The Natural Sunscreen Ingredient You Should Know About

When it comes to the active ingredients in sunscreen, you probably know the players: Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and oxybenezone to name a few. But your sunscreen labels may soon start to sound a little more like candy aisles than chem textbooks: Chinese licorice root (not shown above), which goes by the Latin moniker Glycyrrhiza inflata, (this is what you’ll see on ingredient labels), may help cells deal better with UVA ray exposure, which ages your skin and can lead to skin cancer, suggests a recent report in Experimental Dermatology by researchers from Beierdorf AG. This is the company that makes Nivea and Eucerin products and uses the ingredient in some of their sunscreen and sensitive skin products already.

“This ingredient has made it into skin care products with the label of soothing. So we know it has anti-inflammatory properties—which is a lot of what this research is saying,” says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a Boston-based dermatologist that isn’t associated with the study. “And it is a very interesting product, which I have recommended to my patients with sensitive skin or rocacea.” (In fact, my own dermatologist sings the praises of the licorice root for treating my own outbreaks.) Knowing this, it isn’t so difficult to imagine this beauty powerhouse studying Glycyrrhiza inflata’s effects on UV radiation exposure.

Researchers tested this hypothesis by applying a lotion with Licochalcone A, an active antioxidant of the licorice root and a proprietary ingredient of Beierdorf AG, to the forearms of 22 healthy females between the ages 28 to 65 according to their natural lotion application habits before exposure to UVA light in a lab for eight seconds. (That may seem like nothing but consider what we know about how UV rays damage the skin — a second is all it takes.)Where the lotion had been applied, skin cells didn’t ungo the same chemical reactions they normally would after exposure to UV light. Specifically, skin cells didn’t react by producing potentially cancer-causing radical oxidative cells. The study’s authors suggest that application over time might help the body naturally build up defenses to fight the free radicals that UV exposure produces in the body and that can morph into skin cancer cells. But this isn’t quite known yet since the protocol for the topical part of this study was not controlled by application habit. Though the assumption would be to apply it beforehand since we know that UV damage begins instantly.

“It isn’t surprising that licorice extract can reduce oxidative stress, and therefore cell damage—licorice has been known to have anti-oxidant properties in the face of UVA radiation,” says Gary Goldenberg, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who isn’t affiliated with the study. “The real question now is how does this translate into use of licorice in humans to decrease sun damage and perhaps prevent skin cancer.”

Goldenberg isn’t the only dermatologist I spoke to that finds this study interesting; Hirsch did too but is cautious about its findings since the research was conducted using a proprietary ingredient by the company that holds the patent. “It doesn’t mean that it’s bad,” she says. “It just makes me cautious. I will definitely keep this ingredient on my radar.”

Before you scour your sunscreen’s ingredients for Glycyrrhiza inflata there are a couple of things to keep in mind. This ingredient will not block UV rays from entering your skin; however it might protect the body from one of the inflammatory pathways that can lead to the development of skin cancer, according to Hirsch. “This study doesn’t translate to go-look-for-it now. It isn’t going to be an ingredient that you are going to find widely. And, this paper alone isn’t a reason to say: hey use this as a sun protectant.” she says. “But it is something to look for in the future.”

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