By Jane Hart, MD
Supplementing with beta-carotene helps protect against sunburn, according to a new study. But don’t throw your sunscreen away just yet, as supplementation may be just one part of being sun savvy.
Avoiding sun exposure and applying sunscreen have been the established strategies for sunburn protection, the authors noted. “In recent years, however, nutritional protection against sunburn formation has been discussed as well. Among the substances that are being suggested for such a nutritional approach, beta-carotene seems to be an interesting candidate,” said lead author Wolfgang Kopcke and his colleague from Munster University Hospital, Munster, Germany.
Their meta-analysis of seven studies found that daily beta-carotene supplementation, for at least ten weeks, provides significant sunburn protection. Amounts of beta-carotene used in the studies ranged from 10 mg to 180 mg per day. Further research is needed to understand the role of supplements in protecting against sunburn and optimal dosages for balancing safety and effectiveness.
Weighing the pros and cons
Using beta-carotene for sunburn protection has advantages and disadvantages, according to the authors, and they suggest that supplementation be an addition to using sunscreen. Taking beta-carotene provides a benefit equivalent to a sun protection factor (SPF) of about 4 at best, they said, and its effects are not as immediate as with sunscreen lotion.
Topical sunscreens may have much stronger coverage, up to an SPF of 50 or more, which allows for nearly 100% protection. Most sunscreen manufacturers recommend applying sunscreen about 20 minutes before sun exposure and then reapplying after a couple of hours of being in the sun or immediately after swimming or sweating.
One significant advantage of beta-carotene: its effects are constant and protect the whole body. With topical sunscreen, repeated applications are required, and any missed spots on the body are left unprotected.
Try a multifaceted approach to sun protection
Many factors contribute to how quickly a person gets a sunburn, such as location (sunburns occur more quickly on or near the water or at high altitudes) and fairness of skin (fair-skinned people burn more quickly). And don’t let gray skies fool you: it is possible to get a sunburn even on a cloudy day.
The best way to protect against sunburn is to take the following precautions:
- Limit sun exposure (keeping in mind that 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per day supplies the body with healthy vitamin D that helps keep bones strong, among other benefits).
- Apply sunscreen when in the sun for more than 15 minutes, and reapply after being in the water or sweating, or as frequently as the bottle’s instructions state.
- Wear a hat or other protective clothing. Some clothing now has SPF built into the material to help reduce sunburn.
- Be particularly cautious if you take medications that enhance the sun’s effects.
(Photochem Photobiol 2008;84:284–8)
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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