Photosensitivity and Supplements

Ah, the red, painful skin that feels hot to the touch. Many of us have had the pleasure…or, rather, the pain. In our youth we were not told of what was to come from repeated aspirations to the beauty of the bronze. And, if we were told, we didn’t listen. If you’re a fair-haired beauty, you’re more likely to burn than your darker peers. Skin types range from very light to very dark, but you already knew that. What you may not know is that the sun’s rays penetrate all skin types and wreak havoc on your DNA. Yes, dark brown and black skin tans and burns, though burning is not so common. Ultra-violet damage can lead to serious problems, not only with your skin, but also with your eyes.

There should be a familiarity with the name, “Mayo Clinic.”  Its philosophy of putting the patient first is amply demonstrated in the high percentages of positive outcomes.  When Mayo speaks, people listen.  If you’ve had sunburn, you know the symptoms.  In a recent article by Mayo staff, the Clinic admonishes to, “See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn’t heal.”  (  But the Clinic adds that, “The sun can also burn your eyes.  UV light damages the retina…” and can also damage the lens, leading to “…progressive clouding of the lens (cataracts).”

If you’ve taken all the precautions and still get burned, there must be another reason.  Let’s see, hmmm, you’ve avoided the sun between 10 AM and 4 PM, when it’s the strongest, right?  You’ve been careful to cover up.  Not, if you’re looking for a tan.  You’ve slathered on gobs of sunscreen, too, eh?   Of course, you did don the shades.  How else to look cool, right?

There are alternative ways to combat the results of too much time in the sun, whose tanning effects will last for a few hours after exposure.  While it is safest to spend only twenty, or so, minutes at a time in the sun for the first few days of your vacation, that caveat is ignored.  There may be a saving grace in the judicious use of foods and supplements that provide beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.  A German study published in 2006 states that, “Beta-carotene is a major constituent of commercially available products administered for systemic photoprotection.”  (Stahl. 2006) This piece goes on to say that beta-carotene needs to be taken at doses of almost 50,000 IU a day for about three months before such an effect becomes evident.  That’s about 30 milligrams.  There is no current tolerable upper limit for beta-carotene as there is for vitamin A, which is 10,000 IU for adults.  In an earlier study by the same research group, it was noted that, “Carotenoids are efficient in photoprotection…”  (Sies and Stahl. 2004)  Here, a decreased sensitivity against ultra-violet-induced erythema (redness) was noted.

The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, found in green leafy vegetables and in supplements, are photoprotective for the eyes, where they are present in the retina and absorb blue light, thereby “protecting the underlying photoreceptor cell layer from light damage, possibly initiated by the formation of reactive oxygen species during a photosensitized reaction.”  (Krinsky. 2003)  The addition of green tea to our armamentarium helps protect skin against UV radiation and, for women especially, improves overall skin quality.  (Heinrich. 2011)  If tea is not your “cup,” you might give a go to chocolate.  UV-induced redness is inhibited and blood flow to the skin enhanced by cocoa flavonols.  (Heinrich. 2006)

But what about the PABA?  Topically, used before exposure to the sun, it absorbs ultra-violet radiation, and it will last through heavy perspiration (but not after going into the water).  It even is alleged to soothe the burn after the fact.  Orally, PABA has not shown sufficient photoprotective activity in organized studies to be recommended for everybody, but it might work for you.  However, too much PABA can backfire and cause more problems than it’s worth because it’ll stop the burn but not the alterations to DNA.  It seems to have fallen out of favor.  (Knowland. 1993)

How about the other side of the coin, the one where a supplement can cause photosensitivity?  St. John’s Wort, an herbal used to treat mild depression, may induce light / sun sensitivity, so sun avoidance is suggested—strongly.  There is no evidence to blame other supplements for photosensitive reactions.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.