Protecting Yourself from Harmful Rays
You're all ready for a day at the beach. You have a blanket, a radio and a big bottle of baby oil . . . oops. Nix the oil. You've heard the warnings about ultraviolet rays and skin cancer, so it's on with the sunscreen instead, right?
Right. But somehow, whether it's from snoozing too long in the midday warmth or forgetting to reapply your lotion after a dip in the ocean, you, like most people, probably still manage an occasional burn. Maybe not one of the Maine lobster scorches that you got as a kid, but a fairly vivid shade of pink nonetheless. Worse yet, studies show that even if you never forget your sunscreen, unless you block out 100 percent of the ultraviolet rays, lolling in the sun will damage your skin whether you burn or not.
What's a sun worshiper to do--carry a parasol? That certainly helps, say the experts. Limiting your time in the sun, especially during midday hours, is absolutely essential. And if you want some extra protection, take your vitamins and minerals. According to research, oral supplements of vitamin E and selenium, as well as topical applications of vitamins C and E, can give your sunscreen a boost by partially preventing the skin damage that occurs once you've been exposed.
How Sunburn Does Damage
To understand how vitamins and minerals can help shield you from sun damage, it helps to know how that damage comes about in the first place.
Sunlight exposes skin to two types of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. UVB rays are high-intensity rays absorbed by the surface of the skin. They are the primary cause of sunburn and immediate skin damage. UVA rays are of lower intensity, but they penetrate below the skin's surface, causing long-term damage such as premature wrinkles.
Both types do significant damage by forming free radicals, unstable molecules that steal electrons from your body's healthy molecules to stabilize themselves. Though some free radicals are formed during everyday functions such as breathing, environmental stress factors such as sun exposure create additional droves of them.
Although you have natural defenses against free radicals generated by sun exposure, they often aren't enough. Sunscreen does a good job of protecting you, but many brands still block predominantly UVB rays. Even those that block both UVB and UVA rays generally allow some exposure. Look for a sunscreen labeled "broad-spectrum coverage," suggests Douglas Darr, Ph.D., director of technology development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. And look for the ingredients oxybenzone and methoxycinnamate, which absorb some UVA rays. Remember that only clothing and zinc oxide totally block UVB and UVA rays.
Fortunately for your skin and your body, there are chemical substances that mop up free radicals by offering them electrons, sparing healthy molecules from harm. These substances, known as antioxidants, include vitamins C and E and the mineral selenium. Sun exposure, however, quickly depletes your skin's supply of these antioxidants.
Although you can get some protection through oral supplementation of these nutrients, researchers agree that the best protection generally comes from topical application. Currently, you have to apply a separate cream along with your sunscreen, but some researchers hope that future sunscreens will have the nutrients built right in.
"No one is proposing that vitamins will ever replace sunscreen, but they can make sunsreen better. It would also be nice to replace some of the chemicals in sunscreen with vitamins," says Dr. Darr. "Right now we're soaking in all of these chemicals that are photodecomposing into unknown compounds. And because there are no lifetime studies, we can't make the blanket statement that they are completely safe."
Here's what the research says about adding vitamins and minerals to your sun protection regimen.
Although there are no foods that you can eat to protect your skin from the sun, there are a few that can add fuel to the fire. Here's what you might want to avoid before a day at the shore.
Don't be a silly rabbit. While you certainly shouldn't stop eating carrots, these vegetables, along with celery, parsley, parsnips and limes, contain psoralens, chemicals that may make you unusually sensitive to the sun.
"Though most people would have to eat huge amounts of these foods before they would have problems, some people are really sensitive to these chemicals. For them, the effects can be quite nasty," says Douglas Darr, Ph.D., director of technology development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park.
And even if you're not psoralen-sensitive, you should wash your hands after handling these fruits and vegetables, because anyone's skin can be more susceptible to burning after direct contact with the chemical.
The Vitamin C Solution
Vitamin C is well-known for its role as a collagen (skin tissue) builder when used topically. It's also a pretty impressive sun protectant, say the experts. But don't get it confused with sunscreen, says John C. Murray, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Vitamin C creams can't absorb ultraviolet rays.
"Sunscreen is a chemical that acts as a shield and absorbs ultraviolet light, so you're not as red," he explains. "Vitamin C is a photoprotectant. It possibly works by scavenging the free radicals caused by sun exposure."
Also, unlike sunscreen, you can't wash off vitamin C, says Dr. Murray. "Once you put it on, it's soaked into your skin," he says. "You can't rub it off."
To measure vitamin C's effectiveness, researchers at Duke University Medical Center studied ten fair-skinned individuals. They found that when the volunteers applied a 10 percent vitamin C solution, the amount of ultraviolet light needed for them to burn increased by an average of 22 percent for nine of them. And once they did burn, half of the volunteers experienced much less severe burns than they would have without the solution.
So can you get the same protection from eating a lot of oranges?
No, because you just can't eat enough oranges, says Sheldon Pinnell, M.D., chief of dermatology at Duke University Medical Center. Dr. Pinnell helped develop a 10 percent vitamin C lotion called Cellex-C. The preparation provides far more--20 to 40 times more--vitamin C to the skin than you could achieve by ingesting the vitamin, he says.
Don't try spraying your skin with orange juice, either; you'll just make yourself sticky, says Dr. Murray. "Vitamin C is very unstable," he says. "It needs to be in a special preparation to stay effective."
Cellex-C is available without a prescription from dermatologists, plastic surgeons and licensed aestheticians (full-service beauty salon operators) and by mail order from Caleel-Hayden, L.L.C., 518 17th Street, Suite 1700, Denver, CO 80202 (1-800-235-5392). For best results, apply the lotion daily and after a sunburn. For sunbathing, apply along with sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure. Used alone, Cellex-C is not an appropriate beach product.
Extra Protection with Vitamin E
Like vitamin C, vitamin E is a free radical scavenger. But unlike vitamin C, vitamin E is being recommended by researchers for after-sun use, rather than pre-sun use, to soothe your skin and prevent a burn after exposure.
In fact, it's even effective if you apply it a half-day later, say researchers at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, but it's better to do it as soon as possible. In studies using laboratory animals, the researchers found that vitamin E acetate, which converts to vitamin E in the body, prevented inflammation, skin sensitivity and skin damage when applied up to eight hours following UVB exposure.
"At this time, I wouldn't recommend that people apply vitamin E before sun exposure, because when vitamin E is exposed to ultraviolet light it produces a free radical, which in itself can be damaging," says John R. Trevithick, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario. "But if you fall asleep in the sun and start to get a sunburn that you want to prevent from getting worse, vitamin E oil is a good idea."
Vitamin E can also work from the inside out. As an oral supplement, it can significantly reduce the inflammation and skin damage caused by sun exposure, says Karen E. Burke, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologic surgeon and dermatologist in private practice in New York City. If you are inadvertently exposed to sun, take a lot of vitamin E: five capsules of 400 international units each for one to two days, says Dr. Burke. For optimum protection, Dr. Burke recommends taking daily supplements of 400 international units of vitamin E in the form of d-alpha-tocopherol. (It's okay to take oral vitamin E before you go out in the sun.)
To boost your intake of vitamin E, try cooking with sunflower oil or safflower oil and adding more nuts, whole grains and wheat germ to your daily fare. Vitamin E oil and vitamin Efortified creams can be bought over the counter in drugstores. These products contain the ester form of vitamin E, which can cause allergies, and they're not very effective in reducing sun damage, says Dr. Burke.
Prescriptions for Healing
Unlike the usual prescriptions, wearing your nutrients is often better than taking them when it comes to sunburn. Here are the doses that some doctors say work best against sun damage.
Nutrient Daily Amount/Application
Selenium 50200 micrograms (l-selenomethionine)
Vitamin E 400 international units (d-alpha-tocopherol), taken before sun exposure
2,000 international units, taken as 5 divided doses for 1 or 2 days after sun exposure
Vitamin C 10% lotion (Cellex-C)
Vitamin E 5%100% cream or oil, applied after sun exposure
Zinc oxide As an ointment
MEDICAL ALERT: Selenium can be toxic in high amounts. For this reason, doctors recommend that doses exceeding 100 micrograms daily be taken only under medical supervision.
If you are taking anticoagulant drugs, you should not take oral vitamin E supplements.
Vitamin E creams and oils contain the ester form of the nutrient, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Selenium Also Shines
Like vitamins C and E, the mineral selenium can quench free radicals at the cellular level, says Dr. Burke, thereby reducing the inflammation and skin damage associated with too much sun.
Although she's hoping that a cream will soon be available that can be used as an adjunct to sunscreen, Dr. Burke says that in the meantime, you can get some of the benefits by taking selenium supplements.
For best results, she suggests that people take 50 to 200 micrograms of selenium in the form of l-selenomethionine, depending on where you live and your family history of cancer. Superior food sources of selenium include fish such as tuna and salmon as well as cabbage. Selenium can be toxic in doses exceeding 100 micrograms daily; such high amounts should be taken only under medical supervision.
Zinc Oxide: The Lifeguard's Standby
You know the white stuff that lifeguards wear on their noses? It's zinc oxide, and it may look funny, but it's a great skin protectant.
"In this case, the zinc is acting not as a micronutrient but as a physical blocker of ultraviolet light," explains Norman Levine, M.D., chief of dermatology and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. "And it does a terrific job."
If you don't like the white, zinc oxide is now being broken down into nearly invisible particles and put into sunblocks. It's also available in designer colors, for those who like their zinc on the wild side.
And remember, since zinc works as a topical barrier, upping your dietary zinc may make you healthier, but it won't protect your skin.