A food additive that actually protects your skin from the sun

February 19, 2016
Volume 4    |   Issue 7

The sun not only ages your skin, contributing to wrinkles and age spots, it also can be life-threatening if the damage leads to skin cancer. However, I know that sometimes it's hard to remember to apply or reapply sunscreen. It seems like an extra step in your routine. If only there was a way to get sun protection from something you were doing already.

According to preliminary research conducted at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, that may be a possibility. It turns out that we may be able to get at least some sun protection from the foods that we eat — as long as they contain a particular additive.

This special additive is a natural product called annatto, which comes from the seeds of the achiote fruit. Achiote grows in Central and South America, and annatto has been used in Latin American cooking for centuries.

But that's not the only place you'll find it. That's because annatto contains a reddish-orange compound called bixin. Bixin's bright color and natural origin has made it a favorite of companies that want to keep their products chemical-free, but still want to add some pop to the color.

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Interestingly, researchers have found that bixin can have the opposite effect in rodents. No bright-red sunburns for them! When they injected mice with bixin and exposed them to UV radiation, the bixin mice showed much less severe skin damage from the sun compared to the control group. The bixin also seemed to help prevent skin cancer, not by killing the cancer cells but by stimulating the mice's own cells to protect themselves through antioxidant activity. The cancer cells never even had a chance to form.

The researchers are planning to design further trials to investigate bixin's effects on humans. They're hoping to determine whether consuming foods with added annatto can help prevent sun damage and even skin cancer. Right now, you'll find annatto in everything from cheese to cereal to sausages. Many of the foods that annatto is used in, such as baked goods and potato chips, aren't particularly healthy. Please don't stop wearing sunscreen just because you see annatto on an ingredients list. But if you do spot it, now you know what it is. However, to have a significant sunscreen effect, you would need much more than the bit of bixin found in cheese or chips.

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Shasha Tao, Sophia L. Park, Montserrat Rojo de la Vega, Donna D. Zhang, Georg T. Wondrak. Systemic administration of the apocarotenoid bixin protects skin against solar UV-induced damage through activation of NRF2. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 2015; 89: 690 DOI: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2015.08.028

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