No sunscreen—no matter how high the SPF—offers 100% protection from the sun’s burning UV rays, nor the damage it can do to skin’s DNA. So while cosmetic scientists continue to work to find ways to boost the protection quotient of sunscreen products against both UVB and UVA light, cancer researchers are focusing their efforts on the promise of natural protection, namely from antioxidants. Why? Antioxidants are being eyed for their ability to douse inflammation, oxidative stress, and DNA damage, all precursors of skin cancer. “Sun exposure depletes the skin of its antioxidants, so it makes sense that replacing them would help to protect the skin,” says Dr. Patricia Farris, a clinical assistant professor at Tulane University School of Medicine and a dermatologist in New Orleans.
For now, the jury is still out on whether or not consuming supernutrients can confer chemopreventive benefits for skin, but doubling protective measures can’t hurt. “If you want to deliver antioxidants to the skin, as far as dermatologists are concerned, the best way to do that is to topically apply them,” says Farris. And be sure to stick to products from larger, long-lived, reputable companies rather than small, fly-by-nights, she adds.
Here are six antioxidants that either are proven to or show promise in providing UV protection—inside and out.
1. Green tea (polyphenols)
As a potent cancer-fighting agent, green tea reigns as one of the most heavily studied antioxidant sources. “Green tea appears to exert sun damage protection by quenching free radicals and reducing inflammation rather than by blocking UV rays,” says Dr. Jeanette Jacknin, author of Smart Medicine for Your Skin (Penguin Putnam, 2001). For example, researchers from Case Western Reserve University found that applying green-tea flavonoids to volunteers’ skin before irradiating it with UV light reduced by 60–80 percent the DNA changes known to play a role in immune suppression and skin cancer, as well as preventing sunburn, when compared to unprotected skin.
Get it:Drink green tea or use it as a broth when cooking. Seek out products that feature it, including moisturizers and sunscreens.
2. BROCCOLI (sulforaphane)
Broccoli has been a big nutrition hit, especially for prostate cancer prevention. Now research suggests that it may ward off skin cancer, too. Not many products feature broccoli extract yet, so eating broccoli and other members of the Brassica family like cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower is the best strategy for now.
Get it: Most of us only eat one serving per week of crucifers, according to a USDA national food intake survey. Boost your consumption by incorporating broccoli into whatever you’re making—be it stir fry, an omelet, a quesadilla, or pasta.
3. TOMATOES (lycopene)
Findings to date have highlighted lycopene’s role in curbing prostate cancer risk, but the focus has widened to include potential chemopreventive benefits. Hasan Mukhtar, PhD, a cancer researcher at the University of Wisconsin who has been looking at a number of antioxidants for skin-cancer prevention, explains that lycopene decreases inflammation and inhibits a tumor-promoting enzyme when applied to skin. Meanwhile, UK researchers recently reported that even consuming tomato paste may protect against sunburn and sun-induced skin aging. Giving about 5 tablespoons tomato paste with 10 grams olive oil daily to 10 volunteers for 12 weeks increased their UV protection by 33 percent, compared to 10 control subjects.
Get it: Put extra sauce on pasta or pizza, cook with sundried tomatoes, and seek out recipes that call for tomato sauce. Also, be on the lookout for skin and sun care products containing lycopene; select manufacturers are starting to feature lycopene in their lines.
4. Pomegranate (polyphenols)
Pomegranate fruit contains many types of polyphenols, including anthocyanins and ellagic acid. Studies have shown that pomegranate fruit extract can help collagen production and inhibit the inflammatory process that leads to sunburn. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin showed that pomegranate fruit extract could inhibit skin tumors in mice. And pre-treating human skin cells in vitro with pomegranate extract and then irradiating them with UV light dramatically inhibited precancerous changes.
Get it: Eat it alone, on a salad, or in juice. There’s no downside to getting your fill of this distinctive fruit, which has been shown to increase blood flow to the heart. If pomegranate’s tart flavor overwhelms you, cook with it or avail yourself of one of the many skin care products that uses it. You’ll find it in everything from body scrubs and exfoliants to moisturizers and bubble bath.
5. Red wine (resveratrol)
Mukhtar's team at the University of Wisconsin reported that this antioxidant, applied topically, halted the expression of a cancer-causing protein normally triggered by exposure to UVB rays. Mukhtar also reports that research has shown that resveratrol seems to have a chemopreventive effect whether applied before or after UV radiation, suggesting that its role may be not strictly preventive but also about repairing and reversing damage. The effects might be threefold, suggests Mukhtar: “It can zap up free radicals, repair some damage, and inhibit DNA damage.
Get it: A glass of wine only contains 2mg of resveratrol, so the best way to get enough of this antioxidant is to eat a variety of resveratrol-rich foods, including grapes, blueberries, raspberries, peanuts, dark chocolate, and cocoa, all which contain a host of other phytochemicals and nutrients. Research shows that resveratrol works best when combined with other antioxidants, such as ellagic acid and grape-seed extract.
6. Dark chocolate (cocoa flavonoids)
With about twice as much antioxidant power as milk chocolate, dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids from cocoa beans. Studies have long extolled the virtues of chocolate for heart health, but a study published just last summer indicated that women drinking a high-flavonoid cocoa (not what you find in typical chocolate bars or instant hot chocolate) had 15 percent less skin reddening from UV light after six weeks of cocoa consumption and 25 percent less after 12 weeks of the trial, compared to before they started the study. “Most flavonoids absorb UV light and also ratchet down the body's synthesis of inflammatory agents, lessening reddening of the skin,” explains Dr. Jacknin.
Get it: Dark chocolate has more antioxidant power than milk chocolate because it contains more cocoa-bean liquor and therefore more flavonoids. Keep in mind, though, that chocolate contains fat and sugar, so be sure to make some caloric tradeoffs on the days you indulge.