It’s been drilled into us since we were kids to slop on the sunscreen whenever we go outside. We know that repeated sunburns can contribute to the development of skin cancer in later years. We’ve been told that ultraviolet light from the sun is bad. While the jury is still out on how much sun exposure actually leads to skin cancer, we know that burning is definitely not a good thing—and it hurts.
The quandary we face: we need vitamin D from the sun in order to be healthy; deficiency in this nutrient critical to the immune system is a worldwide epidemic. Part of that is due to spending so much time indoors, the rest is because we slather on sunscreen that blocks the sun’s light when we do manage to spend some time outside. Adding injury to insult, most commercial sunscreens contain carcinogens and hormone disruptors, so if the sunburns don’t give you cancer, the sunscreen might.
“…many diseases linked to excessive UVR exposure tend to be relatively benign—apart from malignant melanoma—and occur in older age groups, due mainly to the long lag between exposure and manifestation, the requirement of cumulative exposures, or both…In contrast…a markedly larger annual disease burden…might result from very low levels of UVR exposure. This burden subsumes major disorders of the musculoskeletal system and possibly an increased risk of various autoimmune diseases and life-threatening cancers.” (1)
What are the alternatives to sunscreen?
Clothing (or remaining indoors) is the only option for fully protecting your skin. If your entire body is covered, however, you don’t get sunshine’s vitamin D and you limit the complex processes that occur as the result of sun exposure, including hormone regulation and the metabolism of proteins. (1)
If you burn easily, it’s best to gradually introduce your skin to the sun, increasing exposure over time. You can make your own non-toxic sunscreen (click here for a recipe). You can also protect yourself from the inside out.
Top 10 Foods for Natural Skin Protection
That’s right—some foods help protect your skin from sunburn and its potentially harmful effects. As your largest organ, skin is nourished from the outside and the inside. Below are the most beneficial foods you can eat to protect yourself against over-exposure to ultraviolet light.
1. Aloe Vera
The juice of this succulent plant is known to be soothing to skin burns and rashes. This “plant of immortality” has been used for millennia as a virtual panacea for everything from constipation to dermatitis. (2)
Add “skin protectant” to the list of this superfood’s properties. The fats in avocado reduce inflammation and damage to the skin from ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation when eaten before sun exposure. In addition, avocado oil reduces long-term cellular damage when applied topically. (5)
3. Dark Chocolate
Cacao contains a type of antioxidant called flavonoids. Antioxidants are important nutrients for reducing inflammation by countering oxidative stress at the cellular level.
Flavonoids have anti-carcinogenic properties and just as they serve as ultraviolet (UV) filters for the plants that produce them, they do the same for animals when you eat them. (6)
This explains the results of a 2006 study published in The Journal of Nutrition that found adding raw cocoa to subjects’ diets improved blood circulation to the skin and prevented cutaneous (skin) moisture loss. (7)
You can add raw cocoa to virtually everything you eat; do keep in mind that heating it reduces its nutrition.
4. Fatty Fish
Just as the fat in avocado protects the skin, different fats in fish (omega-3s) have a similar effect.
In addition, omega-3 fat in fish moderates the immune system, which can help prevent the development of skin cancer. (8) Wild herring, salmon, and sardines are good sources of omega-3 fat.
This citrus fruit is loaded with vitamin C. You’re probably fully aware of how this nutrient supports the immune system and combats colds, flu, and other illness. When it comes to your skin, vitamin C has a part to play there, too.
When exposed to the sun, skin cells undergo oxidative stress. As a result, the break-down of collagen, elastin, and even cellular DNA can occur if not neutralized by antioxidants to restore atomic balance. The vitamin C in grapefruit can prevent oxidative stress from the inside—something no sunscreen can do. (9)
6. Green Tea
Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant found in abundance in green tea. One of these is EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate), known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
Topical application of green tea to skin before sun exposure has been shown to inhibit UV radiation’s oxidative activities and subsequent human melanoma (cancer) cell growth. (10) Drink at least two cups a day for immune system and antioxidant support.
This deep red fruit is a marvelous source of two other types of antioxidants: flavonoid anthocyanins and polyphenol tannins. Anthocyanin is a pigment found in dark (black, red, and purple) plants and tannins are a brown pigment.
A study of damaged skin treated with pomegranate juice prior to UVB exposure found significant reduction in protein oxidation and reduction in the production of enzymes that break down collagen.
Additionally, pomegranate prevented skin cell DNA damage by expediting repair mechanisms through its antioxidant activity. (11) This significantly reduces the risk of developing cancerous cells over time.
8. Sweet Potatoes
As we’ve seen in other foods above, antioxidants in pigments of different colors play a big role in protection from damage due to over-exposure to sunlight and general skin health. Another pigment shown to have anti-photoaging properties is the beta carotene (a carotenoid) that makes carrots and sweet potatoes orange.
In addition to its antioxidant activity, carotenoids actually absorb UVB and UVA rays, preventing damage to skin cells. Increasing intake of sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, papaya, peppers, cantaloupe, and other yellow and orange foods will protect your skin from the inside but it can take several weeks for these properties to accumulate in your skin’s cells.
These berries are rich in lycopene, a red carotenoid. With lots of vitamin C too, tomatoes and tomato products are nourishing and protective of your skin.
A 2001 study found that subjects who ate tomato paste every day for ten weeks were forty percent less likely to experience sunburn after the same amount of sun exposure than those who didn’t eat it. (13)
These brain-shaped nuts are a crunchy, delicious, versatile source of omega-3 fats. From a study of dietary omega-3 fatty acids and their influence on skin cancer:
“Clinical studies have shown that omega-3 FA [fatty acid] ingestion protects against UVR-induced genotoxicity, raises the UVR-mediated erythema [sunburn] threshold, reduces the level of pro-inflammatory and immunosuppressive prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) in UVR-irradiated human skin, and appears to protect human skin from UVR-induced immune-suppression.” (14)
You can eat walnuts as a snack by the handful, on salads, in soups, and as walnut butter spread on vegetables or fruits.
Of course, sun protection isn’t the only health benefit of these foods. If you choose to consciously increase your intake of them for this purpose, eat a variety each day. It’ll take some time to build up the nutrient stores in your skin, so you can’t expect to eat an avocado, drink a cup of green tea, and go sit in the sun for 6 hours without getting burned. Start early and you’ll be prepared for summer, inside and out.