Sun damage to skin is mediated by iron

UV radiation

I recently wrote about how excess iron accumulates in the skin of older, post-menopausal women, and this may be the cause of wrinkled skin. This post extends that observation that sun damage to skin is mediated by iron.

Ultraviolet radiation releases iron

Solar radiation damages skin, and can lead to wrinkles, other damage, and skin cancer. But what exactly is the mechanism of action here? If we know that, we can minimize or eliminate skin damage, that is aside from avoiding the sun.

Solar radiation has an ultraviolet component, that is, radiation that is not visible, and of shorter wavelength and higher frequency than visible light. Ultraviolet radiation has two components, UVA and UVB. UVA is less intense than UVB, but comprises 30 to 50 times more of the sun’s UV radiation than UVB. Both cause skin damage.(1)

Exposing the skin of hairless mice to sub-erythemal doses of UVB radiation causes an increase in free iron in the skin. By sub-erythemal is meant that the dose is not enough to cause redness, so this seems to be a low dose, very normal, of the kind encountered by a few minutes in mid-day sun.(2)

In human skin (same study), sun-exposed skin has greater free iron than non-exposed skin in the same person, so the release of free iron on sun exposure happens in people too.

In the mice, topically applied iron chelators – chemicals that bind iron and remove it – “dramatically delayed the onset of UVB radiation-induced skin photodamage. Non-chelating analogs provided no significant protection.” This shows that iron is one of the main causes of skin photodamage.

UVA radiation damages proteins and lipids in skin fibroblasts (precursor skin cells) in cell culture, and the use of iron chelators or added iron showed that iron is very important in mediating this damage.(3)

Another study showed that UVA radiation caused skin fibroblasts in cell culture to release free iron “within minutes”. The level of radiation was similar to natural exposure levels.(4) The researchers deduced that radiation causes proteolysis (dissolution) of ferritin, which is the body’s “lock-down”, safe-storage form of iron, and free iron was released to cause damage.

This result, that ferritin releases free iron upon exposure to solar radiation, is important, for it shows the way to prevent skin damage from solar radiation.

In iron-mediated damage, whether to skin, or the brain, the liver, or any other organ or tissue, free iron does the damage. This fact leads to the question of how lowering ferritin, the safe form of iron, can lead to better health. The reason it does so is that ferritin is vulnerable to damage, both by radiation and by oxidative events within the cell, the latter of which occur constantly.

By lowering ferritin, less is around to be damaged and to release free iron. This is why phlebotomy, which lowers ferritin, can prevent or treat disease, while free iron is the proximate cause of disease.

Keeping ferritin (iron) levels in a low normal range can help prevent skin damage from solar radiation, and will lower the risk of skin cancer too.

Here’s how to lower your iron.

Watch for my forthcoming book, Dumping Iron.

Check out our Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

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  1. Daniel F says:

    Iron, the everything of health. Really amazing.

  2. Kent M says:

    I just got my ferritin level tested and found out it is 209 ng/ml — yikes! FYI, the LabCorp reference range for men is 30-400 ng/ml. I had already made one blood donation weeks before, so I assume my ferritin level was even higher. It looks like I’ve got many donations ahead of me.

    By the way, I am already taking curcumin, quercetin, and green tea extract regularly, so that wasn’t enough to protect me.

    Thanks for all the great information, P.D.

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      Interesting, Kent. Your example is one reason I believe every man should get tested. While 209 isn’t sky high, I’m sure you feel it’s worthwhile knowing, as it puts you in a higher risk category. And it probably was higher before. Good news is after just a few (maybe 3) donations you’ll have it well under control.

  3. Ben says:

    Interesting. If I recall correctly sunlight is hormetic? Could free iron also be somewhat hormetic? E.g. if sun disassembles ferritin into free iron, then I wonder whether there is a mechanism for containing that free iron back into a safe bundle.

    Maybe it could work like with vegetables – it damages you a little bit so your defense system (antioxidant production) gets stronger over time leading to better health. So perhaps some external stimuli that increases free iron can actually be good – because it stimulates the defense system (to contain free iron)?

    Offtopic-check out Larry Ellison, 71 years old but looks 40.

    • Paloma says:

      Hi Ben,
      Larry Ellison: this guy looks amazing (he doesn’t look 40, but he does look like a very nice 50 year old man). I am sure he has gone throught cosmetic procedures but it is clear that his lifestyle includes weight lifting and a good diet.

      • Ben says:

        You’re probably right, he’s probably closer to 50 in terms of looks. I read Ellison’s foundation was actively involved in anti-aging research

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      I must admit to having the same thoughts when reading reference 4 ( However, that sunlight is hormetic is, as far as I know, speculative but not proven. But indeed, low-level radiation is hormetic, so… It’s difficult to separate the effects of sunlight on vitamin D and just radiation alone. For example, there’s some evidence of people at high altitudes living longer. From the study:

      In summary, we show here that UVA radiation leads to an immediate increase in the free available iron via degradation of the Ft [ferritin] molecule. The consequent down-regulation of IRP-1 stimulates Ft synthesis at both the transcriptional and translational levels and eventually leads to an enhanced level of the iron storage protein.

      In the second sentence, “stimulates Ft synthesis” is undoubtedly a defensive reaction against sunlight. Whether it’s hormetic in that the organism is healthier afterward or whether it’s all just damage being done is an interesting question.

      • Ben says:

        I remember reading about the minimum effective dose for suntan, i.e. after X minutes of tanning a melanin response is triggered which will darken the skin over time. After that point, extra tanning in the same session is harmful as one will get sunburn. I don’t know the numbers but let’s say 15 mins on 4 days each is better than 1 hour on the same day. This looks like a hormetic response (melanin released over time as a result of sun exposure, but too much exposure at once causes sunburn).

        Furthermore, I am speculating that melanin-induced suntan is a defense against radiation and that suntan/darker skin should protect ferritin from breaking down when exposed to radiation. So for pale white people sunlight may increase free iron significantly, but for tanned people not so much.

        • P. D. Mangan says:

          I agree with all your points, Ben. You’re in the ballpark with the tanning numbers, and tans and dark skin generally do indeed protect from radiation.

    • Undercover Slob says:

      Yeah, that’d be an awfully hard 40, brother. 50ish, maybe but the more I look at the guy, the more that he looks like a well kept 60 year old. Of course, all designations are complimentary as he does look great for 71. I just think that people are so used to observing broke down and beat up looking people in their 70’s that a guy like Ellison “looks” 40. Well, apparently, the guy just has a very nice glow about him and has kept the wizened thing at bay. I guess that aura is what gives off the impression of a decades younger guy.

  4. Joseph Moroco says:

    My doctor has been saying it is absolutely imperative that I wear a broad brimmed hat in the sun or there is a risk that I could get into the Guinness Book for the number of age spots I would get.

    Doc also sent me the print out for the blood work.
    Ferritin 276 ng/ml
    Iron 133 mcg/dl

    All the while complimenting me on the good numbers.

    So when Dennis first started on this kick a few months ago, I took the hint and went to the Red Cross.

    My question is, is anything seeping into the main stream? Would my doc ever say, your iron is high?

    There seems to be too much to ignore.

    I shall continue to be hitting the blood drawing. You do have to watch out and time it as they sometimes offer some nice premiums.

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      “Would my doc ever say, your iron is high?” No, he wouldn’t, unfortunately. Doing my part trying to fix that. Good you got tested, now you know and can do something about it.

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  6. Sheila says:

    Attesting from the field, I’m a 56 yr old female that started menopause 3 years ago. Coincidentally began noticing huge increase in skin aging (wrinkles, elasticity, etc.) and big decrease in eyesight. I’m physically athletic, have excellent diet, regular CR, coffee & herbal tea drinker, aspirin user, consistent 115 lbs, occasional red meat eater, never need doctor for anything person. Had become obsessed with anti-aging research in last couple years after noticing this huge skin aging dilemma, yet out of reading 100s of articles never read anything about the detrimental effects of iron! That is until recently a girlfriend told me she had hemochromotosis (with prescribed weekly phlebotomy), and I found your incredible iron articles.

    I haven’t had my ferritin level checked yet, but it all seemed to make sense especially having lived in Florida for 15 yrs with lots of sun exposure. First thing I did was schedule a blood donation. Encountered first problem too in that I did not pass the hemoglobin test level of 12.5 at the donation site. Sorry I was only 12.1. Crap! So I immediately made another appt. two weeks later. The 2nd time donating the admission nurse told told me to slap my hands together and rub hard with my fingers pointing up in praying position right before the finger prick for the hemoglobin test. Sure enough, tested 13.1 this 2nd time so I could continue with the donation.

    Now here’s the amazing part (maybe pyschosomatic, I don’t care) a few days after donating I noticed huge improvement in my skin and my eyesight! Will definitely become regular donor in future for all the other major health benefits as well.

    Can’t thank you enough Mr. Mandan for all your research and well-written articles. Looking forward to buying the print version of Dumping Iron. This whole iron issue may finally become mainstream knowledge thanks in part to your efforts.

    Just remember that tip about slapping, rubbing, and praying before you get your hemo checked at the donation center. LOL!

    • P. D. Mangan says:

      Sheila, thanks for that very interesting comment. Great that you seem to have had fast results from your donation. And you’re right that out of 100s of anti-aging articles, hardly a one will mention iron. Tell your friends!

  7. Ted says:

    Future sunscreens may have this iron chelating compound, showed very good results so far

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