Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research
Q: Are there foods or nutrients that can protect my skin from damage due to sun exposure?
A: There is no substitute for protecting yourself from UV light, which is one of the most important factors in the development of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.
There are a handful of intriguing lab studies on how certain food components may offer UV protection, but for now, there’s no clear evidence. Cell and animal studies, and small human trials suggest foods rich in lycopene (tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, pink or red grapefruit), as well as dark green leafy vegetables and deep orange vegetables and fruits (including spinach, kale, broccoli, carrots and cantaloupe) might help protect skin with long-term consumption.
Laboratory studies have also shown potential protection from compounds in the herb rosemary and the spice turmeric (which is part of curry powder), but we don’t have studies in humans yet to show whether amounts we get from enjoying them as seasonings makes a difference in sun protection. Green tea contains a compound called EGCG studied for its cancer-preventive potential; researchers are looking at whether it may offer protection against UV rays.
Finally, there are some studies looking at whether omega-3 fatty acids, found in some types of fish, might link to lower risk for skin cancers. Evidence is not strong enough to think that any of these foods provide protection for your skin. However, making a variety of vegetables and fruits a major part of every meal is a move already recommended for lower overall cancer risk, and fish seems to support heart health. But nothing replaces the protection you get from limiting skin exposure to UV light (both from sunlight and from tanning beds) through limited time in the sun and by using sunscreen.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed over $100 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its website, http://www.aicr.org. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International.