a sunscreen, compared to how long skin would take to burn without the product. It offers no information about protection from UVA. You’ll see some sunscreens that say broad spectrum or UVA protection, but this term is not regulated. One study looking at the amount of UVA protection in sunscreens found that the UVA protection was 50% less than what the label claimed (2).

Protection from UVA rays

So what can you do to offer additional skin protection if sunscreen doesn’t have you fully covered…start with your diet! Here are a few simple dietary changes to focus on.

Increase healthy fats

Omega 3 fats EPA and DHA from fish oil have been shown to exert a protective effect on the skin by regulating levels of inflammation and reducing free radical damage to the skin (3). Another study found that EPA and DHA are able to inhibit the proliferation of cancerous cells in various types of melanoma (4).

Olive oil has also been shown to have a protective effect on the skin due to its high concentration of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols. Both can modulate inflammation and protect against premature aging of the skin. Interestingly enough, Greece has an incredibly low rate of skin cancer despite high exposure to the sun’s rays (5). The traditional Greek diet is incredibly high in fats from fish, grass-fed lamb, olives and olive oil.

Get more antioxidants

Our skin has a built in natural defense against the sun in the form of antioxidants. Every major antioxidant in the body can be found in the skin! In fact, antioxidants in skin increase as you get closer to the skin’s surface. Antioxidants offer protection by blocking or absorbing the sun’s rays and destroying free radical damage to the skin. The main antioxidants found in the skin are vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids, a class of antioxidants found in brightly colored, orange, yellow and red fruits and vegetables. One study found eating leafy green vegetables, carrots and citrus fruits a few times a week was correlated with a lower risk of developing skin cancer (6). You don’t have to measure your veggies out to make sure you’re getting enough; just try to make sure about half your plate is loaded with veggies at lunch and dinner. Try to buy organic produce when possible; organic fruits and vegetables have been shown to contain higher amounts of antioxidants than those grown conventionally.

Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates

Healthy fats and antioxidant rich foods are two things you can add to your diet to reduce inflammation, free radical damage and keep the skin healthy. But what about dietary and lifestyle factors that can actually cause more damage to the skin? Alcohol, smoking and poorly managed stress are major culprits for accelerated aging of the skin. In addition, a diet high in sugar and refined carbs like bread, crackers, cookies and chips can cause high blood sugar and insulin. Blood sugar outside the normal range can cause damage to proteins in the body, including the collagen and elastin in skin. Remember, once these proteins become damaged it causes deep wrinkles, sagging and an uneven skin surface. Reducing these types of foods and saving them for an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping your skin looking healthy and radiant.  

This summer, challenge yourself to increase the amount of healthy fat, veggies and fruit you eat while reducing sources of added sugar in your diet. Pay attention to how your skin looks- many people notice an improvement in their skin relatively quickly when they change their diet. Even things not associated with the sun like dryness, blemishes and uneven patches can improve when you focus on healthy skin from the inside out.

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Dr. Miles Nichols and Dr. Diane Mueller have spoken for the following organizations:

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