Nutritional Sunscreen: 5 Foods that Protect Your Skin From Sun Damage

This summer, make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to keep your skin healthy and free of sun damage.

sun damage

Carotenoids are strong antioxidants that help scavenge free radicals in the skin after sun exposure, and eating tomatoes is a great way to get enough of these skin-healthy nutrients.

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Have you ever had a sunburn so bad that you could hardly move? Try as we might to avoid them, most of us have probably had at least one or two of these miserable sunburns. Aside from causing pain and discomfort, excessive sun exposure can also cause lasting damage to your skin; don’t forget that the UV rays from the sun are carcinogenic. Taking proper care of your skin when you are out in the sun is a must. This time of year, with summer about to be in full swing, proper sun protection is as important as ever.

Applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and limiting your time in the sun are all good preventive measures, but optimal sun protection should begin long before you head out for a summer day at the beach. Keeping your skin healthy from the inside out can help prevent sun damage as well. This summer, make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to keep your skin healthy and free of harm.

How the Sun Damages Your Skin

Sunburns are an inflammatory response and an outward symptom of the underlying skin damage occurring when you get too much UV exposure. UV exposure causes the formation of free radicals and oxidative damage, and can also lead to mutations in DNA and the formation of cancerous cells.[1] UVB and UVC rays are the most carcinogenic, but UVA (which is the type of ray we’re exposed to the most) can also cause extensive skin damage; it is responsible for most cases of melanoma.[2]

The Role of Diet in Sun Protection

So what does the food we put in our body have to do with sun damage on the skin? Antioxidants, in particular, are good for healthy skin protection, because they help to scavenge the free radicals produced when our skin is exposed to UV radiation. Antioxidants including carotenoids, polyphenols, and more can help prevent sunburn and the long-lasting damage that can occur when you are out in the sun. Other nutrients with anti-inflammatory qualities can also help.

Top Foods to Prevent Sunburn

  1. Tomatoes are one of the richest sources of lycopene, a specific type of carotenoid. Carotenoids are strong antioxidants that help scavenge free radicals in the skin after sun exposure, and eating tomatoes is a great way to get enough of these skin-healthy nutrients. In one study, people who added 40 g of tomato paste and 10 g of olive oil to their main meal for ten weeks showed a 40% reduction in sunburn levels compared to people who added 10 g of olive oil but no tomato paste.[3]
  2. Carrots. Another great source of lycopene and carotenoids, carrots can also protect against sunburn. Four hundred ml of carrot juice daily (containing 10 mg of lycopene and 5.1 mg of β-carotene) led to a reduction in sunburn of 45% in one study.[4]
  3. Green tea is a popular healthy drink consumed worldwide. Aside from its other health benefits (including those for weight loss, depression, cardiovascular disease, and more), green tea is one of the best foods for sun protection. Green tea leaves are rich in polyphenols, which inhibit carcinogenesis caused by UV-radiation. Drinking green tea helps protect against skin cancer by acting as an antioxidant, preventing immunosuppression, preventing tumor growth, and more.[5,6] Researchers suggest that five to six cups of green tea per day may have significant protective effects against sun damage.[7]
  4. Fish. Seafood, especially fish, has high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This polyunsaturated fatty acid is a healthy form of fat that has powerful anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Studies show that it helps prevent sunburn, as well. People who took four grams of EPA daily for three months sunburned less easily. The results showed that the threshold to sunburn formation in people supplementing with EPA was significantly higher than people taking placebo. Additional analysis showed that EPA also decreased markers of DNA damage in the skin.[8]
  5. Chocolate. This delicious treat has now become a favorite superfood. Rich in polyphenol antioxidants (flavanols), it can help combat high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and more. Eating chocolate (high quality dark chocolate, that is) can protect your skin from UV light, as well.

One study looked at the difference between eating a high-flavanol dark chocolate and a low-flavanol dark chocolate (treated with high temperatures that reduce flavanol content) for 12 weeks. People who ate the chocolate with a lot of flavanols had a significantly higher threshold of burning compared to people who ate the low-flavanol chocolate. The authors believe that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity of the cocoa flavanols help to protect the skin from UV damage.[9] When choosing healthy chocolate, be sure it is dark chocolate, with a high percentage of cacao (around 70%).

Other Foods With Skin-Protecting Qualities

Foods rich in other antioxidants, including vitamin E and vitamin C, are good choices for protecting your skin from UV damage.1,2,10 Try kale, red cabbage, berries, sweet potatoes, Brussels’ sprouts, eggplant, bell peppers, broccoli, Swiss chard, almonds, and more. When in doubt, remember that the brightest, darkest, most colorful foods usually contain the most antioxidants.

When you’re heading out in the sun, load up on these protective foods, use a non-toxic sunscreen, and limit your exposure. Together, these strategies will keep you safe and sunburn-free.

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This article was originally published in 2016. It is regularly updated.

1. Food Funct. 2014 Sep;5(9):1994-2003.
2. Nutr Rev. 2010 Feb;68(2):75-86.
3. J Nutr. 2001 May;131(5):1449-51.
4. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2006 Feb;5(2):238-42.
5. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2010 Feb;3(2):179-89.
6. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2012;2012:560682.
7. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2011 Apr 15;508(2):152-8.
8. Carcinogenesis. 2003 May;24(5):919-25.
9. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2009 Sep;8(3):169-73.
10. Exp Dermatol. 2014 Mar;23(3):178-83.

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UHN Staff

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