UV radiation from sunlight is the most potent environmental risk factor in skin cancer pathogenesis. In the present study the ability of an algal extract to protect against UVA-induced DNA alterations was examined in human skin fibroblasts (1BR-3), human melanocytes (HEMAc) and human intestinal CaCo-2 cells. The protective effects of the proprietary algal extract, which contained a high level of the carotenoid astaxanthin, were compared with synthetic astaxanthin. DNA damage was assessed using the single cell gel electrophoresis or comet assay. In 1BR-3 cells, synthetic astaxanthin prevented UVA-induced DNA damage at all concentrations (10 nM, 100 nM, 10 microM) tested. In addition, the synthetic carotenoid also prevented DNA damage in both the HEMAc and CaCo-2 cells. The algal extract displayed protection against UVA-induced DNA damage when the equivalent of 10 microM astaxanthin was added to all three-cell types, however, at the lower concentrations (10 and 100 nM) no significant protection was evident. There was a 4.6-fold increase in astaxanthin content of CaCo-2 cells exposed to the synthetic compound and a 2.5-fold increase in cells exposed to algal extract. In 1BR-3 cells, exposure to UVA for 2 h resulted in a significant induction of cellular superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity, coupled with a marked decrease in cellular glutathione (GSH) content. However pre-incubation (18 h) with 10 microM of the either the synthetic astaxanthin or the algal extract prevented UVA-induced alterations in SOD activity and GSH content. Similarly, in CaCo-2 cells a significant depletion of GSH was observed following UVA-irradiation which was prevented by simultaneously incubating with 10 microM of either synthetic astaxanthin or the algal extract. SOD activity was unchanged following UVA exposure in the intestinal cell line. This work suggests a role for the algal extract as a potentially beneficial antioxidant.