The skin is the largest organ in the body and has many important functions such as protection against pathogens, temperature regulation, sensation, and the production of vitamin D. Like any part of your internal body, your skin can be healthy or unhealthy, nourished or malnourished and needs sun protection.
The skin is particularly susceptible to premature aging with excess sun exposure, poor hormonal health, poor nutrition, chronic dehydration, lack of sleep, stress, excess alcohol and smoking.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and Australia. In the U.S., skin cancer has risen by 77% (between 1992 -2006), and it is still increasing by 4% annually even though we spend more time indoors and are using more sunscreen than ever before. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime, while Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, making sun protection critical.
UV light damages skin cells by releasing free radicals, if these free radicals damage your DNA it may cause the cells to become cancerous and replicate. The good news is that having a large amount of antioxidants in your skin and body may neutralize these free radicals and prevent skin cancer with good sun protection tactics.
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But the good news is that certain foods can protect you against sun damage.
Consuming a healthy diet full of natural sun blocking antioxidants is a useful strategy to ensure your body has the best defense against skin cancer. Carotenoids are the compounds that give foods their vibrant color from the green leafy vegetables to the red beets, to the yellow and orange-colored fruits and vegetables.
These carotenoids act as natural sunscreens to the plants and offer us the same benefit. Not only do these nutrients offer us a level of natural sunscreen but they also have the antioxidant free radical scavenging activity that helps protect the cells from oxidative damage which may lead into cancer development.
Eat foods that provide UV protection, including:
- Dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies. These are loaded with skin-protecting antioxidants and have been shown to be cancer-protective in general.
- Red and orange fruits and veggies. Oranges, red peppers, tomatoes, and carrots…eat a variety of these for skin protecting lycopene and beta-carotene.
- Drink green tea. Green tea has been shown to help prevent non-melanoma skin cancer, and it’s full of polyphenols, which help inhibit cancer development.
- Eat the right oils.Consuming healthy oils, including coconut, olive, sesame, borage, evening primrose, and avocado helps keep your skin healthy and more resistant to sun damage. (Incidentally, putting oils such as coconut and olive on your skin blocks about 20% of UV rays.)
- Apply Vitamin E. Applying a natural form of vitamin e to your skin, such as alpha-tocopherol or tocotrienol, has been shown to protect skin from the sun and—an added bonus—to reduce the length and depth of wrinkles.
- Soothe with Aloe Vera. Aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin. It’s the perfect thing to apply if you’ve spent a bit too much time in the sun. Some people also use aloe vera on their skin regularly because it calms and relieves any irritation or redness.
- Beta-carotene – Sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, collard greens and most yellow/orange veggies
- Lycopene – Tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, pink guava, pink grapefruit, persimmons, red cabbage
- Lutein– Spinach, kale, peas, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, broccoli
- Epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC)and polyphenols –Green and black tea, rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, cocoa. Study found that people who drink one cup of tea per day have a lower incidence of melanoma.
- Flavonoids – Citrus, especially citrus peel
- Proanthocyanadins – Cacao, grape seeds
- Cruciferous veggies– Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale
- Vitamin C– citrus, strawberries, kiwi, peppers(capsicum). Vitamin C is great for helping kill off free radicals that your body produces in response to the cellular damaged caused by exposure to sunlight.
- Astaxanthin– microalgae (Haematococcus pluvialis), wild salmon, krill and shellfish. I first came across the anti-burning properties of krill oil when a patient told me years ago that he noticed he was not burning while doing long bike rides around varies areas of Australia while taking astaxanthin. This antioxidant comes from the algae protecting itself against UV rays once its natural habitat has dried up and copes direct sunlight.
- Other foods that may offer protection against sun damage and reduces the risk of skin cancer are olive oil, omega 3 fatty acids and nuts and seeds due to their vitamin E.
Let’s take a look at vitamin D
It is important to find a healthy balance between getting enough natural sunlight to maximize your vitamin D production and maintain your optimal health, while at the same time protecting yourself from sun damage that occurs from overexposure.
A good rule to follow is once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you’re Caucasian), it’s time to get out of the sun. Past this point of exposure you will begin to have sun damage. Here is a study that supports a certain amount of sun exposure protects you against melanoma.