When skin is exposed to sunlight—and its ultraviolet (UV) radiation—free radicals form. These unstable oxygen molecules damage cells, breaking down collagen, the protein that helps give skin a firm, supple appearance. When collagen is damaged, it loses its ability to support the skin, which becomes stiff and inflexible, beginning to sag and wrinkle. In addition to photo-aging, sun exposure causes more than 90 percent of skin cancers. The earliest stage in the development of skin cancer is the formation of actinic keratoses, scaly, rough lesions that appear on the outer layer of the skin.
Two types of UV radiation are known to cause burning, photoaging, and skin cancer: UVA and UVB light. When sunscreens were originally developed in the 1960s, they were designed to shield skin from UVB, offering a sun-protection factor (SPF) rating that measured relative protection against UVB only. Today many products contain ingredients that also safeguard skin from UVA radiation. You’ll need to read the product label to ensure that it provides full-spectrum protection.
To prevent free-radical damage from sun exposure and to help heal any damage that has already occurred, look for natural skin care products that contain antioxidants to protect against UV radiation and to reverse photoaging. The mineral selenium slows the aging process of skin tissue and preserves its elasticity. Another important antioxidant, vitamin E protects cell membranes and helps deactivate free radicals. Vitamin E also reduces the production of cells that cause sunburn and those that lead to a type of skin cancer.
Of all the antioxidants that occur naturally in the skin, vitamin C is the most plentiful. Needed for the production of collagen, vitamin C decreases the inflammation associated with photoaging. When applied immediately after sun exposure, this critical vitamin can decrease sunburn and repair damaged cells.
Alpha lipoic acid, another valuable antioxidant, helps speed healing of damaged cells while increasing the effectiveness of other antioxidants. Green tea boosts the immune function of skin cells and helps prevent damage when applied to the skin before sun exposure. Other ingredients to look for in skin care products include Pycnogenol™, grape seed extract, rosemary, and vitamin A, all of which have antioxidant action.
Guard from Within
To increase the benefits of the antioxidants used on the skin, take supplemental nutrients, too. Vitamin C, for example, has been found to reduce UV-induced tumors in animal studies. Other vitamins recommended for internal use to protect the skin include A, B, and E. The oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) in Pycnogenol and grape seed extract help revitalize the skin, while fighting both fat- and water-soluble oxidants. OPCs support collagen and elastin by strengthening capillaries and veins, enhancing blood circulation, and reducing inflammation.
Always wear a hat to offer extra protection to your face and to shield your scalp and ears.
Learn which sun protection factor works best for you, and then use it religiously. Because SPF is a relative, not a fixed, measurement, SPF 2 will provide twice the protection that your skin possesses on its own (which depends upon how much of the pigment melanin it contains). And if your coloring protects your skin for 15 minutes before burning without sunscreen, an SPF 4 allows you to stay in the sun for an hour before you burn (or four times your own natural protection against UVB rays). Most experts recommend at least SPF 15. If your skin is fair, use an SPF 30 for boating or beach days.
If you don’t like the consistency or feeling of traditional sunscreens for everyday use, look for SPF labeling on moisturizers, body lotions, and makeups.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using one full ounce, minimum, of sun block. (Most people use only about 25 to 30 percent of that amount.) Whatever your SPF, apply the product every two hours if you’re outdoors.
Take extra care in protecting your skin from the sun if you have any of the following risk factors for melanoma:
Fair hair, skin, or eyes
A family history of skin cancer
Diffuse freckling across the back
Three or more blistering sunburns as a child or teenager
Three or more summers of intense sun exposure (such as with lifeguarding)
Diagnosed actinic keratosis (a precancerous skin condition)
Even if you have no known risk factors, performing a regular self-examination is a must, given the increasing incidence of skin cancer. Check your whole body for rough, scaly patches, fleshy nodules, and moles. If you notice changes in moles or anything else that looks unusual, see a dermatologist immediately.
In addition to using sun block and supplements, look to your diet to provide skin-saving nutrients. Broccoli and carrots are rich in vitamin A, beta carotene, and selenium. Citrus fruits provide vitamin C. Fish, fish oils, and flaxseed oil are high in protective omega-3 fatty acids. Some foods that can help reduce cancer risk include whole grains, sea vegetables, tomatoes, garlic, green tea, and shiitake mushrooms.