Much of the sunlight that lands on your skin is harmless. But a portion of sunlight – known as ultraviolet radiation – is often incredibly destructive to your skin and health. Ultraviolet radiation (or “UV radiation”) is actually so damaging that it’s responsible for practically all types of skin cancer.
Skin cancer, needless to say, can be quite lethal. For example, melanoma – a form of skin cancer – takes someone’s life every hour. And skin cancer is about as widespread as sunlight itself: it’s the most common type of cancer in the United States, and afflicts more people than all other cancers combined. About 20% of Americans will get it by the age of 70.
Because of its cancer-inducing effects, UV radiation is classified as a carcinogen (“Ultraviolet radiation is a complete carcinogen,” one team of scientists tersely noted). So what is it about UV radiation that leads to skin cancer?
The answer boils down to how UV radiation affects the DNA in your cells. Basically, UV radiation can harm your DNA in two possible ways. It can damage your DNA directly by provoking a chemical reaction that results in mutations (mutations are more-or-less random changes to your DNA, and they can be harmful – and cause cancer – when they alter your genes).
Indirectly, UV radiation can impair the normal workings of your DNA by generating free radicals – rogue, unpaired atoms (often oxygen) that rove around your cells and jam up your cells’ functional molecular systems (like DNA). This can cause single-strand breaks in your DNA – which completely disrupts your DNA’s function.
As an analogy, consider a ladder with a broken beam: it’d be incredibly unstable, and climbing the ladder would be quite a hazardous, shaky exploit. The ladder would simply be unable to perform its function of safely taking you to a higher level.
This is a bit similar to how UV radiation can wreck your DNA: it breaks apart the strands (or “beams” in our ladder analogy) of your DNA – which normally stabilize the “rungs” of the DNA double helix. When this happens, your DNA can longer carry out its tasks effectively.
Now, with all this in mind, here’s the all-important question: what can you do to protect yourself from UV radiation?
For starters, you should absolutely use sunscreen when you expect to be out in the sun. However, researchers have discovered that a lot of people don’t apply sunscreen in the correct way – either using too little of it, or dabbing it unevenly on the skin (which means that UV radiation gets through to some patches of skin). So, given this situation, it’d be pretty neat if you could increase your protection simply by adding something to your diet that shields you from the damage of UV radiation.
That may sound like wishful thinking, but – as a matter of fact – there might just be something like that, and it’s called omega-3.
Commonly found in fish like salmon and tuna, omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid (and a key nutrient your body needs) with a whole lot of health benefits. And a number of studies suggest that omega-3 – when taken in sufficient amounts – can help protect you from the sinister effects of UV radiation.
Case in point: one study used a small group of 20 people, including a placebo group and a group that took fish oil supplements, to determine if individuals who supplemented on fish oil would get sunburned less easily. The study revealed that yes, the fish oil group was more resistant to sunburning – and thus the omega-3 offered some protection against UV radiation.
Another study discovered that women who ate a lot of fish (rich in omega-3) had a dramatically reduced risk of developing melanoma. (It should be pointed out, however, that these results from the study were not statistically significant and could have just been a coincidence.)
A comprehensive 2003 study further reinforced the idea that omega-3 defends the skin from the harm of UV radiation. This study investigated molecular markers associated with DNA damage from UV radiation – and found that omega-3 supplementation in healthy human subjects lowered the levels of these markers. This is fairly compelling evidence that omega-3 really does minimize the destructiveness of UV radiation.
There’s also a smattering of clinical case studies – involving only a few human subjects – that lend support to the view that omega-3 protects your skin from UV radiation.
At this point, scientists don’t know for sure if omega-3 acts as a defense against the cancerous effects of UV radiation. That being said, there’s certainly a very suggestive and very visible line of evidence that points in that direction. And since most Americans are deficient in omega-3 – and aren’t getting any of its potential protection against UV radiation and skin cancer – it’d be wise to check your own omega-3 levels. You can do this right at home with EverlyWell’s Omega-3 Basic Test. Then, if you are deficient in omega-3, consider indulging in more fatty fish (and, of course, consult with your healthcare provider).