*Note: I’m not a doctor. NudeSpots is not an authoritative medical website. We don’t have any money. Don’t sue us*
The NudeSpots Ultimate Guide to Photoaging
Definition of photoaging:
Photoaging is premature aging of the skin caused by repeated exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV), primarily from the sun but also from artificial UV sources.
– Canadian Dermatology Association
Yes, that’s right. For all the talk on this blog about how wonderful the sun is, it does some bad things too.
Nothing is 100% amazing.
Kinda sucks that something as incredibly healthy as sun exposure has the unfortunate side effect of aging your skin.
It’s one of the main reasons keeping many people out of the sun. Particularly women.
“Sun causes wrinkles! I’m not going in the sun!”
As someone who is out in the sun for hours every day, even I worry sometimes “Am I going to end up looking 20 years older than I really am?”
I don’t mind some wrinkles, but I also don’t want to look like a grandpa just yet.
Luckily there are actually a lot of things you can do to minimize photoaging from the sun, allowing you to receive the full, amazing benefits without worrying about the few negative side effects.
But before I get into all of that I want to highlight the most important strategy for treating photoaging, which is:
The only people who have baby skin… are babies. It’s kinda weird for a full-grown adult to be stressing about having baby skin.
A longer, healthier life spent having fun in the sun is well worth some wrinkles.
Your skin is going to age anyway, regardless of how much sun exposure you do or don’t get. Sun exposure just speeds up skin aging a bit. There’s a lot of other factors that have influence over how your skin ages, including genetics – which you have no control over.
That said, it is important to care for your skin and skin care should absolutely be included in your general self-care regimen.
Although sun exposure is extremely healthy for your body – vitally healthy – it’s also stressful on your body short-term. Similar to exercise.
Exercise is essential for good health, but short-term it’s a biological stressor. If you’re an athlete or do very intense physical activities, there is a whole elaborate recovery and post-care routine you’ll want to develop and follow so you can maximize the benefits of the exercise and minimize any damage. Over time this allows you to train consistently and get increasing benefits.
A serious athlete must eat big and healthy, must take sleep seriously, refrain from partying, have a supplement regimen, and be constantly monitoring for health abnormalities.
This post-care and recovery routine is vital because the athlete has intentionally stressed their body and, in order for the body to adapt to this stress and get stronger, they must make sure they’re healing as fast and fully as possible.
Sunshine is similarly stressful on the body, which is why pale people who rarely get sun exposure usually want nothing to do with it. Getting a pale, indoor-dweller to go to the beach is like pulling teeth. Very difficult. This is because, for them, sun exposure is particularly painful and stressful.
Having not been exposed to much sunlight, they either haven’t developed any sun tolerance (the long-term result of previous adaptations to sun exposure) or any tolerance they previously had has atrophied away. Sun exposure feels very, very different to these people than it does to beach bums – just like how exercise feels much more intense and painful to sedentary people than it does to athletes.
Hot sunlight to the pale, indoor-dweller feels like exercise to the full-time video game player.
I explain all of that to illustrate how sunshine, while absolutely essential for good health, is also a stressor on your body if you’re ill-adapted.
Excessive exercise can cause exhaustion, tiredness, fatigue, too much can become objectively unhealthy and damaging, there are risks of injury, it can elevate stress hormones – but it’s still vital to your health and you can’t allow any of these potential negatives to completely stop you from enjoying the pleasures and benefits of sensible exercise.
Same with sun exposure. Not knowing how to safely and properly sunbathe can cause photoaging and potentially contribute to skin cancer, but allowing these risks to totally take you out of the sun can cause much greater health problems.
So what’s going on with sun exposure to your skin?
When you’re in the sun, a lot of great things are happening to your body. UVB is what causes you to produce vitamin D, which is objectively among the most important elements for your overall health. UV has a positive effect on your blood pressure and circulation by triggering the release of nitric oxide. The bright light exposure to the retinas of your eyes triggers the release of serotonin, making you feel happier. UVB is bactericidal and provides a powerful disinfecting and healing effect on your skin. UV exposure triggers the release of feel-good endorphins, similar to what people feel after exercising. You get a tan, which most people find aesthetically attractive and helps protect you from future photodamage.
An astounding list of our worst known health ailments have been strongly associated with vitamin D deficiency including most internal cancers and most autoimmune disorders – including often fatal multiple sclerosis. There has been an increase in the number of studies finding high-dose vitamin D therapy to be an effective treatment for many of these diseases.
Scientifically-speaking, the best way to get vitamin D – which is actually an anabolic secosteroid hormone – is from sun exposure to our naked skin. This is how we are biologically evolved to get our vitamin D and how humans got their vitamin D for 99.99999999% of our existence. It is basically impossible to achieve optimal vitamin D levels from dietary sources and supplementation is biologically inferior to sun exposure (and much more complicated).
But those damn wrinkles…
Something else is happening when you’re in the sun a lot.
Excessive UV exposure also increases the expression of a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that degrade the collagen and elastin in your skin, causing photoaging, wrinkling, dyspigmentation, deeper skin furrows, and skin sag long-term.
Sun exposure also causes oxidative stress, reactive oxygen species generation, and free radical generation in your skin, as well potential DNA damage contributing to skin cancer.
“So I’ll be super healthy on the inside, but look like a cancerous reptile on the outside eventually?”
Photoaging Prevention Seems to be Largely About Nutrition
Provided you’re not exposing yourself to completely ridiculous sunburns, your body can prevent and heal photoaging, but it requires living a very healthy lifestyle including an extremely healthy diet rich in antioxidants, plant flavonoids, plant polyphenols, plant carotenoids, animal collagen, healthy fats – particularly omega-3’s, minerals such as selenium, and all the vitamins. These are the nutrients your body requires to heal photoaging and prevent it in the first place.
Why would nature have us be so biologically dependent on sunshine for our health… but also have us suffer negative health consequences from that same sun exposure?… Something doesn’t seem right with that. And how long have humans been dealing with the sun? Evolution should have equipped us to deal with the sun a long, long time ago.
I suspect that photoaging from sensible sun exposure (enjoying the sun, but not getting burned) is more a matter of nutrition.
There are many, many simple, cheap nutrients that have been proven to provide almost miraculous benefits for skin health and photodamage repair and it would seem that if you’re consuming all of them regularly then you probably don’t have to worry about suffering any serious photoaging over time from sensible sun exposure.
The problem is… most Americans’ diets are pretty terrible in these modern times and they’re probably not getting these nutrients, leaving them much more vulnerable to photoaging.
Studies have found that while our bodies are capable of healing photodamage, the photodamage is not healed 100% – leaving many people scarred with a small amount of permanent photodamage, which can accumulate over time and eventually display as severe photoaging.
Is this incomplete healing of photodamage caused by nutritional deficiencies from poor diets? Would the healing be more complete if people had healthier, nutrient-dense diets, giving their bodies the resources needed to heal photodamage?
If you think about it, ancient humans – who experienced much more sun exposure than we do today and who did not have sunscreen, modern clothing, and air-conditioned shelters – had much healthier, nutrient-dense diets than we do now. They exclusively ate completely fresh, organic, free-range, natural food because that’s literally all that existed. The food they ate was healthier than anything you’ll find in Whole Foods. Processed food, frozen TV dinners, sodas, fast food, sweets, chips, etc were simply not an option because they didn’t exist. It’s safe to assume that the average person these days is probably suffering, at best, mild nutritional deficiencies and not ingesting the building-blocks our skin requires, and received for thousands of years when we were evolving, to repair our skin following sun exposure.
If you lift weights hard, stressing your muscles, your body needs adequate protein in order to repair the micro-damage caused to your muscles. A lack of protein will result in an inadequate, or even absent, recovery and adaptation from the work out.
It seems that there is a similar situation going on with our skin. Our skin requires a large variety of nutrients to heal itself and if we aren’t consuming these, our skin is going to lose its structural integrity over time, lose its ability to heal itself, and be particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors like sunlight – which would otherwise be healthy.
Supporting this hypothesis is a 2008 study where an Italian hospital evaluated the diet histories of 304 melanoma skin cancer patients and compared them to 305 healthy controls with no skin cancer and matched for lifestyle, sun exposure history, and medical history. Researchers found that the people in the healthy control group tended to have much healthier diets rich in fish, seafood, tea, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fresh herbs – leading researchers to conclude that diet quality is a significant factor in melanoma skin cancer development and prevention.
Another study compared vitamin supplement use of skin cancer patients and healthy matched controls and concluded that just the simple use of vitamin supplements significantly reduces the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma skin cancer.
Rather than entirely avoiding sunlight to prevent photoaging, which is very lazy problem solving and also prevents vitamin D production, it makes more sense to investigate the photodamage-healing process and find out what the human body requires to optimize that healing. Do some people heal from photodamage better than others? To what extent does diet play a role? Is the average person today healing from photodamage more poorly than ancient humans did and is this due to differences in food quality? And how much sun can we safely get without incurring lasting photoaging?
The #1 Photoaging Hack That Will Allow You to be in the Sun All Day
A big-ass hat.
Problem 90% solved.
Where do we least want photoaging to happen?
How much vitamin D are we ever going to make from the surface area our faces provide?
Get a big hat that protects your face, wear it all the time, but let the rest of your body be naked and soak up lots of sun and make vitamin D.
Who cares if your shoulders get a little wrinkly?
Your face will be photodamage free, but you’re still getting the full benefits of sun exposure.
Best of both worlds.
They make man hats and woman hats.
Photoaging Prevention Tip #2 – Get a little bit of sun, regularly, and consistently.
If you go a whole month or two without getting any sun and then spend a whole day at the beach, you’re at a high risk of suffering some damage. You have no tolerance developed. It’s better to get out in the sun for just an hour a day if possible and build up your tan (melanin) gradually first. Melanin is literally natural sunscreen and vitamin D from sunshine has been proven to also protect against sunburn. These are your first lines of defense, as nature intended. I speculate that the biggest cause of photodamage is actually a lack of sun exposure, leading to people having poor sun tolerance, which leaves them vulnerable to getting barbecued when they do spend a day outside. Build up a tan safely and slowly first and you’ll find it’s actually pretty hard to get sunburned if you’ve developed good sun tolerance. I’m in the sun hours everyday and I get about one mild sunburn per year.
The #3 Hack for Preventing Photoaging
Never get sunburned.
Get as much sun as you can/want, but never get painfully sunburned. That’s what causes the severe damage contributing to permanent photodamage and skin cancer.
If there’s one thing you take from this article: don’t get burned.
That would be like the equivalent of overtraining in exercise. After a certain point, exercise can actually become unhealthy, catabolic, and dangerous.
If you think you might be starting to burn, get out of the sun, cover up, or put on a strong sunblock.
You are now crossing the line between healthy sun exposure and unhealthy overexposure.
Getting a little pink is okay as long as it completely heals within 24 hours. That’s called a minimal erythema dose (MED), the max amount of sun you can get before serious damage happens.
But if you’re beach day leaves you in pain and regret the next day, you screwed up. Don’t do that.
Okay now back to the sciency stuff.
Photoaging Tip #4 – Stay in the Vitamin D Window aka Vitamin D O’Clock
Contrary to what many people believe (and contrary to what dermatologists and cosmeceutical producers say) the sunshine you actually want to get is not morning or evening sun, but the more intense mid-day sun. This is when the sun features UVB radiation and this is what our bodies require to make vitamin D. Morning and evening sunshine will not provide this benefit, so consider any sun exposure during this time to be all photodamage with not much health benefit.
You need a UV index of at least 3 to make any vitamin D and the higher the index the more vitamin D you’ll produce and faster. This vitamin D window will vary depending on what latitude you live at and the time of the year. For example, here in Miami the UV index in the summer can reach a very, very high max of 13 with the vitamin D window being from 9:30am to 5:00pm. In the winter though the UV index here will max out around 4-5 with the vitamin D window only being 11am to 2pm. So use an hourly UV index reporter to find your area’s vitamin D window.
Again, if you’re going to expose yourself to photodamage, it makes sense to do it at the time of day when you’ll also receive the biggest vitamin D benefit. Get outside, get your vitamin D, and when you start turning pink, get out of the sun. Max vitamin D, minimal photodamage.
Many people believe that the less-intense morning and late afternoon/evening sun is less damaging, but this is not true. This sunlight is all UVA and zero UVB. UVA causes photodamage as well, but causes it to your inner layers of skin. This makes UVA photodamage basically impossible to detect short-term, leading people to believe that it is harmless. The nice thing about UVB, besides the vitamin D benefit, is that the damage it causes is very noticeable, which allows you to know exactly when you need to get out of the sun.
People who sunbathe in the morning and evening are also probably sunbathing for excessive periods of time because they don’t see any blatant outer skin layer burning – leading to more cumulative photodamage over time.
UVA has also been identified as the main instigator of melanoma, the skin cancer that actually kills people. UVB overexposure is more strongly associated with basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma skin cancers, which have a survival rate of 99.9% and are generally just an annoyance rather than a crisis.
An important thing to know about vitamin D from sun exposure is that it has to be sun exposure to your naked, unprotected skin. Clothing and sunblock will prevent vitamin D production. Just make sure you get at least a little bit of unprotected exposure before you start slathering on sunblock and remember that, no, you can’t produce vitamin D through clothing. (See here and see here)
Photoaging Tip #5 – Eat Lots and Lots of Skin-Repairing, Skin-Strengthening, Photoprotective Nutrients
Okay, so if you just wear a big-ass hat, you don’t allow yourself to get sunburned, and you keep your sun exposure mainly limited to the vitamin D window – you’re pretty much good.
But let’s go above and beyond and try to completely eliminate photoaging forever so we never have to worry about it EVER AGAIN.
You ever wonder how a tiny, little delicate flower can endure being in intense sunshine all day, but the average white person sunburns? How can a little, delicate flower be so much tougher in the sun than an adult human?
The reason that little flowers can handle the sun all day is because they’re packed with natural photoprotectants such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and antioxidants and by consuming these ourselves we can significantly improve our own sun tolerance.
Antioxidants – The Most Important Nutrient for Photoaging Prevention and Repair
Sunshine causes oxidative stress in your skin. What alleviates oxidative stress? Anti-oxidants.
I have an entire page of studies here investigating the effect of antioxidants on photoaging.
This study tested an antioxidant complex supplement on 25 people for its ability to increase their UV tolerance. They took the supplement daily for 7 weeks and were exposed to UV radiation to test their sunburn responses. Results showed that consuming the supplement caused a measurable increase in their MED (minimal erythemal dose – max amount of sun you can get before burning) and reduced their sunburn cell counts in skin biopsies.
This one is a randomized control trial where two different antioxidant complex supplements were tested on 20 subjects to determine the effect of dietary antioxidants on skin melanin production (our bodies’ natural sunscreen). The supplement blends were two different mixtures of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, and lycopene. Participants took the supplements for 8 weeks and both groups enjoyed a significant, consistent increase in skin melanin concentration throughout the study.
And here’s one where scientists were able to double the UV tolerance (MED) of hairless mice simply by giving them an antioxidant supplement. Maybe I’m not totally correct on this math, but I think if your UV tolerance is doubled then your risk of a sunburn and photodamage is cut in half.
Best Sources of Antioxidants for Skin Protection
Now there’s a whoooooole bunch of antioxidant sources, so no matter what foods you like there are at least a few sources you’ll enjoy. There are so many that they can’t even be listed here. Basically all healthy plant foods have antioxidants – vegetables, fruits, berries particularly, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, herbs. Basically if it’s in the produce section at the grocery store, it contains antioxidants and will help prevent and heal photodamage. A lot of seafood choices also provide powerful antioxidant doses (which we’ll discuss shortly).
There are some antioxidant sources though that stand out for having especially powerful photoprotective effects.
Carotenoids – Eat Red/Orange Seafood and Red/Orange Plants
Carotenoids are potent antioxidants found mainly in yellow, orange, and red plant foods. It’s actually the carotenoids themselves that are responsible for the color pigment of these foods. If it’s a fruit, vegetable, tuber, or marine creature that is yellow, orange, or red – it contains carotenoids. Carrots, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, mangos, cantaloupe, papaya – just look for these colors and you’ll get carotenoids.
There are hundreds of different carotenoids and they are phenomenally healthy for you for many reasons. One of the notable benefits they provide is improving UV tolerance.
Here’s a page of studies testing carotenoids specifically for their photoprotective effect. All the studies find the same thing: if you increase peoples’ carotenoid intake, they become more resistant to sunburning and photodamage.
Out of all the many types of carotenoids, there are two that stand out for having extremely photoprotective effects: lycopene and astaxanthin.
Lycopene is a red carotenoid most commonly associated with tomatoes. In addition to its ability to significantly increase UV tolerance, this randomized control trial study found that giving people a lycopene supplement completely suppressed post-UV exposure expression of matrix metalloproteinases that cause skin collagen breakdown and photoaging.
Astaxanthin is known as a “keto-carotenoid” and comes from red/orange-colored marine creatures like krill, shrimp, lobster, crawfish, and crab. Astaxanthin is what gives salmon and trout fish meat it’s red-orange color.
Here’s a page of astaxanthin and photoaging studies where the same MED-increasing and MMP-reducing effects are found just like with other carotenoid studies, but astaxanthin has also been found to have a distinct photoaging-reversing effect where supplementation actually reduces facial wrinkles.
Here’s a study and here’s a second study (both placebo-controlled) where just two months of taking an astaxanthin supplement lead to objective, measurable reductions in facial skin wrinkles. So astaxanthin is basically the fountain of youth. The search is over.
Again, our bodies possess the capability to repair sun-damaged skin, just like our bodies can heal other wounds, but we have to give our bodies the necessary nutrients (the building blocks) to perform these repairs.
High-quality cocoa dark chocolate is another antioxidant-packed plant food you’ll want to stock up on. Cocoa is said to be the highest known source of the antioxidant procyanidin and among its many famous health benefits, has been found to provide an extremely powerful photoprotective effect from sun exposure.
In this little study, 6 white women were given a 300mg high-flavanol cocoa powder drink to consume daily for three months to test it’s photoprotective effects. Selected skin areas were exposed to UV light adequate to cause minor sunburn and their skin blood flow, skin density, skin hydration, and cosmetic skin roughness were evaluated before intervention, halfway through, and after the 12 weeks of supplementation using high-frequency ultrasound. 6 weeks in the women were enjoying a 15% reduction in sunburn response following the UV exposures and at 12 weeks they were experiencing 25% less sunburn. The ladies also demonstrated a very significant improvement in blood flow to their skin, improved skin hydration, improved skin thickness, and smoother skin. These effects were not observed in a second group of women who received a very low dose of the cocoa supplement.
This one is basically just a slightly bigger repeat of the above study, but in this study the MED of the participants more than doubled after 3 months of high-dose cocoa supplementation.
In addition to cocoa being proven to massively improve sun tolerance, this in vitro study found that cocoa polyphenols actively promote skin repair when applied to human skin samples. So maybe start rubbing chocolate all over yourself or have someone else do it. Rub it on them too.
I like to just stir a tablespoon of cocoa powder into a mug of hot water and drink it like that. It also has a very positive effect on your mood and alertness. But only ONE tablespoon! Too much cocoa can make you dizzy and turn your butt into a fire hydrant.
Vitamin C and Vitamin E
Antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E have each been found independently to provide small photoprotective and skin-repairing effects, but combining the two of them together has been found to provide a very powerful effect.
This study had 18 subjects take oral vitamin C and E supplements twice-daily for three months while changes in their MED were tracked during this period. Within just one week of starting the supplement regimen the participants’ MED had increased by 21%, but after three months of supplementation the MED had increased by 41%. Subjects also enjoyed a significant decrease in measurable UV-induced DNA damage.
Here are two more studies (here and here) confirming the synergistic photoprotective effects of combined vitamin C and vitamin E.
Green tea polyphenols may be the most miraculous substance on this list. Green tea contains a flavanol called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which is an extremely potent antioxidant. Green tea itself is one of the strongest sources of antioxidants, the best among other teas, and is said to contain roughly 10x more antioxidants than you’ll find in any fruit or vegetable source.
Green tea has been identified as having preventive effects against cognitive decline, obesity, cancer, heart disease, degenerative brain diseases, type-2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality.
Green tea also prevents photoaging by protecting skin collagen from post-UV exposure breakdown by reducing expression of post-UV exposure MMPs, but it’s effect on skin cancer is truly miraculous.
In this study hairless mice were irradiated with UVB to intentionally induce skin cancer and split into three groups to receive either water exclusively to drink, weak green tea, or strong green tea during this time to test the effectiveness of green tea at different brew strengths for preventing and healing photodamage and skin cancer. Researchers found as the green tea brew strength increased, so did it’s protective effect against sunburn. The UVB-induced red skin lesions in the mice given green tea were smaller and lighter in color compared to the plain water control group and the mice given stronger green tea enjoyed much better photoprotective effects compared to mice given a weaker green tea. More amazingly, the mice exclusively given green tea as drinking water developed skin tumors 55-93% smaller than the control group (depending on the tea concentration) and suffered 55% fewer number of tumors. Both weak green tea and strong green tea were also found to be completely effective for totally preventing the formation of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) skin cancer.
A similar study had two groups of hairless mice UVB-irradiated daily for 10 days and then 3x per week for six months to intentionally initiate and promote skin cancer. One group was given plain water to drink during this time, the other group was given water infused with green tea polyphenols. The green tea group suffered 35% fewer tumors, 63% less tumor multiplicity, and 55% less tumor growth compared to the plain water group.
Most amazingly, in this study ten separate experiments were carried out testing the effects of various oral and IP injection green tea preparations on UV-induced and chemically-induced skin cancer in hairless mice. In half of the studies, giving the mice green tea resulted in either complete regression of skin cancer tumor or 90+% inhibition of tumor growth compared to control mice. The other half of studies found green tea effective for inhibiting tumor growth by 46-89% compared to the control mice.
This in vitro study found that epigallocatechin‐3‐gallate kills melanoma cancer cells in human skin samples by inhibiting proliferation and inducing apoptosis (proper programmed cell death). The researchers speculate that drinking 4-6 cups of green tea daily is necessary to receive these benefits.
Although green tea is definitely the top photoprotective beverage choice, coffee has also been found to be beneficial. This study found that coffee leaf extract is effective for reducing MMP expression. And this in vitro study here found that caffeine has a measurable skin cancer-inhibiting effect.
A mineral and antioxidant, selenium provides a powerful protective effect against skin cancer.
In this study, skin tumors were UV-induced in three groups of hairless mice. To test the effect of selenium on skin cancer, the three groups of mice were either given a selenium-deficient diet, a low-selenium diet, or high-selenium diet. After the skin cancer inducement, the mice were no longer subjected to UV irradiation and researchers observed the tumor activity. The mice in the deficient and low-selenium groups continued to suffer tumor activity – the tumors increased. However, the high-selenium group enjoyed an arrest of tumor activity.
In this one, 485 Australian adults were evaluated for blood levels of antioxidants – carotenoids, vitamin E, and selenium. They were then divided into three groups – low antioxidant levels, moderate, and high – and monitored for 8 years for development of BCC or SCC skin cancer. A very strong association was found between selenium levels and skin cancer incidence. Those with the highest selenium levels suffered a 60% lower BCC and SCC skin cancer risk compared to those with the lowest selenium levels.
This one compared the selenium levels of 143 non-melanoma skin cancer patients and 103 healthy controls. The skin cancer patients had “significantly lower” levels of selenium.
The best known source of selenium is Brazil nuts, followed by fish, meat, and eggs.
Eating Aloe Vera
Topical aloe vera gel is probably the single most well-known and popular post-sun exposure skin care remedy there is and for good reason: it absolutely works and it’s very cheap.
What you may not know is that it’s also possible to enjoy those same skin healing benefits by orally consuming aloe vera. You can eat the gel right off the leaf, drink a pure aloe juice, or take an aloe vera gel powder supplement in addition to using it topically.
Here’s a study where 30 older women were given an oral aloe vera supplement for 90 days to test its effect on skin health. The results were that facial wrinkles improved significantly, facial skin elasticity improved, collagen levels increased, and MMP levels decreased.
This one is a randomized control trial where 64 healthy, middle-aged Japanese women were given either an oral aloe vera sterol supplement or placebo daily for 12 weeks. Ultrasound analysis of the skin revealed that the aloe group enjoyed significant improvements in skin moisture, skin elasticity, transepidermal water loss, and skin collagen compared to the placebo group.
And then a repeat of that same study found the exact same results.
One important thing to know about aloe vera though is that most topical and aloe drink products are garbage unfortunately. For topical aloe vera gel, be sure that the only ingredient in the product is simply actual aloe vera. There really shouldn’t be any other ingredients. If there are, it’s probably a garbage product. Real aloe vera gel is clear, colorless, and odorless like water, not an artificial green color like you typically see in aloe gel products. The best place to find good aloe gel locally would be at a health store like Vitamin Shoppe as opposed to a grocery store, CVS, or Walgreens – which all seem to exclusively sell completely garbage aloe vera gels.
For aloe juice – same thing. The product should be almost clear like water and the only ingredient should be aloe vera. You can also be more confident that you’re getting the good stuff if it’s expensive – because it is. Aloe vera juice also contains an incredible amount of potassium – higher than in any other beverage I know of – making it a great summer time electrolyte drink. Many aloe vera drink products on store shelves are complete garbage sugar-water concoctions with green coloring and maybe 2% actual aloe vera content. It will actually say on these inferior products “contains 2% aloe vera.” Don’t settle for 2%, pay a little extra and you can find 100% aloe juice products that will give you amazing health benefits.
My favorite brand is Lakewood Organic Juices aloe vera product, produced here in Florida.
Healthy Fats – Fish Oil and Omega-3’s
Back to the marine creatures. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids have been found to have a powerful effect for preventing and repairing photodamage, including positive effects on skin cancer.
To investigate a possible link between photoprotection and omega-3 fatty acid intake, nearly three-thousand middle aged people were evaluated for facial photoaging severity and also had their diets evaluated over a 2.5 year period. Researchers found that those who consumed higher amounts of ALA omega-3 fats (plant/nut/seed sources) and EPA omega-3’s (fish/seafood source) demonstrated less facial photoaging compared to those with a lower intake of omega-3’s.
This study tested the effect of fish oil on reducing and preventing sunburn. 15 subjects took 10g fish oil supplement daily for 6 months. Their skin sensitivity to UVB light was measured throughout the study and even 2.5 months after stopping supplementation. Their minimum erythemal dose (MED – aka sunburn threshold) more than doubled over the 6-month period, meaning that at the end of the study it took more than double the amount of UVB light to produce sunburn than it did at the start of the study.
Here’s a randomized control trial that also found fish oil supplementation to significantly raise peoples’ MED.
Here’s a skin cancer one. Two groups of hairless mice were fed different quality high-fat diets to test for an association with skin cancer. One group was given a diet very rich in healthy, high-quality fish oil omega-3 fats the other group was given a high fat diet rich in unhealthy fats very high in omega-6’s (soybean oil, corn oil) to simulate the typical American’s fat intake. The mice were blasted with intense UVB light adequate to induce skin cancer, twice a week, for 10 months. The mice were then euthanized and their skin examined. By the end of the study, the unhealthy fat group had more than double the amount of skin tumors as the healthy fat group. The healthy fat group also demonstrated physically smaller tumors. “Our results indicate that omega-3 fatty acids in an HFFO [high-fat fish oil] diet have beneficial effects against UVB-induced skin carcinogenesis in mice and these effects may be associated with an inhibition on UVB-induced inflammatory response.”
Here’s a technical article that explains exactly what all omega-3’s do for your skin. It’s a lot. These fats increase ceramide production (the glue that holds your skin cells together), inhibit MMP expression, reduce inflammation, increase MED, improve skin hydration, improve skin wound healing, and deter skin cancer development.
Eat some fish! Simple lifestyle tweak – giant benefits. Some phenomenal plant sources of omega-3’s are walnuts and chia seeds. Chia seeds are basically completely tasteless and can be added to any salad, smoothie, baked good, and even beverages.
Fish also contain collagen, leading us to…
Eat (or Drink) Animal Collagen
Holy moly there are a lot of studies about collagen and photoaging. I got a list here of 14 here.
They all find the same thing. If you give wrinkly people a little collagen everyday for a couple months, they become less wrinkly. I won’t list all the studies, just check out the study page.
Consuming animal collagen increases MED, reduces MMPs, improves skin moisture retention, increases skin collagen density, increases skin elastin levels, improves wound healing, repairs damaged collagen fibers, and the effects are long-lasting. Many of the studies have also found that if you take collagen for a few months and then stop for one month, you will still continue to demonstrate the skin-repairing benefits of the past collagen consumption.
Sun exposure breaks down skin collagen. That sucks. Solution – eat collagen! Your body will send it right where it needs to go. It’s almost like we’re supposed to be eating it or something…
When you eat meat you’re getting a little bit of collagen, but in ancient times humans tended to eat the entire animal following a kill. These other tissues, particularly the bone marrow, can contain more collagen. Ancient humans probably ingested much, much more collagen than we do now and were getting the great benefits of collagen, protecting them from photoaging.
Recently there has been a great trend in people consuming collagen once again. Bone broths have become very popular and widely available at groceries stores, as well as hydrolyzed collagen powders, but for a very, very long time modern humans weren’t getting any collagen in the past century.
Try replacing regular soup broths with bone broths in your cooking. In addition to the collagen, bone broths tend to be much higher in protein and electrolytes.
Personally, I’m a big fan of collagen powder. I use the Bulletproof brand because it’s completely tasteless and dissolves instantly into my coffee, with the only change being a slightly creamier texture. Other brands I’ve tried have a slight, noticeable taste and don’t mix well. Also works in any smoothie or soup. It costs the same as a protein powder. Also is great for your joints.
Exercise for Skin Cancer Prevention
And it’s not just diet. You have to move your ass too.
Here’s a really neat study where hairless mice were exposed to UVB radiation adequate to induce skin cancer over a 4-month period. Half the mice had access to a voluntary exercise wheel, the other half did not. At the end of the study the mice with the exercise wheels enjoyed a significantly reduced skin cancer severity with delayed tumor appearance, decreased tumor count, and smaller tumors. Researchers concluded that “running wheel exercise decreased the number of non-malignant tumors (primarily keratoacanthomas) by 34% and total tumors per mouse by 32% in both models, and running wheel exercise decreased the formation of squamous cell carcinomas in the UVB-induced complete carcinogenesis model by 27%. In addition, the size of keratoacanthomas and squamous cell carcinomas were decreased substantially in both models. The effects described here indicate that voluntary running wheel exercise inhibits UVB-induced skin tumorigenesis and may also inhibit tumor growth.”
Exercise inhibits skin cancer. More proof that you’re supposed to be out and about moving in the sunshine like our ancestors. Move your ass.
A Word on Skin Cancer
Here’s the thing about skin cancer: 99% of cases really are not a big deal, because 99% of cases happen to be non-melanoma skin cancer. Melanoma is the one that actually kills people. The 2019 American Cancer Society Report did not even include non-melanoma skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, in their stats.
Now BCC and SCC skin cancer are the ones you can potentially get from overexposure to UVB (if you’re not following this ultimate guide, that is), they account for 99% of skin cancer cases, the survival rate is literally 99.9%, and the American Cancer Society doesn’t even include these in their reports anymore.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is not really a big deal. You don’t want it, of course. Don’t be stupid and allow these to develop. Follow this guide and seek to sensibly minimize unnecessary photodamage. Wear a heat, don’t get sunburned, eat healthy, and you should be good.
Now here’s the thing about melanoma skin cancer: it’s much more strongly associated with an indoor lifestyle than an outdoor lifestyle. That’s right, people who are indoors all day get it more than people who are outdoors all the time. And there’s a whole bunch of studies on this.
Here’s a famous one from 1989 on navy ship workers. This was a decade-long study that observed and compared the melanoma incidence rate of guys who work indoors on the ship all day and guys who work outdoors on the ship all day. The indoor workers had a higher incidence of melanoma.
Here’s a similar study from Sweden. This one was two-decades long and compared the melanoma rates of indoor office workers and outdoor workers. The indoor office workers had higher rates of melanoma AND the melanomas were typically found on the parts of the body that get the least sun exposure.
Turns out that melanoma is much more associated with vitamin D deficiency (from a lack of sun exposure) than it is with sun exposure.
Here’s a study that analyzed melanoma mortality rates in 45 different countries and found that people who live in areas with higher UVB (the type of sun we’re told to avoid) have lower melanoma mortality rates. The researchers conclude that only UVA is associated with increased melanoma risk. Remember what I said about the vitamin D window? This is when the UVB is out, that UVB allows your body to produce vitamin D, and vitamin D protects against melanoma.
Here’s a study of 528 melanoma patients where they were followed up with and observed for 5+ years. Researchers found that those who reported more sun exposure enjoyed a higher survival rate, boldly concluding: “Sun exposure is associated with increased survival from melanoma.”
Here’s a very similar study of 260 melanoma patients that found the same thing, with researchers concluding: “sun exposure prior to diagnosis of melanoma is associated with improved survival.”
This study tested the vitamin D levels of 872 melanoma patients and followed up with them for 5 years. Those with higher vitamin D levels had a lower mortality rate and a lower relapse rate than patients with lower vitamin D levels. Where do you get vitamin D? From the sun 😉
Here’s an in vitro study (cancer cells in a petri dish) that found vitamin D has an extremely powerful inhibitory effect on melanoma.
So… if you’re worried about skin cancer, then it seems you need to get your ass in the sun a little bit and anybody who tells you otherwise might be an idiot.
Putting it all together
Green tea has been proven to strongly inhibit skin cancer and reduce MMPs.
Dietary aloe vera has been proven to reverse facial wrinkles, increase skin collagen production, and reduce MMPs.
Dietary collagen has been proven to reverse photoaging wrinkles and increase skin collagen.
Cocoa powder can double your UV tolerance.
Fish oil can double your UV tolerance and cut your skin cancer risk in half.
Lycopene from tomatoes can double your UV tolerance and completely suppress MMPs.
Consuming astaxanthin from orange seafood can double your UV tolerance and reverse wrinkles.
Getting enough selenium can cut your skin cancer risk in half.
Exercise can reduce your skin cancer risk by a third.
Seems like if you put all of that together then you really don’t have to worry about photoaging from sun exposure. If you’re demonstrating premature photoaging and sunburn easily, it might be because your diet and lifestyle sucks. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask “Is this really who I want to be? Do I like you? Why do you suck? What can we do to not suck so much any more? Do I really want to live another day sucking this much?”
Answering these questions may get you on a better track to taking better care of yourself and not sucking so much.
The Ultimate Photoprotective Meal
A giant plate of red/orange seafood with red/orange vegetables covered in high-quality vitamin E-rich olive oil.
Replace all beverages with green tea, aloe vera juice, and carotenoid-rich carrot juice.
Enjoy some kind of cocoa powder and collagen concoction for deserts.
Eat Brazil nuts or avocados as a snack.
Enjoy all that as often as possible, wear a big-ass hat, stay in the vitamin D window, don’t let yourself get sunburned, get some exercise, and you shouldn’t ever have to worry about the sun damaging your skin. Enjoy in abundance.
Until next time,
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