Eyeing Healthy Skin
Lutein, best known for vision protection, may also defend skin against UV rays.
by Lisa James
Soaking up the sun’s rays on a lovely summer day can feel wonderful. However, that warm glow can soon give way to dry, itchy discomfort—and to the type of skin damage that can, over time, foster the development of cancer.
Lutein, a carotenoid found (along with its partner, zeaxanthin) in kale, corn, egg yolks, spinach, broccoli and other foods, has long been known to help protect structures within the eye against sun damage. Scientists now believe that lutein may provide a similar defense for sun-exposed skin.
Sunshine contains two types of ultraviolet rays: UVB, which penetrates the skin’s outermost layer, called the epidermis, and UVA, which penetrates into the underlying dermis. The most common result is the red, hot inflammatory response known as sunburn.
Excessive UV exposure can also age skin prematurely. Besides causing dryness and flakiness, UV can degrade collagen, the protein that helps keep skin supple and toned. Results can include wrinkles, fine lines, discolored areas (known commonly as age spots), a leathery texture and bleeding from damaged blood vessels.
What’s more, sun damage can lead to actinic keratosis, small, scaly, reddish or brownish bumps or patches that do not disappear without treatment. Left untreated, up to 15% of keratoses can develop into squamous cell cancers. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an estimated 700,000 cases of SCC are diagnosed each year in the US and the incidence rate has been rising.
Because lutein and zeaxanthin are the only two carotenoids to be found in significant quantities within the eye, most lutein research has been on how these nutrients affect vision. Lutein and zeaxanthin have been found to soak up free radicals and filter harmful blue light. As a result, “supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin is effective for treating macular dysfunction in the central retina in early AMD (age-related macular degeneration) patients,” according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Researchers are discovering that lutein may provide similar benefits in terms of skin protection. A study team in Korea found that “lutein significantly reduced several skin inflammatory responses”; further analysis revealed that “lutein was able to act as a strong antioxidant” (Mediators of Inflammation 2013). Researchers writing in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that lutein “modulates the skin’s response to UVR (ultraviolet radiation) and may contribute to the defense against some of the deleterious effects of solar radiation.”
Scientists have made other intriguing discoveries. One research team found a link between high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin in the retina and sharper thinking among older people (Age and Ageing 3/14). In another study, supplementation led to improvements in the way the brain processes visual information (PLOS ONE 9/14).
When used for skin protection, lutein and zeaxanthin is most effective in formulations that support collagen production with amino acids and a natural substance called MSM, along with glucosamine and fatty acids from sources such as chia and flax seed.
Looking to lutein for eye protection in the summer sun? Don’t forget that it may help defend your skin, too.