Lutein and zeaxanthin are two important carotenoids, which are pigments produced by plants that give fruits and vegetables a yellow to reddish hue.
They’re structurally very similar, with just a slight difference in the arrangement of their atoms (1).
Both are potent antioxidants and offer a range of health benefits. However, lutein and zeaxanthin are best known for protecting your eyes.
This article discusses the benefits of lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as supplement dosages, safety and food sources.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are powerful antioxidants that defend your body against unstable molecules called free radicals.
Lutein and zeaxanthin also work to protect your eyes from free radical damage.
Your eyes require a lot of oxygen, which in turn promotes the production of harmful oxygen free radicals. Lutein and zeaxanthin cancel out these free radicals, so they’re no longer able to damage your eye cells (6).
These carotenoids seem to work better together and can combat free radicals more effectively when combined, even at the same concentration (7).
Summary Lutein and zeaxanthin are important antioxidants, which protect your cells from damage. Most notably, they support the clearance of free radicals in your eyes.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only dietary carotenoids that accumulate in the retina, particularly the macula region, which is located at the back of your eye.
Because they’re found in concentrated amounts in the macula, they’re known as macular pigments (8).
The macula is essential for vision. Lutein and zeaxanthin work as important antioxidants in this area by protecting your eyes from harmful free radicals. It’s thought that a reduction of these antioxidants over time can impair eye health (9, 10).
Lutein and zeaxanthin also act as a natural sunblock by absorbing excess light energy. They’re thought to especially protect your eyes from harmful blue light (9).
Below are some conditions with which lutein and zeaxanthin may help:
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): Consumption of lutein and zeaxanthin may protect against AMD progression to blindness (11, 12, 13).
- Cataracts: Cataracts are cloudy patches at the front of your eye. Eating foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin may slow their formation (14, 15).
- Diabetic retinopathy: In animal diabetes studies, supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin has been shown to reduce oxidative stress markers that damage the eyes (16, 17, 18).
- Eye detachment: Rats with eye detachments who were given lutein injections had 54% less cell death than those injected with corn oil (19).
- Uveitis: This is an inflammatory condition in the middle layer of the eye. Lutein and zeaxanthin may help reduce the inflammatory process involved (20, 21, 22).
The research to support lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health is promising, but not all studies show benefits. For example, some studies found no link between lutein and zeaxanthin intake and the risk of early onset age-related macular degeneration (11, 23).
While there are many factors at play, having enough lutein and zeaxanthin is still crucial to your overall eye health.
Summary Lutein and zeaxanthin may help improve or reduce the progression of many eye conditions, but they may not reduce your risk of early onset age-related degeneration.
Only in recent years have the beneficial effects of lutein and zeaxanthin on skin been discovered.
Their antioxidant effects allow them to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays (24).
A two-week animal study showed that rats who received 0.4% lutein- and zeaxanthin-enriched diets had less UVB-induced skin inflammation than those who received only 0.04% of these carotenoids (25).
Another study in 46 people with mild-to-moderate dry skin found that those who received 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin had significantly improved skin tone, compared to the control group (26).
Furthermore, lutein and zeaxanthin may protect your skin cells from premature aging and UVB-induced tumors (27).
Summary Lutein and zeaxanthin work as supportive antioxidants in your skin. They can protect it from sun damage and may help improve skin tone and slow aging.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are widely recommended as dietary supplements to prevent visual loss or eye disease.
They’re usually sourced from marigold flowers and mixed with waxes but can also be made synthetically (10).
These supplements are especially popular among older adults who are concerned about failing eye health.
Low levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in the eyes are associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts, while higher blood levels of these carotenoids are linked to an up to 57% reduced risk of AMD (6, 28, 29).
Other people may benefit from lutein and zeaxanthin supplements, as dietary intakes of carotenoids are often low (13).
Supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin can also improve your overall antioxidant status, which may offer greater protection against stressors.
Summary Lutein and zeaxanthin supplements have become very popular among people concerned with their eye health but may also benefit those with poor dietary intake.
There’s currently no recommended dietary intake for lutein and zeaxanthin.
What’s more, the amount of lutein and zeaxanthin your body requires may depend on the amount of stress it endures. For example, smokers may need more lutein and zeaxanthin, as they tend to have lower levels of carotenoids, compared to non-smokers (1).
It’s estimated that Americans consume an average 1–3 mg of lutein and zeaxanthin daily. However, you may need a lot more than this to reduce your risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) (13).
Research from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2) found that 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin caused a significant reduction in the progression to advanced age-related macular degeneration (31).
Likewise, supplementing with 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin can improve overall skin tone (26).
Summary 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin appear to be effective in studies, but further research is needed to identify the optimal dosage for health.
There appear to be very few side effects associated with lutein and zeaxanthin supplements.
A large-scale eye study found no adverse effects of lutein and zeaxanthin supplements over five years. The only side effect identified was some skin yellowing that was not considered harmful (32).
However, one case study found crystal development in the eyes of an older woman who supplemented with 20 mg of lutein per day and also consumed a high-lutein diet for eight years.
Once she stopped taking the supplement, the crystals disappeared in one eye but remained in the other (33).
Research estimates that 0.45 mg per pound (1 mg per kg) of body weight of lutein and 0.34 mg per pound (0.75 mg per kg) of body weight of zeaxanthin daily are safe. For a 154-pound (70-kg) person, this equates to 70 mg of lutein and 53 mg of zeaxanthin (10).
A study in rats found no adverse effects for lutein or zeaxanthin for daily doses of up to 1,814 mg per pound (4,000 mg/kg) of body weight, which was the highest dose tested (35).
Though there are very few reported side effects of lutein and zeaxanthin supplements, more research is needed in potential side effects of very high intakes.
Summary Lutein and zeaxanthin are overall safe to supplement at the recommended doses, but skin yellowing may occur over time.
Interestingly, the chlorophyll in dark-green vegetables masks lutein and zeaxanthin pigments, so the vegetables appear green in color.
Key sources of these carotenoids include kale, parsley, spinach, broccoli and peas. Kale is one of the best sources of lutein with 48–115 mcg per gram of kale. By comparison, a carrot may only contain 2.5–5.1 mcg of lutein per gram (36, 37, 38).
Orange juice, honeydew melon, kiwis, red peppers, squash and grapes are also good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, and you can find a decent amount of lutein and zeaxanthin in durum wheat and corn as well (1, 36, 39).
In addition, egg yolk may be an important source of lutein and zeaxanthin, as the high fat content of the yolk may improve the absorption of these nutrients (36).
Fats improve the absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin, so including them in your diet, such as some olive oil in a green salad or some butter or coconut oil with your cooked greens, is a good idea (10).
Summary Dark-green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli, are fantastic sources of lutein and zeaxanthin. Foods like egg yolk, peppers and grapes are good sources, too.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are powerful antioxidant carotenoids, found in high amounts in dark-green vegetables and available in supplement form.
Daily doses of 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin may improve skin tone, protect your skin from sun damage and reduce the progression of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Dietary intakes of these carotenoids are low in the average diet, possibly giving you just another good reason to increase your fruit and vegetable intake.