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Spring flowers are starting to blossom, and many of us are spending more time outdoors. And while lounging by the pool may still be a distant fantasy, it’s certainly not too soon to start getting our skin ready for the upcoming onslaught of UV rays.
Our one-sided love affair with the Sun
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Let’s talk about what the sun can do. First of all, let’s not forget we need sunlight everyday to help synthesize precious vitamin D. But there is a downside to our relationship with the sun. Wrinkles spring to mind, for example. And age spots. On a more serious note, we certainly shouldn’t forget the association between sunlight and several forms of skin cancer.
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Sunlight causes problems because it triggers the production of free radicals that damage DNA and destroy cells. There are two major sources of sources of skin trauma from the sun, and we know them as UVA Rays and UVB Rays. Although only 0.5% of UVB Rays reach the earth, we can thank them for sunburns, inflamed skin and the most carcinogenic constituent of sunlight. UVA Rays, on the other hand, contribute to the aforementioned wrinkling and skin aging—and we are susceptible to them year-round, in our cars or lounging in front of a window on the last of our cold winter nights. In our bid to regain some power in our relationship with the sun, then, we have to keep both Rays in mind.
The Sun Protection Diet
When many of us think of sun protection, we often make a mental note to buy some sunscreen, but sunscreen is only part of the equation. Like many of our health and beauty strategies, it seems that dietary choices have a major impact on your ability save your skin—and we shouldn’t be surprised that many of the nutrients our bodies require for sun protection are readily available in our warm-weather foods. Fruits and fresh vegetables are chockfull of vitamins C and E, both clinically proven to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays. Harvard Medical School research also indicates that the antioxidant lutein found in dark green leafy vegetables can protect skin from some of the damaging effects of the sun.
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Vitamin A is also essential for protecting skin from damaging sun rays. Excellent food sources of vitamin A include fish oils, animal livers and herbs such as paprika and alfalfa. Because vitamin A is manufactured in the liver, it is possible for some people to develop liver toxicity if supplementing this vitamin. As a result, it’s recommended instead to boost intake of beta carotene, which is converted as needed to vitamin A in the liver.
And luckily for us, carotenoids like beta carotene are also able to protecting skin from the sun. Carotenoids are fat-soluble pigments that provide the oranges and yellows found flowers and foods. Beta-carotene has been used for over thirty years to help repair sun-damaged skin. Recent studies also show beta carotene helps to prevent DNA mutations triggered by sun exposure. Humans can’t synthesize carotenoids, so we have to get them from food. Carrots, mangoes and red peppers are familiar sources of beta-carotene, and you’ll want plenty of them in your sun protection diet.
Astaxanthin (pronounced asta-zanthin) is another, less familiar carotenoid, and studies are starting to show that it is a powerhouse nutrient. Astaxanthan produces a reddish-orange color, and is found in marine creatures like alga, krill and shrimp. It’s also responsible for giving salmon its familiar pinkish color. Studies prove that astaxanthan is also a precursor to vitamin A, but according to Dianne Holland, Director of Marketing at Astavita, astaxanthin’s contributions to protecting us from the sun’s harmful rays goes much deeper than its precursor status.
Says Holland, “One of the best sources of astaxanthin is a microalgae called Haematococcus pluvialis. It’s one of earth’s earliest life forms, and it uses the sun’s rays to convert light into energy and carbon dioxide into oxygen.” According to Holland, Haematococcus adapted to living in harsh conditions like nutrient limitations and high UV radiation exposure by using stages of growth and dormancy. During periods of growth, the algae produce green chlorophyll. During periods of nutrient deficiency and extreme UV radiation, the algae enter the dormant stage. Chlorophyll production ceases and the algae start to produce astaxanthin—turning bright red in the process. This strategy protects the cell nucleus against free radicals generated by UV radiation, thereby preventing damage to DNA. Asthxanthin also reduces free radical activity in humans.If you aren’t eating salmon three or four times a week, consider adding astaxanthin supplements to your sun protection regimen!
Green is good, too
Studies confirm that the green tea polyphenol epigallacatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) polyphenols in green tea have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic effects, and now are showing an ability to prevent sun-induced aging, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Other studies indicate that supplementing the omega 3 fat eicosapentaeneoic acid (EPA) reduces skin inflammation caused by UV rays and protects the skin at the cellular level. Be sure you are getting enough selenium from onions and garlic as well, since a deficiency of selenium has been linked to increased sun damage.
Remember that our skin cycle is typically thirty days long—meaning you need at least a month before you notice any improvements in your skin. Adding these nutrients to your diet now will have your skin ready for the sun long before you grab your book and head poolside.
Which brings us to sunscreen
Although your diet can make a big difference in protecting your skin from the sun, there are times—like when you’re at the pool, the beach or on the boat—when some sort of sunscreen lotion is recommended. Not all sunscreen formulations, however, are created equally. In fact, some commercial sunscreens contain ingredients proven in studies to mutate into toxic substances when exposed to sunlight. Because some mutagens could be carcinogenic, various sunscreen options may protect against sunburn while increasing the risk of sunlight-related cancers. As well, while most products protect against burning UVB rays, UVA rays also burn and are responsible for skin aging, so you want to be sure your chosen product offers some protection against both.
According to Karyn Trumbach, Manager of Research, Development and Marketing at Aubrey Organics, there are plenty of natural ingredients that we should look for in a sunscreen product. Green tea, it seems, is as good for our skin on the outside as it is as a beverage: applied topically, green tea reduces the inflammatory response to sunlight, thereby preventing cellular breakdown. Trumbach also advises preventing skin dehydration with ingredients like shea butter, linolenic acid and aloe vera. Rosehip oil is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and E as well as several essential fatty acids—all clinically proven to protect the skin when applied topically. The mineral pigments zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer protection by blocking the entry of sunrays into the skin.
Trumbach cautions that sunscreens often fail because we don’t use enough. Be sure to slather one ounce of product on your body, and use another teaspoon on your face and ears. Re-apply after sweating or swimming. Beware, as well, that applying sunscreen doesn’t allow you unlimited exposure to the sun. When you can, wear long cotton sleeves and pants when outdoors, and splurge on a stylish hat!
By Lisa Petty
Originally Published in Remedies