There was a time when factor 15 was considered more than adequate when it came to sunscreen protection, but today, it's not uncommon to find factor 50 on the grocery-store shelves.
A new study in Israel suggests that looking at our food may be a more effective way to get sun protection than reaching for a cream.
Dr. Niva Shapira of Tel Aviv University's School of Health Professions recently published the findings of her study in Nutrition Reviews. In it, she showed that a Mediterranean diet — rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids — can help protect against skin cancer.
Based on her research, Shapira recommends consuming foods such as olive oil, fish, yogurt, whole grains, all kinds of beans, red wine in moderation, colorful fruits and vegetables, and lots of water.
These foods, she says, will fight the oxidizing effect of the sun, though wearing sunscreen, and using hats and beach cover-ups, certainly doesn't hurt.
"Eating foods high in antioxidants is supposed to complement — not substitute — other sun protection measures," says the researcher.
The premise of Shapira's study is that if the body were prepared with sufficient and relevant antioxidants, then sun damage could be reduced.
Partnering with Bodo Kuklinski, a professor at Rostock University, Shapira conducted a study at the Baltic Sea comprised of two groups: One was supplied a drink high in antioxidants, and the other drank carbonated beverages.
Both groups spent up to six hours a day in the sun for two weeks.
The researchers found that those who drank the oxidant-rich beverage had 50 percent fewer oxidation products in their blood at the end of the study — quite a significant number.
Further studies proved that these antioxidants had delayed skin erythema, which shows the start of tissue and DNA damage that can result in skin cancer.
The Israeli Cancer Association included Shapira's nutritional findings in its "Smart in the Sun" pamphlet advisory series.
She is approaching the World Health Organization with her findings in the hope they will include the data in their sun recommendations as well.
A Moving Feast
So, how much of these foods should you eat? That depends on what you're consuming right now.
"If you rarely eat them, you will need a longer time to build the levels of carotenoids in the skin and blood, which will support solar self-protection," explains Shapira. "But it's good to eat those foods all year round, because even in winter, we're exposed to some ultraviolet light."
Shapira estimates that melanoma cases are three-to-four times higher in the United States than they are in Mediterranean countries.
"When we think about protecting our skin, most of us consider it an external problem, which is a mistake," she says. "The body has all the answers, but we have to give it the tools for self-protection."
These findings are important for all, but particularly for children up to 18 years old, she stresses: "Birth to age 18 are the critical years for future melanoma incidence. Sunscreen alone has not proved adequately effective to protect children, and slathering it on may give them the false feeling of protection while increasing their exposure and risk."