Carla Oates shares her top tips for protecting your skin from the sun
Feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin is one of life’s simple pleasures. And it can be addictive: studies show that ultraviolet radiation from the sun releases feel-good hormones called endorphins.
Sun exposure also helps your body produce vitamin D, which is actually a hormone essential for good health, healthy skin and immunity. This fat-soluble “sunshine vitamin” also helps you absorb calcium to form and maintain healthy bones. Vitamin D has beneficial effects on moods, immunity, diabetes and glucose metabolism, heart health, hypertension and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. It has also been linked to the prevention of some cancers.
You need only 10 minutes daily of sun exposure on your face and arms to get your daily dose of “vitamin sunshine”.
Yet more than half of Australians are deficient in vitamin D, especially at the end of winter and for other varying reasons. For some it’s because they shy away from the sun in the warmer months; for others — especially those with naturally darker skin — it’s because their bodies have trouble synthesising vitamin D. It’s worth having a test to check your levels.
We also need to balance our vitamin D needs with rising rates of melanoma. Remember, you need only 10 minutes daily of sun exposure on your face and arms to get your daily dose of “vitamin sunshine”. (You can also get small amounts from foods including oily fish, eggs, meat and some fortified foods such as milk.) Aside from the melanoma, sun exposure speeds up ageing of the skin, collagen breakdown, loss of skin elasticity and wrinkles.
Choosing sun protection is confusing and there are growing concerns about the health and environmental risks of some sunscreens. Basically, sunscreen comes in two forms — physical and chemical — although some sunscreens are a combination of both so it pays to get familiar with ingredients you may wish to avoid.
Broad-spectrum sunblocks protect your skin against both ultraviolet-A rays and ultraviolet-B rays (UVB rays cause sunburn on your skin’s surface; UVA rays penetrate deeper, causing structural damage and changes to skin-cell DNA that can lead to cancer). UVB rays are remote in winter but UVA rays occur throughout the year.
A word on SPF (sun protection factor): it’s important to remember that higher SPF ratings do not mean you can stay in the sun longer. Sunscreens still need to be reapplied regularly and after swimming. For more information on choosing a sunscreen, this non-profit, independent US guide is helpful: ewg.org/sunscreen.
Physical sunblocks use mineral-based ingredients such as zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to reflect UVA and UVB rays. Some physical sunblocks contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to make them invisible— but that may also mean they can be absorbed by your skin. Or they may use “microfine” or “micronised” particles that are too big to be absorbed but small enough not to leave a white film on your skin. These, in my opinion, are probably the safest.
Chemical sunblocks absorb UV rays and can sometimes contain a combination of chemicals that are known as endocrine disrupters because they can disrupt or mimic the reproductive hormone oestrogen. Some of these chemicals are also allergens that can irritate your skin. Chemical sunscreens are also released into the water you swim in, potentially causing damage to coral reefs and other marine life.
What are other ways to stay protected? Limiting your time in the sun to early morning and late afternoon is the safest practice in summer, especially if you live in a part of the world where UV is high around midday.
Along with slopping on sunscreen, the SunSmart message to slip on sun-protective clothing, slap on a wide-brimmed hat, slide on your sunglasses and seek shade should be your summer mantra. In other words, sunscreen alone is not enough.
Studies on topical aids are showing that antioxidant-rich ingredients including tomato extract and raspberry seed oil may help protect your skin from UV damage. Oils such as jojoba and sesame in skincare products boast SPFs of around 4. However, for optimum protection they must be used together with a more rigorous sunblock such as zinc oxide. Trees also boast SPFs, so sit under a dense-canopied tree to shade from the sun.
Many foods can help protect you against UV radiation and build healthy, properly functioning skin. But food alone is not enough: you must also use the SunSmart action plan outlined above to protect your skin from sun damage.
Plant foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, leafy greens, extra-virgin olive oil and legumes — are, however, rich in antioxidants and boast some sun-protective properties. The antioxidant phytonutrients found in plant foods scavenge free radicals, reducing the oxidation caused by sun exposure that damages the skin’s DNA and breaks down collagen and elastin. Free radicals can also by triggered by pollution, radiation and chemicals.
Organic crops contain more antioxidants, according to scientific studies. Fruits and vegies are also rich in skin-loving minerals including calcium, magnesium, silica, sulphur and zinc.
Vibrantly coloured produce is higher in antioxidants and other nutrients, giving a broader range of benefits. So eat the rainbow! Think reds (tomatoes, radishes, watermelon) for lycopene, greens (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) for sulforaphane, oranges (carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges) for beta-Carotene and purples (blueberries, cherries, beetroots, pomegranates, red cabbage) for anthocyanins.
Along with mopping up free radicals, vitamin C helps boost your levels of protective glutathione, an antioxidant your body produces to protect itself against free-radical damage. You can get plenty of vitamin C from kiwifruit, red capsicum, rosehip, papaya, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit and watercress.
Vitamin E helps your body recycle glutathione and rich sources include almonds, avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, wheat germ, soy and sunflower seeds. Compounds known as tocotrienols (oats, barley, rye) belong to the vitamin E family and also help neutralise free-radical activity and absorb some UV radiation.
Asparagus is rich food source of glutathione, which also helps fight cancer and inflammation.
Micro-algae such as chlorella and spirulina contain the carotenoid astaxanthin, which has been shown to protect the skin against UV radiation. Anti-inflammatory green tea or matcha green tea contains the catechin known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which helps to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. Tea consumption has also been linked to a reduced risk of skin cancer.
Cacao or dark chocolate (go for at least 70 per cent) contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which may protect your skin against sun damage. And a study by the University of Arizona found lemon peel may have a protective effect against squamous skin-cancer cells.
A diet rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids will also reduce inflammation and help protect your skin from free-radical damage. Good omega-3 sources include salmon, sardines, mackerel and algae and flax, hemp and chia seeds.
Finally, remember to drink plenty of water and stay well hydrated, especially after sun exposure, to maintain a healthy natural moisture factor and protect your skin from drying out.
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