Lycopene is a natural compound found in plants. It's involved in photosynthesis and helps to protect plants from damage due to constant exposure to light. It's lycopene that gives certain plant foods their vibrant red color including tomatoes, pink grapefruit, papaya, guava, watermelon, goji berries and apricots. These foods are some of the best sources of this strong antioxidant pigment. Humans can't make lycopene, and it's not a dietary requirement, but research shows that lycopene may have health benefits.
Because of its antioxidant properties and its ability to keep inflammation in check, lycopene may lower the risk of some diseases including heart disease and certain types of cancer. Lycopene is more potent from an antioxidant standpoint than vitamin E, as much as 100 times more powerful. That puts it in a special class among molecules that help to prevent oxidative damage, the type of damage that occurs to cells from exposure to oxygen.
Unfortunately, most people don't get enough lycopene in their diet. The best way to get lycopene is by eating tomatoes that have been heated or processed from sources like tomato sauce and ketchup. The lycopene in raw, unprocessed tomatoes can't be as readily used by the body. There are also lycopene supplements available.
Lycopene also offers skin benefits because of its antioxidant properties. When skin is exposed to sunlight, it causes free radicals to form. Free radicals damage skin cells and cells that produce collagen and elastin. They also activate enzymes that break down collagen. This is one mechanism by which sun exposure causes premature aging and skin cancer. Lycopene, by acting as an antioxidant and a powerful free radical quencher, may reduce this type of damage. It's well-suited to protect skin cells since it works best in a lipid-rich environment like the skin.
With so many people worried about ingredients in sunscreens, lycopene appears to have natural sun protective benefits. In a study published in the British Society for Investigative Dermatology in 2008, researchers assigned participants to a diet high in lycopene for 3 months. Another group ate a regular diet to serve as a control group. The results? The group that ate a lycopene-rich diet enjoyed 33% greater protection against the sun's damaging rays. That's the equivalent of a sun protection factor or SPF of 1.3. That's not good enough to throw away your sunscreen, but lycopene offers additional protection against the sun that goes above and beyond standard sunscreen products.
What's even more exciting about lycopene is the effect it has on collagen production. When researchers took skin samples from participants in the lycopene study, they found the participants that ate the lycopene-rich diet had higher levels of pro-collagen in their skin. Pro-collagen is the precursor to collagen, a protein that gives skin its support and youthful firmness. Collagen levels decline with age, which is partially responsible for the wrinkling and saggy skin that comes with age. Lycopene may help to replace some of this lost collagen.
With all of the good positive news about lycopene and its effects on the skin, it's not surprising that manufacturers of cosmetics and skin care products are adding lycopene to their products. Some cosmetic products that contain lycopene include anti-aging treatments, facial moisturizers, eye creams, lip gloss and lipstick. In lip gloss and lipstick, lycopene serves as a colorant. Absorption of lycopene from skin creams doesn't appear to be a problem. It's lipid-soluble, which makes it easily absorbed across the lipid barrier of the skin. It has a bright orange color and can color the skin if a product contains a high concentration.
Lycopene appears to be safe cosmetic ingredient. In fact, it has health benefits. The Environmental Working Group classifies it as a low hazard cosmetic ingredient. That means you can feel safe putting it on your skin. Lycopene generally doesn't cause skin irritation, although there are reports of allergies to lycopene. When used orally in supplement form, it can cause mild stomach upset for some people but is usually well tolerated.