Sunscreen does not guard the skin as well as it could because there is a key component that is missing from all these creams, finds a study. The research work is published in the journal, ‘Antioxidants’. The missing component is a class of antioxidants (a type of stable molecule) commonly found in nature. Experiments have shown that these antioxidant molecules remove excess iron in cells, which in turn helps the cells maintain a healthy level of free radicals (a type of unstable molecule).
Free radicals and free iron are strongly connected to skin damage. Dr Charareh Pourzand, who led the research from the Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology and the Centre for Therapeutic Innovation at the University of Bath said, “By including these potent antioxidants in skin-care products and sunscreen formulations, and therefore trapping free iron, we can expect to get an unprecedented level of protection from the sun.”
Scientists have known for a long time that iron deposits promote the appearance of ageing, but the most recent study focuses on the interaction between free iron and free radicals in the skin. Dr. Pourzand urged skin-care manufacturers to look more closely at opportunities to include iron-trapping extracts in their products as a result of their findings.
A number of iron-trapping natural extracts have already been identified in the Bath lab (these include several classes of botanical, fungal, and marine-based compounds, such as extracts from certain vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, bark, and flowers), but Dr Pourzand stated that more research is required before any of these compounds can be used commercially. “Though the antioxidants we’ve identified work well in laboratory conditions, they don’t necessarily remain stable once they’ve been added to a cream,” she said.
“These extracts come from plants, and environmental factors affect their stability and long-term effectiveness — anything from the season in which they are grown, soil type, latitude and the time of harvest can change the strength by which they can neutralise free radicals as well as work as iron traps,” she continued.
She added, “What is needed now is for the bioactive chemicals in these extracts to be standardised — once that has happened, they can and should be added to products designed to protect the skin from ageing.”
Sunscreens on the market today are either designed to block or absorb UV rays. In doing so, they reduce the number of free radicals produced on the skin; these unstable molecules are responsible for skin damage and ageing, a process known as oxidative stress. Free radicals cause harm by damaging DNA and other cell components, which can lead to cell death. What has been overlooked in sun-care and anti-aging formulations is the role of iron, both in directly damaging the skin when it interacts with UV radiation and in amplifying the damage caused by free radicals.
“This needs to change,” said Dr Pourzand. “Formulations need to adapt and improve,” she added. The antioxidant compounds identified at Bath have the ability to protect the skin against both chronological ageing (the natural decline in skin texture that comes with age) and sun-mediated ageing (known as photoaging). Though the body needs iron to function properly, too much (or too little) is harmful or even deadly to our cells.
To protect themselves from this danger, our cells have a well-developed system for correcting excess iron when it builds up, thus bringing it back to a state of balance (known as homeostasis).
In the incidence of sunlight, however, this balance is disturbed, leading to skin damage, ageing and sometimes cancer. Chronological ageing also contributes to iron levels falling out of balance, especially in women after menopause, meaning older people (and particularly older women) are more vulnerable than others to the ravaging effects of the sun.