By Barbara Levine, R.D., Ph.D.
Associate clinical professor of nutrition in medicine at Cornell University Medical College and
Chairperson of the Lutein Information Bureau
(ARA) - By now you probably think you’ve heard all of the health reasons there are for eating your vegetables. But recently, researchers from Harvard University have announced that lutein -- a potent antioxidant found in such dark green, leafy vegetables as spinach and kale -- may protect the skin from sun damage.
“Lutein has been widely recognized for its eye health benefits for several years. But, our data is the first of its kind to suggest that lutein may have the potential to act as a preventative agent against UVB-induced skin cancer,” said Salvador Gonzalez, M.D., Ph.D., leader of the Harvard research team. “In addition, these data suggest that lutein protects the skin against damage caused by exposure to UVB light, further validating our position that lutein is a critical component to overall skin health.”
Lutein (LOO-teen) is a yellow pigment (the yellow is covered up by chlorophyll in green leaves) found predominantly in vegetables. It is also present in the eyes and skin of the human body. In women, lutein is found in the breasts and cervix. As an antioxidant, lutein protects the eyes from the damaging effects of aging. Lutein also acts as a light filter, protecting against the sun’s harmful rays.
UVA and UVB rays are two types of harmful rays found in sunlight. UVA rays contribute to wrinkling the skin, as well as to the development of skin cancer. UVB rays are the ones that are the primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer.
Good sunscreens block both UVA and UVB rays and are critical to skin health. But, you can do even more to protect your skin and eyes when you’re outside and exposed to the sun’s rays.
Safety tips to keep top of mind:
Wear UV-blocking sunglasses. Over time, exposure to ultraviolet light can cause cataracts and increase your risk of macular degeneration, a disease that causes irreversible blindness.
If you’re a parent, protect your children’s skin. Research indicates that one or more severe, blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence can double the risk of skin cancer later in life.
Check the expiration date on your sunscreen. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years.
Don’t forget to continue using sunscreen even during the winter months. Snow reflects more than 80 percent of the sun's rays, even on cloudy days.
Eat a healthy diet comprised of green leafy vegetables. Approximately 1/3 cup of cooked spinach provides 6 mg of lutein. Consumption of 6 mg of lutein per day has been linked to a reduced risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Vitamins and dietary supplements formulated with purified lutein provide another option for adding 6 mg of lutein to a daily diet.
It’s important to note that when lutein is consumed in foods or vitamins, it deposits in various tissues in the body -- the eyes, the skin, fat tissue and so on. Therefore, it may also be beneficial to apply lutein directly to the surface of your skin. Several skin care products containing lutein are now available.