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The Skin-Saving Power of Omega-3s in Wild Salmon

Sunny day wild salmon just caught by an Alaskan fisherman
On a sunny day with a king salmon.

As the summer days grow long and warm and the sun beckons us outdoors, the importance of sunscreen increases, as exposure to harmful UVA and UVB rays can lead not only to painful sunburns, but also to the development of skin cancer.  But before we jump on the Banana Boat, it is worth considering a recent report, which reveals that topical sunscreens may not be the only way that we can protect our skin from UV radiation.  In fact, there is evidence that compounds in certain foods can also serve as sun-defense mechanisms, providing us with a tasty addition to our regular skincare routines.  The omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish like wild salmon, sablefish and albacore tuna add a potential new dimension to skincare.

While topical sunscreens may provide significant protection from acute sunburn, many of us do not apply enough of it—or reapply it often enough—to experience its full protective benefits, giving us a false sense of security about the level of skin protection we are receiving.  On the other hand, nutrients, such as vitamins, other antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids, may contribute of sun protection from the “chronic,” daily UV exposure that we so often face without sunscreen.  This ultimately suggests that a combined approach to skin protection (including topical sunscreen plus foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids like wild salmon) may be most effective at preventing damage from UV radiation.

The marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids, like wild salmon, are among the richest providers of these essential fatty acids, which decrease inflammation, promote heart health, and foster ideal brain development in infants and children. It now appears that we can add “skin-protection” to the list of health benefits conferred by the omega-3 fatty acids in seafood.

One 2011 study concluded that omega-3 fatty acids are able to reduce skin inflammation caused by UV-radiation exposure by modifying cell membranes and cell signaling pathways. Omega-3 fatty acids protect the “health of the cell membrane, which is not only what acts as the barrier to things that are harmful, but also the passageway for nutrients to cross in and out and for waste products to get in and out of the cell,” says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, a nutritionist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. In addition, McDermott says that since the membrane is what influences the cells’ ability to hold water, having a healthy barrier yields moister, softer, more subtle, and more wrinkle-free skin. In his best-selling book, The Wrinkle Cure, dermatologist and skin care expert Nicholas V. Perricone, MD reports foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the body’s production of inflammatory compounds — natural chemicals involved in the aging process, that affect how healthy the skin looks and feels.

A 2003 double-blind, randomized trial confirms these conclusions, as 4 grams per day of supplemental EPA (found in fish oil) increased the study participants’ sunburn threshold (that is, the amount of UV exposure it takes to cause a sunburn) by 36% while also preventing DNA damage through the incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids into the skin. This study thus provides further support for the skin-protecting abilities of omega-3 fatty acids.  Additionally, in a case-control study, researchers discovered a consistent tendency for study participants to have a lower risk of developing skin cancer when they consumed higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.3 The studies do not suggest abandoning your hat and sunscreen, but that the consumption of Omega-3s might add a supplemental level of protection.While omega-3 fatty acids were shown to have only a small protective effect, the authors suggest that “fair-skinned individuals” may truly benefit from the protection conferred by these nutrients, particularly in terms of their anti-inflammatory properties.  It is important to note, however, that study participants had to consume a greater amount of omega-3 fatty acids than is typically found in the diet in order experience the “photoprotective effects” of these fatty acids. It may be argued, however, that any additional protection afforded by dietary levels of omega-3 fatty acids—however minute—is important in our efforts to avoid the ill effects  of UV radiation exposure.

In summary, these studies provide promising evidence of the skin-protecting benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood.  While the amount of omega-3s consumed in typical serving sizes of fish may provide only a minor amount of additional sun protection, it is definitely worthwhile to incorporate omega-3-rich fish like wild salmon into your diet on a regular basis (at least twice per week) as part of a healthful diet and as an extra line of defense in your regular skin-protection routine.  So slather on some sunscreen, put on a hat, eat fish frequently, and go enjoy that summer sunshine!