Originally Published NO January/February 2010
The need for an effective internal sunscreen is huge, for a few different reasons. The convenience factor-perhaps taking a sunscreen pill instead of slathering on topical sunscreens every few hours at the beach-is one. Surfacing concerns about side effects caused by some ingredients used in topical sunscreen products is another. Other reasons include the fact that free radicals produced in the skin by ultraviolet (UV) light exposure are not eliminated by using topical sunscreen products, as well as controversy over whether topical sunscreens allow the skin to produce vitamin D. Considering all this, an internal sunscreen that could control free radicals in the skin and also work to reverse the signs of skin aging to make skin more youthful would be a blockbuster supplement.
Natural astaxanthin has been clinically proven to work both as an internal sunscreen and as an internal beauty supplement. It has long been known that natural astaxanthin is used by algae, phytoplankton, and different marine animals to prevent damage from sunlight and UV radiation. Only in the last 10 years have we found that it can do the same things for humans.
Even more recently, scientists have discovered that natural astaxanthin can reverse signs of skin aging and improve skin's appearance when taken internally. Plus, astaxanthin has documented status as a strong natural antioxidant that can do wonders for the skin, and may even protect against DNA damage caused by free radicals that can lead to skin cancer.
A Natural Internal Sunscreen
In 2002, our company, Cyanotech Corp., received a patent (U.S. Patent #6433025: "Method for Retarding and Preventing Sunburn by UV Light") for a human clinical study designed to determine the potential of natural astaxanthin as an internal sunscreen.
The study was conducted by independent consumer research laboratory Consumer Products Testing Co. Twenty-one subjects were tested under a solar simulator, with a filter on the machine to ensure that ample amounts of both UVA and UVB light reached the subjects' skin. The skin was tested before supplementation began to see how much UV light was needed to cause erythema, a reddening of the skin also known as sunburn. The subjects were then supplemented with 4 mg of natural astaxanthin per day for two weeks. After the two-week supplementation period, the subjects once again underwent the skin-reddening test. Results showed that in only two weeks at a standard dose of just 4 mg per day, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden the skin.
This result is particularly promising because astaxanthin has a cumulative effect in the body-it builds up in the organs over time. Two weeks is considered a relatively short amount of time for astaxanthin to concentrate in the body's largest organ-the skin. Yet, this study proved that in just two weeks, natural astaxanthin was already working as an internal sunscreen (Lorenz, T., 2002).
This study did not investigate the mechanism of action for astaxanthin's abilities as an internal sunscreen, but the answer may not be as complicated as one might think. Sunburn is an inflammatory process. When the skin becomes inflamed by exposure to UV light, the inflammation becomes visible through reddening. This is not too different from some other forms of inflammation for which the outward appearance manifests as reddening; swollen ankles, inflamed cuts and abrasions, and arthritic hands can all appear red from inflammation. So, when our body's largest organ, the skin, turns red, we know that inflammation has taken place. It appears that astaxanthin's well-documented antiinflammatory activity (Ohgami et al., 2003, and Lee et al., 2003) may be to thank for its action as an internal sunscreen.
There have also been animal studies that lend further evidence to astaxanthin's internal sunscreen function. In 1995, a study was conducted on special hairless mice to test the protective effects of astaxanthin, beta-carotene, and retinol against UV light. From birth, the mice were fed different diets containing either combinations of the three substances, the substances alone, or a control diet with none of the three substances. After four months, half of each group was exposed to UV light, at which point three markers for skin damage were tested. After irradiation, astaxanthin alone or in combination with retinol was remarkably effective in preventing photoaging of the skin as measured by these markers (Savoure et al., 1995).
In rat kidney fibroblasts, the addition of astaxanthin demonstrated superior protection against UVA light–induced oxidative stress compared with lutein and beta-carotene. In fact, astaxanthin performed at up to 100 times the strength of beta-carotene and up to 1000 times the strength of lutein in two different parameters that were measured (O'Connor, I., and O'Brien, N., 1998).
Lastly, in a study published in the Journal of Dermatological Science, astaxanthin was tested in vitro to examine its ability to protect against alterations in human DNA induced by exposure to UVA radiation. Three different components of the human skin were tested, and in all three cases, astaxanthin successfully countered the effects of UVA light and prevented damage to the DNA (Lyons, N., and O'Brien, N., 2002).
Improving Skin Appearance
The protective effect of astaxanthin against UV light is only one aspect of astaxanthin's benefits for the skin. Another key benefit is astaxanthin's ability to produce noticeable improvements in skin health and visibly improve skin's appearance. This suits the "beauty from within" concept.
A clinical study in Japan performed on 49 middle-aged females demonstrated that only 4 mg per day of astaxanthin usage yielded noticeable improvements in three important areas of skin health and appearance: fine lines and wrinkles, skin elasticity, and moisture levels. The study was conducted over a six-week period (Yamashita, 2006).
In three earlier studies, similar results were found when astaxanthin was combined with one or two other ingredients. The first study in this area was done in Japan. This study combined 2 mg per day of natural astaxanthin with tocotrienols (from the vitamin E family). All the subjects were women with an average age of 40. Measurements of several skin parameters were taken after two weeks and again at the end of the study after four weeks. After just two weeks, improvements were noted in seven different areas: fine wrinkles, moisture levels, skin tone, elasticity, smoothness, swelling, and spots and freckles.
At such a low level of consumption and in just two weeks, almost every aspect of the treated group's skin improved. At the end of four weeks, subjects whose skin was characterized as dry at the beginning of the study experienced significantly increased moisture levels, consistent natural oils, a reduction of fine wrinkles, and a reduction of pimples. In a self-assessment survey, treated subjects reported less swelling under the eyes, improved elasticity, and "better skin feeling." The placebo group showed no improvements over the four-week test period Yamashita, E., 2002).
Two additional studies conducted in Canada and Switzerland support natural astaxanthin's "beauty from within" capabilities. Both studies combined natural astaxanthin with two other nutraceuticals, and both yielded similar results.
In the Canada study, the authors concluded that "working from the 'inside out' represents a new and exciting cosmeceutical approach to supply the skin with biologically active ingredients" (Thibodeau, A., and Lauzier, E., 2003).
The Switzerland study combined natural astaxanthin with two other ingredients. The results were favorable, with the supplemented group seeing improvements in fine lines, a visible improvement in overall skin appearance, and an increase in dermis density of up to 78% in the treatment group (Beguin, 2005).
As a beauty and sunscreen ingredient, astaxanthin addresses many of today's consumer demands, including the need for natural alternatives, the desire for "beauty from within," and a convenient-to-use, effective sunscreen approach. Astaxanthin's benefits for joint, eye, cardiovascular, and immune health have been well-documented, and this ingredient could be the next rising star in beauty supplements for baby boomers.
Bob Capelli is vice president of sales and marketing for Cyanotech Corp. (Kailua-Kona, HI), a producer of microalgae products. He is the lead author of a book on astaxanthin called Natural Astaxanthin: King of the Carotenoids. Dr. Gerald R. Cysewski, cofounder, chief scientific officer, and executive vice president of Cyanotech Corp., has more than 35 years of experience in microalgae research and commercial production of microalgae products.
View references online at www.NutritionalOutlook.com/1001/astaxanthin