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Into sunbathing? Fish oil protects your skin

The more fish fatty acids in your diet, the less quickly you are likely to get sunburn. Fish oil probably therefore reduces the chance of skin cancer and may also retard the speed at which your skin ages. British dermatologists wrote about this in Carcinogenesis.

Into sunbathing? Fish oil protects your skin
The skin on your face ages quickest, and that is mainly due to exposure to UV-radiation in sunlight. It's called photo-aging. The same UV radiation also increases the risk of skin cancer, and people with fair skin are more sensitive to UV radiation. According to some studies, skin cancer has become the most common kind of cancer among white people.

That's why researchers are looking at whether diet can help. The British researchers, who worked together with the Dutch research institute TNO and the University of Leiden, published an article already in 1994 claiming that human subjects who had taken fish oil capsules were better able to deal with sunlight. [J Invest Dermatol. 1994 Aug;103(2):151-4.] The publication referred to in this article is pretty much a repeat of the first piece of research.

The researchers used forty light-skinned people skin for their experiment. Their average age was 44. For three months the subjects took a daily dose of 4 g of the fish fatty acid EPA. [Structure shown below.]

Into sunbathing? Fish oil protects your skin

A control group was given the same amount of oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil.

Before the test started, the researchers subjected a small piece of skin on the test subjects' bottom to UV radiation. They recorded the intensity at which the skin started to colour, in other words, when the skin started to burn. The less energy required to do this, the more sensitive the skin is to sunlight and the greater the chance of developing skin cancer from too much exposure to the sun. And the quicker your skin ages in the sun.

After the test subjects had taken their capsules for three months, the researchers repeated the test.

Into sunbathing? Fish oil protects your skin

Those who had taken the fish oil supplement required more UV radiation for their skin to start burning.

When sunlight damages the genetic material in skin cells, the p53 gene is activated. This starts up a mechanism whereby a cell starts to repair the damage to its DNA, but if the repair doesn't work, the cell kills itself. So p53 is a 'good' gene, but if it gets more active it's usually a sign that the cells are having a hard time of it.

The researchers measured the activity of the p53 gene in the test subjects' skin cells before and after they took the fish oil supplements.

Into sunbathing? Fish oil protects your skin

Fish oil appears to reduce the damage caused by sunlight in skin cells. That means, the researchers speculate, that the incidence of skin cancer might decrease if white people consumed more fish oil.

How EPA works the researchers do not yet know. They measured markers for oxidant- and anti-oxidant effect in the skin of the test subjects, but this produced no conclusive evidence. It seems as though the fish fatty acid works directly on the skin cells, and protects them against sunlight.

Carcinogenesis. 2003 May;24(5):919-25.

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