Green tea extract helps protect your skin from the sun's rays

Green Tea:
What's New Under the Sun?

Yet another unexpected benefit of this amazing supplement is discovered

he legacy of green tea as a medicinal wonder is now nearly 5000 years old, and still there is no end in sight to discoveries of new ways in which this ancient leaf benefits our health. According to legend, in the year 2737 B.C., Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tea tree, about to sip freshly boiled drinking water, when a leaf fell into the cup and infused his drink with a welcome aroma and flavor. Soon the brew became known in China as an almost miraculous health aid, and by the ninth century A.D., its reputation and use had spread to Japan and would soon become a key part of other Asian cultures as well.

In more modern times, scientists have documented just how green tea acts as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, and even an aid in weight loss. And now, lab results confirm that green tea's ingredients, taken orally or topically, actually protect the skin from sun damage and skin cancer. A full day's serving of green tea extract not only helps to keep wrinkles away, but it offers a strong defense against the fastest-growing cancer of our time.

The king of therapeutic chemicals in green tea is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a member of the polyphenol family. It has already gained fame as an anticarcinogen, warding off a variety of cancers, such as those of the pancreas, stomach, breast, lung, colon, and small intestine.1 Now the same chemical is being shown to prevent the most common cancer of all - that of the skin.

Protect and Pamper your Skin
The more we learn about skin cancer, the more we understand how crucial it is to keep the skin protected from harmful UV rays. Not only is damage from the sun cumulative - the risk of cancer grows each time we walk outdoors - but just two sunburns significantly up the odds that skin cancer is in your future.

To keep our skin shielded from a lifetime of harmful rays, physicians stress the importance of applying a sunscreen that is water-resistant and has an SPF of at least 15. In addition, topically applied antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C, and E, and for an added touch of pampering, smooth macadamia nut oil can restore hydration and health to sun-stressed skin and prevent the damage that leads to photoaging and skin cancer.

Physicians recommend that we wear sunscreen every day, no matter what the weather, that we reapply it every two hours, and that we not forget the nooks and crannies between fingers, around the ears, and under the chin. Sunscreen is a strong daily ally in the effort to keep skin young and vital.

This is great news, not only because there are more than one million new cases of skin cancer documented each year in the United States alone, but also because the incidence of skin cancer is rising faster than any other type of cancer - even though most people are well aware of the need to protect themselves from this disease. The number of new cases of melanoma in this country has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and this most deadly form of skin cancer, sadly, is now also the most common type in young adults.

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer, and current estimates show that almost half of Americans will have at least one instance of this disease by the age of 65. Even people who take measures to protect themselves remain at risk, say dermatologists, because when applying sunscreen, they miss spots such as the ears and the area beneath the chin.

Know the Warning Signs of Skin Cancer
The good news about skin cancer is that it is 100% curable - if treated before it has a chance to spread. That's why it is crucial to keep a keen eye on your skin and monitor its changes. Although skin cancer can start anywhere at all, it is most common on those areas that get the most sun, year-round, such as the arms, hands, head, and neck.

The most common warning sign is a new growth or sore that will not heal. But these come in a confusing variety; they can be small shiny lumps, red bumps that bleed, or flat, dry, red spots. One common reference to keep in mind when trying to size up a new spot is known as the ABCD guide. This can help sort the stray freckle from a real problem:

A - asymmetry - a growth that has unmatched halves.

B - border - a growth with ragged or blurred edges.

C - color - a growth with uneven color, in mixed shades of tan, brown, red, or even blue.

D - diameter - a growth that is larger than a pencil eraser (6 mm), or growing rapidly.

By taking regular inventory of your skin's markings, you will develop a strong sense of what is normal for you and what is new or strange. The sooner you spot the trouble, the easier it is to eradicate it and restore your skin to full health.

In fact, a new study shows that about three-quarters of beachgoers who use sunscreen get sunburned anyway, because they use the product improperly or too infrequently.2 And many people underestimate how much protection they need, because they do not realize the strength of UV rays reflected up from surfaces such as concrete sidewalks.

That is why it is so encouraging that a supplement taken orally, such as green tea, can efficiently go to work in the body to prevent sun damage. Although green tea ingredients are fast being added to many cosmetic products, such as skin lotion, suntan lotion, moisturizers, and makeup, the same tendency to miss some spots may leave people vulnerable to the sun's damaging rays.

A full day's serving of green tea
extract not only helps to keep
wrinkles away, it offers a strong
defense against the fastest-
growing cancer of our time.

Drinking green tea or taking a supplement, on the other hand, has been shown in recent studies to provide uniform protection, from the inside out. It is no substitute for the powerful protection afforded by a good sunscreen - especially during lengthy exposure, such as at the beach - but it can provide a kind of baseline of protection that is always there, ready to help out during all those "miscellaneous" times when we're in and out of the sun.

Tea's ability to soothe and heal the skin has been known anecdotally for hundreds of years, but now science is explaining just why it is such a potent ally in our effort to shield our body's most shielding organ. In a series of studies, scientists at Case Western Reserve University found that mice who were given green tea and then exposed to ultraviolet radiation or skin cancer-causing chemicals were far less likely to succumb to the disease than mice who drank only water. Similar studies with human skin showed evidence of the same protection. The investigators concluded that products containing green tea could have a "profound impact" in preventing various skin disorders in the years to come.3

Scientists credit green tea's polyphenols, especially EGCG, with the ability to alter the biochemical pathways involved in the inflammatory response, cell proliferations, and tumor promoters so as to prevent the formation of skin abnormalities that would otherwise arise in response to ultraviolet light. Application of EGCG to mouse skin also prevented the oxidative stress and immunosuppression normally caused specifically by UVB rays.4 UVB damage is thought to be the primary cause of cancers of the skin.5

An especially exciting aspect of the green tea and skin cancer research is the finding that when EGCG is administered, even after skin has already been exposed to the sun, it prevents the usual proliferation of leukocytes, white blood cells that often indicate the early stages of cancer. Furthermore, in test tubes, exposure to EGCG induces cancerous skin cells to perform apoptosis, or programmed cell death, while healthy skin cells are left unharmed.6

This opens up the possibility not only of preventing skin damage with green tea, but also of reversing "photoaging" (aging caused by sun exposure) and the early stages of cancerous activity - a real blessing to most of us, because 80% of the sun's damage to our skin has already happened by the age of 18. No one yet knows the limits of green tea's ability to reverse the damage already done to our skin, but a recent study proving that EGCG inhibits the growth of human melanoma cell lines puts it at the forefront of known skin-cancer-fighting agents.7

Although some studies have also found black tea to have cancer-fighting abilities,8 most researchers believe the unfermented green tea to be more potent, because green tea has a much higher concentration of antioxidant polyphenols. How much green tea is enough to protect us from the sun's ravages? Some physicians recommend four to six cups a day; others say eight to ten cups is even better. That's a challenging amount for even the most ardent tea lover to imbibe on a daily basis.

Fortunately, researchers have concluded that taking an oral green tea supplement is just as effective, and most agree that a standard serving of 250 to 400 milligrams per day of green tea extract with a 90% polyphenol content is sufficient to provide serious protection from skin-cancer.

As if the news about green tea's ability to ward off skin cancer were not enough of a breakthrough, other current research shows that green tea is a significant weight-loss aid. (See "Green Tea Helps Burn Fat" in Life Enhancement, July 2001.)

Just as remarkable is the new finding that green tea polyphenols have the ability to kill viruses, such as herpes simplex 1 and 2, almost on contact right in the mouth and gastrointestinal tract, according to findings presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. Laboratory studies demonstrate that green tea also fights an array of bacterial pathogens responsible for everything from cystitis and diarrhea to pneumonia and skin infections.9

The ability of tea components to prevent damage to the teeth and gums makes it a prime candidate for an oral hygiene aid - one that experts declare could have a major beneficial impact on public health.10 As early as 1923, servicemen were recommending the use of tea to ward off typhoid, but scientific evidence for tea's antimicrobial properties was missing, until now. Exactly which mechanisms are involved is not yet completely clear, but investigators theorize that tea components may interfere with a microorganism's attempt to bind to body cells. They may also interrupt an infected cell's reproduction, thus limiting the ability of the pathogen to multiply. Although tea polyphenols such as EGCG are once again the most likely heroes, one microbiologist notes that tea "contains a veritable witches' brew of biologically active ingredients," so other helpers cannot be ruled out.11

One of the most important aspects of green tea's antimicrobial effects is that it not only acts synergistically with antibiotics to fight pathogens, but it actually seems to reverse drug resistance, one of the world's greatest public health threats. When green tea extract is added to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, such as the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria responsible for skin infections and abscesses, the microbe actually becomes more sensitive and vulnerable to antibiotics.12 This apparent ability to weaken the modern plague of "superbugs" is one of green tea's most precious gifts yet, and research is proceeding full steam ahead in that area.

Meanwhile, Israeli researchers have discovered . . . guess what? . . . another major benefit of tea extracts, this time the protection of our precious brain cells. When tea components were added to brain cells that had been exposed to toxins that would normally destroy cell membranes, the tea extract prevented the cells' breakdown.

At this year's meeting of the Israel Society of Neuroscience, one researcher reported a study in which mice were infected with MPTP, a toxin that causes symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease. Some mice were also given a powdered tea extract. Within two weeks, the mice not given the tea extract suffered massive cell death in the part of the brain usually affected by Parkinson's, and lost their ability to produce dopamine, a critical neurotransmitter. But mice that had received the tea extract were afforded complete protection from damage of any kind. These results suggest that tea extracts may turn out to be the brain's best ally, protecting the aging mind from neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

It's anybody's guess what surprising benefits green tea extracts will manifest next. But it is no wonder that "the cup that cheers but does not inebriate" has been the focus of elaborate, even sacred, rituals throughout human history.


  1. PDR for Herbal Medicines, 2nd ed. Medical Economics Co., Montvale, NJ, 2000, p. 370.
  2. Wright MW, Wright ST, Wagner RF. Mechanisms of sunscreen failure. J Am Acad Dermatol 2001 May;44(5):781-4.
  3. Katiyar SK, Ahmad N, Mukhtar H. Green tea and skin. Arch Dermatol 2000 Aug;136(8):1051.
  4. Katiyar SK, Elmets CA. Green tea polyphenolic antioxidants and skin photoprotection. Int J Oncol 2001 Jun;18(6):1307-13.
  5. Ahmad N, Mukhtar H. Cutaneous photochemoprotection by green tea: a brief review. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol 2001 Mar-Apr;14.
  6. Ahmad N, Feyes DK, Nieminen AL, Agarwal R, Mukhtar H. Green tea constituent epigallocatechin-3-gallate and induction to apoptosis and cell cycle arrest in human carcinoma cells. J Natl Cancer Inst 1997 Dec 17;89(24):1881-6.
  7. Elmets CA, Singh D, Tubesing K, Matsui M, Katiyar S, Mukhtar H. Cutaneous photoprotection from ultraviolet injury by green tea polyphenols. J Am Acad Dermatol 2001 Mar;44(3):425-32.
  8. Bickers DR, Athar M. Novel approaches to chemoprevention of skin cancer. J Dermatol 2000 Nov;27(11):691-5.
  9. Anonymous. Green tea monograph. Altern Med Rev 2000 Aug;5(4):372-5.
  10. Hamilton-Miller JM. Anti-cariogenic properties of tea (Camellia sinensis). J Med Microbiol 2001 Apr;50(4):299-302.
  11. Hamilton-Miller JM. Antimicrobial properties of tea (Camellia sinensis L.). Antimicrob Agents Chemother 1995 Nov;39(11):2375-7.
  12. Hamilton-Miller JM, Shah S. Activity of the tea component epicatechin gallate and analogues against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. J Antimicrob Chemother 2000 Nov;46(5):852-3.

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