Derma Damaged?
Protect and repair your skin with these five summer soothers

By Patricia Woods

You're concerned about your health, right? You eat a balanced diet, get daily exercise, drink plenty of water, and even take a yoga or tai chi class. But when it comes to the sun, do you toss all the advice about using sunscreen and wearing a hat out the window? Too many people do.

According to the American Cancer Society, doctors diagnosed more than a million cases of skin cancer in 2002, making it the most common of all cancers. Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays is one of the biggest environmental risk factors for skin cancer. (And, yes, this includes UV rays from artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sunlamps.)

The good news is that it's easy to protect yourself from the sun. The bad news is that not everyone does it. Most of us have packed bottles of sunscreen in our beach bags only to decide that we'd do without it—perhaps because lotion and sand are a nasty combination or because we convince ourselves that a tan is still a desirable look. Of course, all it takes is another sunburn or, worse yet, sun poisoning to snap us back to reality.

The bottom line: The sun's rays can be harmful to your delicate skin, which, by the way, is one of your body's largest organs. To prevent skin cancer and discourage premature aging, make it a habit to slather on an SPF-15 (or stronger) sunscreen. You can also use gentle herbal solutions in conjunction with sunblocks to help prevent or heal sun damage. Many herbs that appear to protect against harmful rays are now ingredients in sun-protection creams available at natural products stores. If you're feeling creative, you can also make a homemade concoction.

Your First Defense
Hands down, the best way to protect your skin from the sun is to take preventive measures. In other words, think ahead. Green tea(Camellia sinensis) contains abundant antioxidants, so not surprisingly it has powerful defensive capabilities.

A study by Hasan Mukhtar, PhD, and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, looked at how well an application of green tea shielded skin exposed to UVB, the intense UV rays that cause sunburn and initiate skin cancer (Photochemistry and Photobiology, 1999, vol. 69, no. 2). In previous studies using mice, researchers had discovered that green tea guards against chemical- and UVB-induced cancer and inflammation. "We found that topical application reduces inflammatory responses," Mukhtar says.

Here's why: Green tea is rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that inhibits the infiltration of UVB-induced free radicals. Although the results look positive for green tea's sun-blocking potential, Mukhtar cautions that more research is needed. In the meantime, you can try out a number of all-natural sunscreens that contain green tea.

Take shelter with aloe.
The spiny aloe vera plant is exceptional at treating burns and restoring skin damaged by UVB rays. Slather on aloe gel three to four times daily if you've been burned by the sun and need soothing relief. People typically use the lesser-known herb manna (Fraxinus ornus) to treat constipation, but, according to James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (St. Martin's, 1998), the herb contains at least five sun-protective phytochemicals: caffeic acid, esculin, esculetin, fraxetin, and fraxin. Caffeic acid may prove the most potent of the known phytochemicals. Bulgarian researchers used a common test of sunscreen capability involving damage to yeast and found that the caffeic acid was almost as effective as an equal concentration of para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), a common ingredient in sunscreens (Microbios, 1993, vol. 75, no. 302). For sun protection, adults should take 20 to 30 grams of manna daily, but because of its laxative effect, don't use manna for long periods of time.

Although horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is reputed to be able to reduce fluid retention and heal varicose veins, it also blocks the sun. The plant contains aesculin, which absorbs ultraviolet radiation and is an active ingredient in many sunblocks. Sunscreens containing horse chestnut, as well as creams for treating varicose veins, are available at natural products stores. Follow label directions for use.

After-sun Care
No matter how carefully you prepare, a day may come when you forget the sunscreen on your outing. The repercussions become all too obvious once you witness the emergence of the dreaded sunburn lines on your body. But all's not lost. Rather than suffer the tightness and burning of lobster-red skin, turn to herbal options to take the ouch out of your epidermis and to help speed healing.

Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has long been a favorite skin tonic. It contains large quantities of tannins, which have an astringent effect and which help protect against and prevent infection. Witch hazel appears to be a suitable after-sun treatment; researchers recently found that witch hazel lotion helped reduce inflammation caused by ultraviolet light by 20 percent after seven hours and 27 percent after 48 hours, compared with 11 percent to 15 percent with other lotions tested (Dermatology, 1998, vol. 196, no. 3). For sunburn relief, simply apply witch hazel to skin with a cotton square or cloth as often as necessary.

Of course, the grandmother of all skin-soothing herbs is aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis). Scientists in Thailand compared how well the gel from this spiny plant stood up to Vaseline for treating burns. The aloe vera-treated burns healed, on average, a week faster than those dressed with Vaseline-coated gauze. (Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 1995, vol. 78, no. 8). A more recent study showed that aloe vera gel contains components known as small-molecular-weight immunomodulators that restore skin damaged by UVB rays (International Journal of Immunopharmacology, 1999, vol. 21, no. 5). To reduce pain and scarring, James F. Balch, MD, and Phyllis A. Balch, a certified nutritional consultant, coauthors of Prescription for Nutritional Healing (Avery, 2000), recommend slathering aloe gel on the skin three to four times a day after you suffer a burn and until skin heals.

Take Back The Sun
There's no doubt about it—a summer day spent lounging by the water can be fun and relaxing, but don't let it be at the expense of your health. By using a mix of sunscreen, clothing, umbrellas, and herbs, you can protect yourself from the sun's damaging rays. With a little planning, you can have your day in the sun and be healthy, too.

Health writer Patricia Woods can often be found working on her laptop at the beach in Stratford, Connecticut. She has written for Alternative Medicine and Health Products Business, and she is a correspondent for the Connecticut Post.