Keeping damage at bay
When my friends and I were in our teens, we thought that sun care meant smearing on baby oil and baking for hours with foil reflectors tucked under our chins.
But I was born with pale skin—I burn after only twenty unprotected minutes in the sun. When I added baby oil, I reduced my burn time to ten minutes.
Now, hopefully not too late, sun care tops the list of my health-care concerns. Those of you with more pigment in your skin might do well to join me: Skin pigment, called melanin, may protect you from short-term sunburn discomfort, but it won’t protect you from long-term sun damage.
Although fair-skinned people are more vulnerable to sun damage, long-term sun exposure will eventually change anyone’s skin for the worse. Spending hours in the sun, day after day, before age eighteen probably causes the most damage, according to The Merck Manual of Medical Information (Merck & Co., 1997).
A tan is a signal that your skin is trying to keep radiation, or ultraviolet rays, from being absorbed by the rest of the body. The tan occurs because the skin produces more melanin, which has a brownish color (freckles are also made of melanin). Although melanin is the body’s method of protecting itself from the sun, it’s not fool-proof. Long-term exposure to sunlight thickens the uppermost layer of the skin (epidermis). Damage to deeper layers of the skin can cause coarse wrinkles; yellow, rough, thin, or leather-tough skin; and pre-cancerous growths, called keratoses.
Ultraviolet rays that cause tanning and sunburn are known as UVB rays. As exposure to these short wavelength rays accumulates over the years, it can lead to dry, wrinkled skin, prematurely aged skin, and skin cancer. Another type of ultraviolet rays is UVA rays, and they penetrate deeply into the lower levels of the skin, also causing premature aging, wrinkling, and skin cancer. UVA rays can penetrate clouds and car and home windows, and excessive exposure to UVA rays may trigger malignant melanoma, a fatal form of skin cancer.
You can’t entirely escape the sun. Nor would you want to—some sun exposure is necessary for good health. Sunlight, specifically ultraviolet light, prompts the skin to produce vitamin D, a nutrient that’s essential for calcium balance and, recent research suggests, cancer prevention.
“Ten to fifteen minutes [of unprotected sun exposure] a day should be sufficient,”says Esther John, Ph.D., a researcher and epidemiologist with the Northern California Cancer Center in Union City. In 1997, John presented a study to the U.S. Department of Defense showing a statistical association between sun exposure and a reduced risk of breast cancer.
But the right amount of sun can vary depending on where you live, the season, the time of day, your skin pigmentation, and your age. If you have darker skin or are elderly, for example, you may need to spend more time in the sun, John says. Elderly people’s skin produces less vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so they can develop vitamin D deficiencies more easily than younger people.
Other sources of vitamin D include certain foods and supplements. The main dietary sources are fish liver oil, egg yolk, and vitamin D-supplemented milk.
Sunscreen lotion, a hat, long sleeves and pants, sunglasses, gloves: Can you imagine yourself wearing all of this in the heat of summer? Most people can’t, and most people don’t.
But at the very least, wear sunscreen. Many commercial products combine herbs and other ingredients to protect the skin from both UVB and UVA rays. Although some herbs have sunscreen abilities, most of the currently available formulas depend on established, nonherbal sunscreens such as titanium dioxide (a mineral) and PABA (Para-aminobenzoic acid, a B-complex vitamin). PABA is the only natural UV absorber accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
John notes that the more melanin you have, the more it absorbs ultraviolet radiation, which lowers the amount of vitamin D produced by your skin. If you cover yourself up with sunscreen, you don’t form vitamin D either, she says. She does not, however, recommend going without sunscreen because the risk of skin cancer is too great. Instead, she suggests wearing a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
In recent years, scientists have questioned whether sunscreen actually increases the risk of some forms of skin cancer. For example, researcher Marianne Berwisk, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, not only couldn’t establish a relationship between sunscreen and melanoma, but some of her data suggested that sunscreen increased the risk. Berwick’s large population-based study combined her own research with a re-examination of existing data.
Berwick and other researchers theorize that sunscreens may not block all UV rays or that by blocking the formation of a sunburn, sunscreen may encourage us to stay out longer and incur more damage. The argument is far from resolved, however, so researchers recommend that you continue to use sunscreen regularly.
Many herbal sun-care remedies exist, but not all of them have been scientifically tested. Preliminary studies indicate that these remedies may speed healing, repair mild sun damage, and perhaps even operate as sunscreens. James A. Duke, Ph.D., botanist and author, outlines a few for us.
Aloe (Aloe vera). A common ingredient in sun-care products, aloe helps protect and soothe the skin from the inflammation that accompanies a sunburn, but it isn’t a sunscreen. Apply aloe gel after showering, then reapply it a few more times each day until sunburn pain subsides.
Tea (Camellia sinensis). When I was little and ended up lobster-red after a day in the sun, my German grandmother would slather me with a strong, cold tea to “soak up the heat.” I admit that at the time I thought this was weird, but Duke tells me my grandmother knew what she was doing. Some researchers say the tannic acid and theobromine in tea help cool sunburn, and compounds called catechins help prevent and repair skin damage caused by ultraviolet rays. (Grandmothers always turn out to be right, don’t they?)
Both green and black tea are also antioxidants, which means that they fight free radicals produced in the skin by exposure to UV radiation.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Research shows that calendula closes wounds, reduces inflammation, and stimulates the growth of new skin cells. Many health-food stores sell skin creams and sunscreens containing calendula.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus). This salad-topper also soothes burns; place slices directly on your skin. Cucumber contains at least two compounds that are antiedemic, or that reduce swelling—ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and caffeic acid. These compounds also make cucumbers good for reducing eye swelling (lie down, place a thick slice on each eye, and rest for a while).
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Several compounds in the coneflower—including caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, and cichoric acid—have been shown in studies to diminish the destruction of collagen, the protein that keeps skin elastic. Many commercial lotions and ointments contain echinacea, but you can also apply echinacea tea directly to your skin.
Plantain (Plantago spp.). Plantain contains allantoin, a proven healer of skin cells. You could mash up the plant’s leaves and apply them to your skin, but for an easier way to benefit from this plant, see the “Sunburn Soak” below.
Witch hazel (Hamemelis virginiana). A 1993 study compared three sunburn treatments: witch hazel, 1 percent hydrocortisone, and chamomile cream. The hydrocortisone beat the witch hazel, which in turn beat the chamomile. Still, the witch hazel performed fairly well, and distilled extracts are used in European formulas for dermatitis, freckles, and sunburn. Witch hazel is easy to find, inexpensive, and simple to use—just soak a cotton ball with the liquid and swab your skin.
Black nightshade and eggplant (Solanum nigrum and S. melongena). Duke reports seeing a shaman in Peru put the juice of Solanum onto sunburn, and the late Varro Tyler reported that Indiana folk herbalists used nightshade leaves in a sunburn concoction. Although such observations point to potential, these uses have not been researched.
A variety of oils will help a sunburn heal and may help reverse skin damage that’s already been done, Duke says, including rose hip seed oil, which is high in linoleic and linolenic acids, and carrot oil, which is high in carotene and vitamin A. And vitamins E, A, and C, used both internally and externally, are antioxidants, subduing free radicals and speeding healing.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Herbs for Health May/June 1998.
Erika Lenz is a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, and is the former editor of Herbs for Health magazine.
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