Protect your skin this summer

It’s important to think seriously about sun protection for two big reasons. Firstly, according to The Cancer Council, the only true way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid sun exposure; and, secondly, 90 per cent of premature ageing of the skin is caused by sun damage. Think of a juicy plump grape sun dried into a shrivelled and wrinkled sultana.

Our bodies naturally provide us with some SPF (sun protection factor). We possess the pigment melanin in our skin that helps absorb UV and we also produce our own antioxidants that help mop up free radicals, the cancer-causing molecules that float around the body attaching themselves to healthy cells and damage DNA. (Free radicals are triggered by carcinogens including smoke, pollution and UV rays.)

However, we require more protective reinforcement than what is inherently offered, particularly living in Australia. Associate Professor Michael Kimlin, director of the Australian Sun and Health Research Laboratory, says, “Wintertime levels of UV in Brisbane are greater than in summertime in the Netherlands.”

He adds, “We have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world — four times the rate of Canada, the US and the UK. One in two Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.”

Kimlin recommends sporting a broad-spectrum (protects from both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen daily (even in winter, when UVA is still strong), but cautions it’s best used as a supplement alongside shade, tightly woven clothing (darker colours are best), broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses: “These should all be used as backup to the primary line of defence, which is limiting your time in the sun.” Sunscreen, he says, reduces but doesn’t remove the risk of sun damage.

The antioxidant link

Eating a big plate of brightly coloured vegies or drinking a few cups of green tea before venturing al fresco can also help. More and more studies show we can reap further protection from our diet.

Antioxidants are abundant in nature, contained in all living things, plants and animals. They protect plants from the sun and diseases and, because we have such a profound synergy with plants, they offer us similar benefits when we consume them. By saturating our bodies with these protective substances, we are reducing the amount of cancer-causing free radical activity.

The Cancer Council says that by eating well and exercising regularly you can reduce your risk of cancer by 25 per cent. They recommend two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables a day. Other foods that boast protective antioxidants include green tea, olive oil, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Research done at Edinburgh University showed that when levels of the antioxidant selenium were high, skin cells were less likely to suffer the kind of oxidative damage that can increase the risk of cancer. A group of French researchers found that oral doses of selenium, along with copper, vitamin E and vitamin A, could prevent sunburn formation in human skin. Foods rich in selenium include whole wheat, turkey, tuna and Brazil nuts.

Eat to beat heat

It’s now widely recognised in health and medical circles that antioxidants from food bind with highly reactive free radicals and neutralise them. They also prevent free radicals from damaging the skin and therefore prevent skin conditions caused by sun damage such as pigmentation, loss of elasticity, collagen degradation, wrinkles, age spots, dryness and dullness. It’s also important to avoid refined foods, soft drinks and excess alcohol, as these deplete the body of nutrients and also trigger free radical activity.

Antioxidants are not the only helpers. Studies show omega 3 essential fatty acids act like a bulletproof vest in preventing UV rays from penetrating deeply into the skin and causing too much damage. They are highly anti-inflammatory and therefore help reduce inflammation caused by sun damage.

Essential fatty acids are found in nuts, seeds and cold-water fish. Green tea is also useful for quelling inflammation. Fluids such as water and juices also keep your skin dehydrated and minimise the effect of sun exposure. Research shows that dehydrated skin is more prone to burns and structural damage.

Whole foods

While supplements can be helpful, Garry Egger, epidemiologist and co-author of Skin Fitness, says whole foods are the way to go: “We have found that antioxidant extracts or supplements don’t seem to work as well as eating the fruits, vegetables or whole fish themselves. The different amounts of different antioxidants or nutrients in the same food appear to work together to fight free radicals more effectively than the ingredients do alone.”

To get the best protection from your diet, choose organic. Research now confirms that organic foods boast higher amounts of skin-loving antioxidants than foods that are conventionally produced.

Professor Kimlin says limiting your exposure to UV rays shouldn’t affect vitamin D levels, either. Sufficient vitamin D is obtained by exposing your face, arms and hands to the sun for a few minutes on either side of the peak UV periods on most days of the week.

Carla Oates

Carla Oates

Carla Oates is the CEO of The Beauty Chef, a natural beauty expert and the author of Feeding Your Skin and The Beauty Chef Cookbook.

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