The arrival of the first sunny days of the summer can be a real trial for those who suffer from benign seasonal polymorphous light eruptions (PMLE), whose skin becomes red, irritated and itchy after just a few hours’ exposure to sunlight. The good news for those affected is that there are natural ways of increasing tolerance to sunlight and these also benefit individuals with good sun tolerance who simply want to maximise their tan.
Without adequate protection, exposure to ultraviolet rays can be extremely harmful to the deep cells of the epidermis, causing what can be irreversible damage to supporting tissues, the effects ranging from the purely aesthetic, such as wrinkles on the face, neck and chest, to more serious health problems such as melanomas.
Diet and nutritional supplementation play an essential role in protecting the epidermis. Taking certain supplements before, during and after exposure can prepare the skin, provide wide-ranging protection against some of the effects of the sun’s rays and optimise and prolong your tan, even beyond the holidays.
The key antioxidants for sun protection are the carotenoids as they boost the skin’s pigmentation, significantly improve sun tolerance and protect those tissues in direct contact with UV light (the skin and the eyes). Carotenoids also have properties that stimulate production of melanin, the pigment responsible for our skin colour, and combat the immunosuppressive effect of UV rays.
A large number of studies demonstrate that daily consumption of a variety of carotenoids significantly improves photo-protection and tolerance of the sun:
, perhaps the best-known carotenoid, is the second most abundant carotene in the diet. A precursor of vitamin A, it is traditionally recognised for its ability to protect epithelial cells and for enhancing the tanning process.
is the predominant carotenoid in the skin. Research shows that taking lycopene considerably reduces sun-induced erythema in those with sensitive skin and almost halves the intensity of sunburn and deeper cell damage.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin
are two carotenoids that are often found together in foods as well as in the body – they are mainly present in the macula, a central area of the retina which filters blue light. They act synergistically with the previously-mentioned carotenoids to protect the skin against the effects of UV light and have a specific antioxidant role in protecting the eyes from oxidative stress.
is naturally produced by the algae Haematococcus pluvialis, which is eaten by shrimps and salmon and gives them their characteristic colour. It provides specific and potent antioxidant protection to the skin and eyes against the sun’s UV rays. In the eyes, it increases blood flow to the retina and has powerful antioxidant properties which protect lens tissues from harmful free radicals.
In addition to eating plenty of carotenoid-rich foods such as red-orange fruits and vegetables and dark green vegetables, fair-skinned individuals in particular (though not exclusively) should supplement their diet with daily sun-protective nutrients, as the majority of dermatologists are now recommending, in order to:
- Maintain their sun-resistance and reduce episodes of sunburn,
- Combat UV-induced cellular damage to the skin and eyes
- Reduce seasonal polymorphous light eruptions,
- Prevent drying of the skin as well as wrinkles and unsightly age spots,
- and lastly, to achieve a long-lasting tan with maximum protection from the sun’s harmful effects.
As carotenoids work synergistically, it is better to choose a combination supplement, and as they are best absorbed with a little fat, it is preferable to take supplements at lunch or dinnertime with oils that provide specific fatty acids to limit skin dryness.
Alongside these recognised carotenoids, Polypodium leucotomos – a type of fern found in tropical and sub-tropical America - can play an important role in protecting and soothing the skin. A number of studies have shown this botanical extract to provide multiple protective effects against the sun’s UV rays, both at a cellular and systemic level. Beginning supplementation two weeks before exposure to the sun and continuing throughout the whole period of exposure was found to be a safe and effective way of significantly reducing erythema, rashes and urticaria as well as limiting UV-induced damage to DNA – a long-term risk factor for skin cancer.