We all know that the sun emits harmful UVA and UVB radiation that can damage and prematurely age the skin, but these days there’s a lot of hype about infrared (IR) protection for the skin. Should we be concerned about IR, and if so what can be done about it?
The electromagnetic spectrum is a term used by scientists to describe the range of light arranged according to frequency and wavelength. We can use this tool to see how the various types of light that we are exposed to each day affect our skin based upon how deeply the light penetrates, and with how much strength. Infrared radiation accounts for 50% of the exposure a typical person gets each day, as compared to just 7% coming from UVA and UVB. Let’s take a look at what exactly infrared radiation is and if it is something we should be concerned about.
Infrared light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, along with gamma rays, x-rays, UV rays, visible light, microwaves and radio waves. For the purposes of discussing IR’s effect on skin, for the average person there are two levels of infrared light which we need to be aware of—IRA and IRB. IRB, or short wavelength infrared, penetrates just at the epidermal layer. Although this can stimulate some pigmentation, it is not our biggest concern. IRA, or near infrared on the other hand, goes much deeper—all the way down to the hypodermis, the place where new skin cells are formed and where nutrients are delivered to the skin. This deep penetration creates reason for the concern because of the extensive damage it can inflict. Recent research suggests that IR radiation induces inflammation, premature skin aging, and cancer. These are three very big reasons for concern. What’s even more challenging about exposure to IR is the fact that IR rays come from places other than the sun. Common household appliances such as your hair dryer and television remote also emit rays along with many industrial, high heat generating types of equipment which most of us are not exposed to on a regular basis.
The good news is that there are ways to protect and counteract the harmful effects of infrared radiation. The human body is really amazing in its ability to adapt and protect. Our bodies react to environmental exposures by using elements found in our own chemistry to fight toxic invaders. In the case of IR exposure, they utilize antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals created in the skin after contact with light.
Dietary Antioxidants and Infrared Protection
As a clinical nutritionist, I can’t write an article on skin health without bringing food into the conversation. As usual, there’s an inside-out story here too. Ingestion of dietary antioxidants will also offer protection against all kinds of solar radiation. Antioxidants are substances that prevent oxidation, also referred to as oxidative stress. They are nature’s way of protecting your cells from damage. In this process of oxidation, free radicals cause damage to the skin tissues, speeding up the aging process. Antioxidant-rich foods are plant based and many times referred to as phytochemicals, meaning derived from plants.
There are some specific nutrients which have been studied and shown to have strong protective properties against light exposure. Some of the best choices are:
- Carotenoids—this category includes lutein & zeaxanthin found in dark green leafy veggies and corn; beta carotene found in carrots and sweet potatoes; and lycopene found in cooked tomato products and watermelon.
- Vitamin E—found in wheat germ, nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin C—found in peppers, cantaloupe, citrus, and berries.
- Polyphenols—food sources include green tea, dark chocolate, coffee, and spices.
These foods have been shown to offer antioxidant and light protection when consumed on a regular basis. This is yet another great reason for everyone to eat a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables every single day. For optimal health, aim for seven to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, focusing on eating a variety of colors. This ensures that you have covered all of your bases and in essence creates an “internal sunscreen.”
Topical Protection Against IR Radiation
In terms of a topical skin protectant, the most commonly accepted and widely effective is the use of mineral sunscreens, makeup and lotions with zinc and titanium based ingredients in their composition. These compounds reflect the light away from the face, preventing it from penetrating and causing damage. It’s quite simple, yet effective. In addition to minerals, botanical antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, green tea, grape seed extract and lingonberry are very effective choices as well. Really, just about any high-quality antioxidant will work to neutralize free radicals, but some do perform better than others. When it comes to antioxidants, the key factor is to ensure that the ingredient is delivered in a way that prevents oxidation of the compound before it reaches the skin. Sunlight and air can easily neutralize an antioxidant, and this where the emerging ingredient science has brought us better ways to deliver protection to our skin. Innovations in the way the nutrients are encapsulated, packaged and delivered are helping to prevent oxidation and assist with penetration in the skin. The application of topical botanical antioxidants and a mineral sunscreen are a must to counteract the inevitable UV and infrared exposure that each of us will face every day.
The FDA has clearly identified UVA and UVB radiation as a danger to human health and has issued sunscreen guidelines accordingly. This has taken years of collective research and public outcry to come to be. At this time, there is no FDA or other public policy statement that helps us to interpret the dangers of IR and its impact on our skin and health. That does not necessarily mean that there is no reason for concern, as sometimes the research takes time and not every study supports what seems like the obvious conclusion. My feeling about infrared protection is that just because the research has not been done, it does not mean that it’s not a good idea to take preventive measures to protect ourselves, especially if the intervention has no negative consequence. The great thing about combating infrared damage is that the preventive steps are things like eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day and applying natural minerals and botanical products to our skin as protection. We really can’t go wrong by taking those preventive measures. Why not give your skin the benefit of light protection through the use of topical antioxidants and a mineral sunscreen, and by eating a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. In my mind infrared protection is not hype, but rather another good reason for great nutrition!