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Nutrient - Sun Protection Pills Could Save Your Skin

By Dr Pieris Nicola PhD BSc (Hons) Dip ION

A recent story in the Sunday Times highlighted the fact that multinational skincare companies are looking at the benefits of taking antioxidants internally to help protect the skin against sun damage.  They could learn a lot from Health Food Manufacturers!

Most of us are aware of the dangers of prolonged sun exposure and the need to protect our skin against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sun-worshippers use some sort of sun cream, which works by reflecting or absorbing UV. However, slathering on sun cream will not block all of the UV light. Now, instead of just relying on sun creams, scientists believe there is an additional option that may actually afford greater and deeper protection: antioxidant-based sun protection taken orally.

Scientists have been investigating the mechanisms by which the sun’s UV rays cause skin damage, and have found that overexposure to UV radiation may suppress the skin’s natural defences, reducing its ability to protect against cancers. It also enhances the generation of harmful free radicals, which come in many shapes and sizes. Free radicals can damage larger molecules such as proteins and fats, and change the genetic instructions encoded in DNA strands, all of which could potentially contribute to UV-induced skin damage, premature wrinkling, and skin cancer.  The problem is further compoundedby the fact that the sun's UV may also activate an enzyme that helps skin cancer cellssurvive and proliferate. 

Antioxidants Offer Skin Protecting Benefits

The epidermis (the visible part of the skin) is equipped with two UV-protective mechanisms. These include the stratum corneum, which reflects a significant amount of UV radiation and also contains antioxidant enzymes; and melanin, a molecule that absorbs UV radiation. Antioxidants, taken orally, have been shown to accumulate in the stratum corneum and play important roles in protecting the skin against UV-induced free radical damage. This is supported by studies showing that a regular consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with reduced risks of skin cancer. 

Antioxidants, and their interaction with free radicals, have been a topic of increasing interest in the development of strategies to help combat UV-induced skin damage. This has given rise to the idea of the “sun protection pill,” a cocktail of plant-derived antioxidants aimed at protecting the skin “from within.” A number of plant-based nutrients have shown potential as effective antioxidant agents for protecting the skin against damage by UV radiation, including green tea polyphenols,curcumonoids, bilberry polyphenols, grape seed procyanidins, oleuropein, alpha-lipoic acid, and carotenoids. 

Both lycopene and astaxanthin are carotenoids with promising potential in protecting the skin from UV damage.

Lycopene, a bright red pigment and powerful antioxidant found in red fruits and vegetables, is able to neutralise or “quench” skin-damaging free radicals. A recent study from the Universities of Newcastle and Manchester, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, has revealed that daily consumption of a lycopene-rich tomato paste significantly improved the skin’s ability to protect itself against UV light. Compared to the control group, the test volunteers who had eaten the paste were found to have 33% more protection against sunburn. Lycopene was also shown to significantly boost the skin’s levels of procollagen, a molecule which gives the skin its structure and loss of which leads to skin ageing, and to protect mitochondrial DNA against UV-induced damage. Damage to mitcohondiral DNA has been associated with an accelerated ageing of the skin.

Astaxanthin, a pinkish-orange carotenoid, is the principal pigment in crustacean shell, salmon, and various birds including flamingos. It is also synthesised by the green alga Haematococcus pluvialis. It has powerful photoprotective and antioxidant properties. The antioxidant activity of astaxanthin has been reported to be approximately 10 times stronger than that of other carotenoids tested, including lutein, zeaxanthin, canthaxanthin, and β-carotene, and 550 to 1000 times greater than that of α-tocopherol. Scientists and dermatologists have shown that astaxanthin acts like a sponge, absorbing UV rays. It may also help to reduce the pain and inflammation associated with sunburn.

The Bottom Line on Antioxidants & UV Protection 

The overall scientific evidence suggests that consuming natural plant-derived antioxidants helps to reduce UV-induced skin damage.

Mark Birch-Machin, Professor of Molecular Dermatology at Newcastle University, predicts that rather than sun creams, future skin protection will focus on pills. He said: “We have got to find a better way of getting these things into the skin and pills will be an answer.”

However, scientists caution that sun protection pills are not intended to fully replace the use of sun creams, but can instead provide an extra tool in sun protection. 

Antioxidants are indeed turning out to be nutraceuticals with a cosmeceutical potential!


Article References

1. Birket M, Birch-Machin MA. The T414G mitochondrial DNA point mutation accumulates in a photoaging-dependent manner in human skin. Ageing Cell 2007;6:557-64. 2. Krinsky N.I. Antioxidant functions of carotenoids. Free Radic Biol Med 1989;7:617635. 3. Naguib Y.M. Antioxidant activities of astaxanthin and related carotenoids. J Agric Food Chem 2000;48:11501154. 4. Rizwan M, Rodriguez-Blanco I, Harbottle A et al. Tomato paste rich in lycopene protects against cutaneous photodamage in humans in vivo: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol 2011;164:154-62. 5. Suganuma K, Nakajima H, Ohtsuki M et al. Astaxanthin attenuates the UVA-induced up-regulation of matrix-metalloproteinase-1 and skin fibroblast elastase in human dermal fibroblasts. J Dermatol Sci 2010;58:136-42.

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