To Combat Skin Cancer, Eat Your Polyphenols

78163368The Mediterranean diet may be as sun protective as applying natural sunscreen.

Time to slather on sunscreen? Over 13 million fair-skinned Americans have had at least one basal or squamous cell skin cancer, finds one Harvard University researcher.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with in terms of skin cancers,” says dermatologist Suraj Venna, MD, who directs the melanoma center at Washington Hospital Center. “What we do know, for sure, is that there has been a tremendous burst in skin cancer, period.” He adds “that UV [ultraviolet] rays are the primary cause,” of these cancers, “and that there is absolutely no such thing as a safe tan.”

Deadly melanomas are on the rise too! Because ultraviolet radiation is cumulative, using a tanning bed before you’re 35 increases your risk for melanoma by 75%, says the American Cancer Society.

Melanomas are 2 to 2 ½ times as common among people who live close to the equator, Norwegian research reports. But on parts of the body only intermittently exposed to the sun—like the trunk—it doesn’t matter where you live.

Dr. Ann Louise’s Take:

I’m delighted to learn that my hometown, Hartford, Connecticut, tops the list of cities where residents are the most “sun intelligent.” But a lot of misconceptions remain about photoaging and skin cancer.

For instance, skin cancer is less of a problem for the Greeks who get plenty of sun than it is for the Australians—and I don’t think the difference is entirely due to the hole in the ozone layer. Greeks, who enjoy a diet rich in olive oil and fish, eat a healthier diet, which protects them against skin cancer, suggests Dr. Niva Shapira in a recent issue of Nutrition Reviews.

“Adherence to a Mediterranean diet has been shown to [decrease] melanoma among populations in non-Mediterranean countries,” Dr. Shapira writes. Sadly, even Greeks who move Down Under and trade in a polyphenol-rich diet for the Aussie’s meat-heavy fare begin to develop melanoma.

Poly-what? You may be asking. A class of antioxidants found in grapes, olives (like extra-virgin olive oil), lemons and other citrus fruits, and brightly colored vegetables, polyphenols have long been respected for their health-promoting benefits. Cranberries are also rich in polyphenols, so Fat Flushers are on the right track by drinking Cran-Water daily.

UVA Versus UVB
The dominant tanning rays, UVA penetrates the skin more deeply and plays a major role in skin aging and wrinkling. UVA light damages keratinocytes (cells in the basal layer of the skin) and suppresses the immune system. These rays even pass easily through glass, so consider adding flat, tinted UV-protective film to your car’s windows—at least on the driver’s side—if you commute.

The primary burning rays, UVB tends to damage the skin more superficially, reddening skin and causing painful sunburn. Prime time for UVB in this country is between 10 am and 4 pm from spring through October, so make sure any sunscreen you use then is full-spectrum, containing UVB as well as UVA.

However, UVB rays are what your skin uses to manufacture vitamin D3, which protects the immune system and so much more. So try to spend at least 15 minutes each sunny day outdoors without sunscreen in the early morning and after the heat of the day to get this critical vitamin naturally. Because most Americans are woefully deficient in the sunshine vitamin, I also recommend taking additional Vitamin D. I personally believe that 5,000 IUs daily is necessary for most individuals.

Go Natural with Suncreen
Interestingly, research suggests that the greatest increases in melanoma occur in countries where chemical sunscreens are heavily promoted. That’s partly because we tend to get a false sense of protection from sunscreen—and partly because so many ingredients can harm your skin.
One dubious ingredient, benzeophenone “is one of the most powerful free radical generators known to man,” the International Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reports.  Instead, look for natural UVA and UVA protection that uses inert minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, as well as antioxidants like astaxanthin and polyphenols like green tea in moisturizers and sunscreens.

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Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books including The Fat Flush Plan series and her latest book, Radical Metabolism. She’s been rewriting the rules of nutrition for more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of diet, detox and women’s health issues. 

For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more…check out my Radical Health Tips.

I’d like to meet and greet you on my Facebook groups, so won’t you check us out at the Radical Metabolism RevolutionFat Flush Nation, or my Inner Circle!


  1. Jan

    How safe are self-tanning products that don’t require sunlight?

  2. liz

    I think it depends on the chemicals in them. I’d like to find a “natural” tanning cream.

  3. David L. Kern

    Dr. Shapira’s observation about ‘Greeks who move Down Under’ clearly shows that the sun does not cause skin cancer. I understand this is heresy, but if a change in a person’s diet increases melanoma, that’s proof. We can wait for studies on a million people, and wait twenty or thirty years for the sun-is-evil belief system to change, or we can look at the evidence. And the evidence, as Dr. Shapira notes, is available today. The sun does not cause skin cancer.

    So what does cause skin cancer? A lack of nutrition. Specifically, a lack of polyphenols, helped along by lack of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. But the most important nutrients in the Mediterranean Diet, and missing from our diets, are polyphenols.

    Fear of the sun has added to the epidemic deficiency of vitamin D. And who knows the harm of slathering toxic sunscreen chemicals on our skin? From a natural perspective, it makes sense that human beings require sunlight, along with fresh air and clean water, for maximum health. And we need one more thing- a less-processed diet containing ample amounts of polyphenols.

    The plants can teach us, if we listen. They can’t move to the shade or apply Coppertone when the sun is too hot. They protect themselves with phytochemicals (polyphenols) that resist sun damage. When we eat the plants, it turns out that these same polyphenols protect us too.

    Numerous studies show polyphenols protect cells from all kinds of radiation damage. Not just solar radiation- all kinds of radiation. Not just skin cells, but all cells, and even the DNA inside cells. If you feed your body these nutrients, you increase the safety and benefits of reasonable sun exposure. And pesticide exposure. And mercury exposure. Long-term intake of adequate polyphenols is the single most important change you can make for every cell in your skin, heart, brain and body.


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