Don’t bet on finding skin cancer protection at your kitchen table

August 9, 2012 | by Alicia Di Rado

It’s a headline tempting to any Starbucks fan: “Drinking coffee may cut skin cancer risk.”

Photo of cup of coffeeA recent study showed that the more caffeinated coffee people drink, the lower the chances they’ll develop basal cell carcinoma, the most common kind of skin cancer. It’s just the latest substance from common foods and drinks that shows some protective potential against skin tumors.

During these long, hot summer days, even regular sunscreen users might be eager for other ways to protect themselves from sun damage. But City of Hope’s Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D., Lester M. and Irene C. Finkelstein Chair in Biology, says the golden ticket to prevention is unlikely to be found in your refrigerator or pantry.

Certainly, explains Pfeifer, certain ingredients seem to have some skin cancer-fighting properties in the lab. Take caffeine, for example.

When harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays hit skin cells, these cells halt their cell division by using a substance in the body called ATR. With their DNA now damaged, these cells could potentially go down the road toward cancer.

But caffeine works against ATR. So when caffeine is around, the damaged skin cells keep dividing. These cells will eventually kill themselves because they’re so defective. “If more UV-damaged cells die due to caffeine, they cannot reach the point of becoming cancerous,” he says.

Scientists have found some other food ingredients that seem to fight UV damage in the laboratory, too. As antioxidants, vitamin E and plant pigments called carotenoids might block some of the effects of UVA radiation, Pfeifer says. Although UVA rays make up about 95 percent of the UV radiation that reaches Earth, skin cancer is mostly caused by UVB rays.

Flavonoids, like those found in onions, cranberries and a variety of other fruits and vegetables, may block some of the damage of UVA and UVB radiation, but “this is probably a minor effect after oral intake,” he adds.

So how about using drugs to repair the DNA damage caused by the sun? Some researchers are investigating anti-inflammatory medications like common pain relievers. Pfeifer believes that approach may prove difficult. If scientists could get DNA-repairing enzymes to effectively enter the nucleus of damaged skin cells, one approach might be to include those enzymes in sunscreen.

Until then, says Pfeifer, the most effective option to fight sun damage may be the simplest: Wear a hat and UV-blocking clothes and sunscreen, or just stay out of the sun altogether.

Learn more about protecting yourself from skin cancer >>

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