In the summer, slathering on sunscreen should be a regular ritual, even if your outdoor time is limited to a dash from car to office. But even the most conscientious sun lovers may still be at risk for sun damage.
Chemical and physical sunscreen agents are a good thing: They help prevent UVA and UVB rays from penetrating the epidermal layer of skin, where these rays can damage cell membranes. Problem is, no sunscreen can filter out 100 percent of the sun's rays. Thankfully, there are other ways to bolster the skin's defenses, both inside and out. "A host of studies are suggesting a growing number of alternative sunscreen agents, such as antioxidants," says Thom Rogers, doctor of naturopathy and instructor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.
Carotenoids, which are antioxidants found in red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables, can help restabilize cell membranes and restore the skin's integrity in the face of sun exposure. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that nutritional supplements that include carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene may help reduce the skin's vulnerability to sun damage when taken over time. The study's 36 adults who took a mixed carotenoid supplement daily suffered less UV light–induced skin redness after three months of treatment.
Antioxidants can also be effective when used externally. Separate studies have found that vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and polyphenols (such as those found in green tea) can each have a positive effect when applied directly to the skin. These substances protect skin by countering inflammation, free-radical formation, and the immune-compromising effects of UV rays, which can all predispose skin cells to cancer and premature aging, says Leslie Baumann, M.D., director of the University of Miami Cosmetic Center.
While it's unclear whether antioxidants are most effective when taken internally or applied topically, it certainly can't hurt to eat foods that are rich in the nutrients. "Keep in mind that UV radiation promotes cancer not just in the skin but throughout the body," Rogers explains.
The bottom line: Don't ditch your regular sunscreen. And follow Rogers's advice—"Take a daily antioxidant multivitamin formula, eat a rainbow of foods to ensure food-source antioxidants, use a physical sunblock with adequate protection for your skin type, and use topical antioxidants to bolster your skin's protection."
Angela Pirisi is a health writer living in Toronto, Canada. In addition to her contributions to Yoga Journal, she writes for the British medical journal The Lancet and other publications.