When it’s time to protect our skin from the sun, we usually work from the outside in: diligently applying (and reapplying) sunscreen, donning our cover-ups, and creating our own shady oasis beneath wide-brimmed hats.
But what if we could get that same effective protection from the inside out? That question is at the center of two new studies published in The Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology and The Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.
The first study tested citrus extract, rosemary extract, and a combination of both extracts in skin cells and in 10 human volunteers. After 85 days of treatment, the combined supplements increased the amount of UV exposure needed to cause sunburn by 56 percent. In the second, a group of 20 volunteers took a blood orange supplement and saw protective effects after only 15 days. By the end of the study, researchers concluded that the supplement reduced the risk of sunburn by 40 percent. Most impressively, patients were asked to avoid wearing sunscreen during testing, meaning the skin-saving results appear to be the work of the supplements alone.
What is it about these particular plants that make them so effective? In a word: antioxidants. Environmental stressors like UV radiation cause our cells to churn out free radicals--highly reactive molecules with an imbalance of electrons. These wayward particles tear through the body as they try to regain molecular harmony, damaging cells, DNA, and proteins along the way. Antioxidants--like the ones found in citrus and rosemary--neutralize free radicals and halt the kind of damage that can cause premature aging and skin cancer. These studies add to a growing body of research suggesting that the antioxidants we eat can have a profound effect on our outermost layer. (If you're still skipping on sunscreen, you better think again. Here are the Sunscreen Excuses Even Smart Women Make.)
The specific supplements used in these studies are not available for purchase in the U.S., but until they're proven to work in larger groups of patients, that’s probably a good thing. “These are small studies that help reinforce what we commonly advise our patients: Oral antioxidants help minimize UV damage to the skin,” said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic research at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. He stresses that more research needs to be done before he'd recommend such supplements to his patients.
While we wait, Zeichner said, we can prevent damage with a combination of smart eating, protective clothing, and, of course, good old sunscreen.
"In general I recommend a balanced diet, with plenty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants," he advised. And, most importantly, “Make sunscreen a part of your daily regimen, just like brushing your teeth." It’s not quite as easy as swallowing a supplement, but hey--we’ll gladly spend the interim rocking some glamorous (and protective!) hats and shades.