Did you know that certain foods can protect you from sun damage? Produce and plants, in their whole form, contain several complex compounds that prevent us from the harmful effects of UV radiation, and are delicious at the same time! This article highlights both the dangers and importance of sunlight exposure, and the difference between synthetic and natural sunscreen.
‘Slip slop slap’ before heading outdoors is what Aussies have been accustomed to hearing. Current media focus – with many years of messages about the increased incidence of skin cancers and the dangers of overexposure to the sun – has created the perception that we should avoid the sun.
The amount of UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface has noticeably increased in recent years. With the hole in the ozone layer, Australians are at even more risk of sun damage.
Several clinical and laboratory studies have confirmed that UV radiation from the sun causes inflammation of the skin and free radical damage (molecules that damage our skin). Acute effects of excess UV exposure include sunburn, redness, and photosensitivity, while chronic effects include skin cancer, premature ageing, immune suppression and reduced circulation to skin cells.
Why we need sunshine
The best-known benefit of sunlight is its ability to supply vitamin D (as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3). A light-skinned person in a bathing suit, when out for 30 minutes on a sunny midday, will produce approximately 50,000 IU of vitamin D in the next 24 hours – a little more than your prescribed 1,000 IU tablet a day. Since melanin (the pigment giving skin its colour) reduces UV radiation exposure, a tanned or naturally darker-skinned individual produces 20,000 to 30,000 IU in 30 minutes. For very dark-skinned individuals, only 8,000 to 10,000 IU of vitamin D is produced.
Aside from the synthesis of vitamin D, sunlight is also beneficial for healthy immune suppression that can assist in the prevention of auto-immune diseases, including psoriasis, and increases the release of endorphins; hence sunshine always makes us happy.
How much sunshine do we need?
The amount of sunshine each individual should be exposed to depends on the colour of a person’s skin, the region someone lives in, the time of year, and the amount of time the person spends outdoors. In general, people with fair skin should be exposed in the sun for 3-15 minutes, while people with darker skin tones should be exposed for 15-30 minutes.
This does not include walking out on your lunch break for a few minutes in your work attire as at least 40% of your skin needs to be exposed, especially fatty areas (thighs and stomach), and when the sun in highest in the sky at midday. Colder periods of the year may require supplementation with vitamin D, depending on individual levels.
The truth about sunscreens
Topically applied, sunscreens protect us by absorbing or reflecting radiation at the surface of our skin. In addition to blocking UV radiation, sunscreens also inhibit the endogenous production of vitamin D.
As Alanis Morissete would otherwise sing it; isn’t it ironic that melanoma rates have risen in recent decades after the introduction of sunscreens? As vitamin D suppress the growth of melanoma cells, vitamin D deficiency in the skin may play a role in the development of melanoma.
Interestingly, regular, healthy time in the sun produces natural sunblock through the body’s ability to produce melanin. More time spent in the sun, therefore, helps the skin regulate more naturally, becoming less likely to burn and reduces the need for sunscreens with an SPF of 15+. Individuals with very sensitive skin, however, may still need more protection.
Several commercial sunscreens available on the market contain chemicals that are not only problematic to human health, but also to the environment. Sunscreens can be categorised by chemical or physical UV blockers. Chemical sunscreens are usually ‘invisible’ and therefore appealing to consumers (no one wants to leave the house looking like a vampire). However UV absorption may activate their causing unwanted skin reactions.
Many of the synthetic chemicals including benzophenone-3 have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, mimicking natural hormones in the body. Ironically, conventional sunscreens that are marketed to protect us from skin cancer and melanomas contain chemicals have been linked to various forms of cancer. Padimate O, a chemical filler in conventional sunscreen, has been found to produce free radicals when exposed to sunlight and causes contact dermatitis and photosensitivity.
Commonly found ingredients to avoid:
- benzophenone-3 (Bp-3) / Oxybenzone
- homosalate (HMS)
- 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
- octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC)
- octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA)
- 2-Ethylhexyl 4-(dimethylamino)benzoate / Padimate O
Safe sunscreen choices
Physical sunscreens reflect both UVA and UVB rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreens are chemical-free, and are natural sunscreens use mineral blocks, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Natural sunscreens contain many plant-based ingredients that are soothing and nourishing to the skin, are nontoxic, low in skin irritants, and free of perfumes or petroleum-based polymers.
Eat your sunscreen
While sunscreens have been useful to assist in reducing sun damage, their protection alone is not adequate to prevent UV effects. Because of this, new skin protecting methods are needed to promote healthy skin and offer the highest available sun protection without skin reactions. The study of ingredients found in many of the foods we eat, used both topically (on the surface of the skin) and systemically (internally ingested) has gained considerable attention in recent years. Ingesting and applying certain vegetables, fruits, and herbs, have both been found to be the best way to protect our skin from the sun’s rays.
Our skin requires several nutrients to supply its cells with rejuvenation and turnover, including proteins, carbohydrates, good fats, vitamins, and minerals. Food and plants, in their whole form, contain several complex compounds with multiple biological actions that prevent us from the harmful effects of UV radiation in addition to having protective effects against free radical damage, inflammation, premature ageing, and cancer. Choose natural sunscreens that contain a combination of extracts from vegetables, fruit and herbs as well as natural sunscreen oils discussed below.
Renowned for its soothing and cooling effects, the inner juice of Aloe vera and Aloe barbadensis leaves have been found to block UVB rays and moisturises the skin. Aloe contains enzymes that stop sunburns and accelerate collagen production. Drink the juice, or apply the gel or fresh leaf before and after sun exposure.
Drinking your cup of green tea can be protecting you from UV damage. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in green tea that have been shown to externally block UV rays, reduce skin redness, protect against skin cancer, and prevent premature ageing.
Almonds contain the compounds flavonoids and phenolic acids, which have been shown to block UV rays and have antioxidant and anti-ageing actions on the skin. Eat almonds and apply almond oil before heading outdoors.
Grapes have one of the highest sources of polyphenols including resveratrol and proanthocyaindins (giving grapes their deep red colour), and are rich in vitamin E and linoleic acid (healthy fats). Proanthocyaindins have been shown to be 50 times more effective than vitamin E and 20 times more effective than vitamin C as antioxidants. These nutrients, in combination, have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve skin elasticity, and protect against UV damage, sunburn, and skin cancer. Consume grapes, including the seeds, grape juice, a glass of red wine (in moderation of course), or rub grape seed oil before and after sun exposure.
Polyphenols found in pomegranate act a potent antioxidant, which were found to not only heal sunburns, but also boost SPF levels by between 22 and 28%. Add pomegranate juice to your summer drink menu this season.
Tomatoes are a major source of the antioxidant lycopene, which scavenge free radicals, prevent redness, and protect against sunburns, premature ageing, and skin cancer. Lycopene is best utilised in the body when it is processed and cooked. It’s often best in the form of tomato paste, tomato sauce and cooked tomatoes.
In addition to removing eye bags, cucumber extracts soothe skin burns and are an effective moisturiser thanks to their high water, mineral, and vitamin C content. It also helps remove dead skin cells and tighten the skin.
Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, turnips, cauliflower, and radishes, contain the extract isothiocyanates, known for its anti-cancer and sun protective properties. Unlike sunscreens, isothiocyanates do not absorb UV rays and prevent its entry into the skin. Instead, they internally boost the production of protective enzymes that defend skin cells against UV damage. Consequently, the effects last for several days, providing protection even after the extract is no longer present in or on the skin.
Natural sunscreen oils
Plant oils including sesame, coconut, peanut, and olive contain UV protection properties. Sesame oil in particular blocks 30% of UV rays, while coconut, peanut, and olive oil block 20%. Avocado oil, rich in vitamins E, A and D, protein, and healthy fats help soothe, moisturise, stimulate skin regeneration, and protect the skin from UV rays. Even with a low SPF protection of 4, jojoba oil is an effective moisturiser. As moisturised skin is less likely to burn and enables us to tan faster, apply jojoba oil before and after sun exposure. Shea butter melts at room temperature and is rapidly absorbed into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling. It contains the antioxidants, vitamins A and E, all improving blood circulation to the skin and enhancing skin regeneration. Shea butter also provides protection against harmful UV rays.
Healthy sun practices to ensure you and your family are safe this summer
- Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside.
- Don’t rub sunscreen in – rapid absorption of lotion leaves the outermost layers of skin with reduced SPF. Instead, dab sunscreen onto sun-sensitive areas first. Wait 60 seconds. Then gently reapply sunscreen to these same areas. Also evenly cover the rest of your exposed skin.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours. In intense sun, even if you are not overly physically active, reapply at least every hour.
- Cover up with clothing and wear broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Keep your skin moisturised and hydrated – moisturised skin is less likely to burn and will tan faster. Moisturise and nourish your skin with creams, lotions, or oils several hours before (allows the moisturiser to soak in and, if using oil, to reduce the sheen) and also after long sun exposure.
- Cool off – if your skin overheats, it can react with a classic heat rash, which can quickly lead to burning. Frequently cool off in the water and reapply sunscreen. Avoid waterproof, sport block, sweat-proof, and baby-block sunscreens if spending long hours in the sun. The petroleum bases in these products can cause the skin to overheat quickly.
- Take frequent shade breaks – taking 15 minutes or more per hour is enough time to let your skin cool down and recover. Never expose burned skin to more sun – burned skin will not tan; it will only get worse. Keep burned skin cool. Avoid applying waterproof sunscreen on pink or burned skin as it will overheat.
- Surfaces such as sand, snow, concrete and water can reflect up to 85% of UV radiation. Extra precautions should be taken when around these surfaces, even in cloudy weather.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be applied on babies only over the age of six months.
- Avoid UV tanning beds – they increase the risk of burns and require caution.
Bec Farah is a naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist, fitness instructor, writer, speaker. She’s the founder of ‘Bec to Nature Naturopathy’. Her mission is to educate people on how to get back to the basics, by getting back to nature. She has a special interest in skin health and her passion is to adopt food as medicine. Contact Bec on 0451 956 909. www.bectonature.com.au
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