With the summer just about here, it’s time for the return of one of my oldest friends: sunburn.
For pasty white guys such as myself, sunburn is pretty much a fixture of the summer months. Besides being painful, sunburn is also a huge risk factor for skin cancer…not good.
Luckily, people like you and me can protect ourselves. Sunscreen has been around for a while, but research is also beginning to shed light on how to use nutrition for natural sun protection.
In this post, you will first learn why sunscreen is a risky means of obtaining sun protection, and then how your diet can help stave off sunburn and protect your skin. Finally, I will discuss a protocol for staying safe during the hot summer months.
What’s Wrong With Sunscreen?
If used properly, sunscreen is without a doubt one of the best ways you can prevent sunburn. So why don’t we all just use sunscreen to protect ourselves and forget about it?
It’s not quite so simple. First of all, many people do not use sunscreen properly. Whether you miss a few spots, apply it when you are already out in the sun, or forget to reapply, you are probably making a mistake somewhere.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. Sunscreen itself has its own set of risks.
Sunscreen And Dangerous Chemicals
Sunscreen contains all sorts of chemicals that have negative effects on your body. I guarantee that if you look at the list of ingredients in your sunscreen, you won’t recognize the vast majority of them.
Seriously, take a look. Do you have any idea what oxybenzone, benzophenone, octocrylene, or octyl methoxycinnamate do?
Neither do I.
Titanium dioxide, another one of these chemicals found commonly in sunscreen (even the ones commonly regarded as safe), greatly increases the rate of cell death in human skin cells1. And then there are the various chemicals that act as UV filters that have been found to have numerous endocrine disrupting effects in animals, including reproductive and developmental toxicity and problems with the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis2. We don’t have much evidence of what these chemicals do in humans, but the animal evidence isn’t promising.
The Environmental Working Group warns against use of the majority of sunscreens due to the uncertain effects of many chemicals in them3. Most notable is oxybenzone, found in about 80% of all chemical sunscreens, which can penetrate the skin, cause allergic reactions, and disrupt hormones.
While the jury is still out on the effects of many of these chemicals, they very well may pose a threat to your health.
Sunscreen And Melanoma
There is a lot of evidence that sunscreen can reduce the rate of skin cancer. That being said, they only seem to prevent squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, both of which are rarely fatal.
Melanoma, the least common form of skin cancer, is responsible for 75% of skin cancer deaths. Shouldn’t this be the type of cancer that we are therefore most concerned about?
A huge meta-analysis found no association between sunscreen use and risk of developing malignant melanoma4. In such a large study, you would hope to see a reduced risk, but this isn’t the case. In fact, there is some evidence that use of sunscreen can lead to an increased risk of developing melanoma5.
How is this possible? It might have something to do with the sunscreen itself, but it could also be behavioral. When you put on sunscreen, you feel like you are protected, so you end up spending more time out in the sun, resulting in more UV exposure.
Sunscreen And Vitamin D Synthesis
Our bodies produce vitamin D naturally through exposure to the sun. This is by far the best source of the vitamin available to humans.
Unfortunately, sunscreen greatly diminishes our bodies’ natural ability to synthesize vitamin D, even beyond the SPF advertised6.. In fact, an SPF 8 sunscreen (relatively weak) reduced vitamin D synthesis by over 95%7.
There is significant variation in cancer mortality geographically, and exposure to UV-B largely accounts for that effect8. By carefully increasing exposure to sunlight, many people can reduce their risk of cancer death.
Nutrition For Sun Protection
Since sunscreen is not a perfect solution to the whole sunburn problem, it would be great if there were another way to get protection from the sun. Believe it or not, components of your diet can have a huge effect on your skin’s ability to naturally protect itself against sunburn8.
It shouldn’t be too surprising though. After all, we know that what we eat shows in our skin (check out this review for lots of information on nutrition’s effect on skin health). By consuming more of certain nutrients and less of others, you can make your skin much more resistant to damage from the sun.
Macronutrients And Sun Protection
For our purposes, macronutrients will be defined as anything that we consume in large amounts that provides energy (calories). I have three general recommendations for consumption of macronutrients to protect your skin.
1. Increase your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA. Besides being fantastic for your health in general, the anti-inflammatory omega-3’s also significantly increase the threshold of UV radiation required to cause sunburn9. In particular, EPA, which can be found in large amounts in fish, significantly reduces the toxicity of UV radiation10. While the exact mechanisms by which omega-3’s protect the skin are unknown, you can learn more about possible mechanisms here (warning: only for nerds).
2. Reduce consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, particularly from vegetable oils. At least in mice, a diet high in omega-6 fats significantly increased the incidence of tumors when exposed to UV radiation11. This effect can be negated by consuming more omega-3’s in order to balance out the inflammatory response. Ultimately it is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 that matters, so consuming a diet high in omega-6 fats will make it harder for your skin to protect itself from sun damage12.
3. Consume less alcohol, especially if you are going to spend time in the sun the next day. When you drink alcohol, your body uses up antioxidants to detoxify it. If you then go into the sun soon after, your antioxidant defenses will be lower. In fact, alcohol has been shown to decrease the amount of time until sunburn13.
Micronutrients And Sun Protection
Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that you consume in your diet. All of the nutrients in this section are antioxidants that help prevent oxidative damage to your skin from the sun’s rays. Here are the nutrients you should focus on:
1. Eat more carotenoids. Carotenoids accumulate in the skin, and have been shown to have a measurable photoprotective benefit directly linked to their concentration in the skin tissue14. Supplemental carotenoids help scavenge free radicals and protect the skin from UV damage given a ten week intervention15. A meta-analysis concluded that supplemental beta-carotene for a minimum of ten weeks protects against sunburn, and that longer duration confers even more protection16.
Other antioxidants may strengthen the effect of carotenoids. When consumed with vitamin E for eight weeks, sunburn suppression was even more pronounced than with either nutrient alone17.
Carotenoids are responsible for the red, yellow, and orange color of fruits and vegetables, and can also be found in some dark, leafy greens. Good sources include carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, mangoes, apricots, egg yolks, and tomatoes. Speaking of tomatoes…
2. Eat more lycopene from tomatoes. Technically, lycopene is a carotenoid, but it has enough of its own research to warrant a separate section. Consuming 40 grams of tomato paste per day for ten weeks resulted in a 40% reduction in sunburn18. Cooked tomatoes have a higher concentration of lycopene, so things like tomato paste are recommended, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them raw, too.
3. Drink green tea. Considering the many health benefits of green tea, you should be drinking it already. But you probably didn’t realize how good it is for your skin. Polyphenols from green tea increased time to sunburn in rats, and drastically reduced tumor incidence, multiplicity, and growth in mice19,20. In women, green tea was found to decrease the degree of sun damage by 16 and 25% at 6 weeks and 12 weeks, respectively21. It also improved overall skin quality. How does it do this? Here is a long explanation of possible mechanisms, again, only for the truly nerdy.
4. Make your desserts dark chocolate. I’ve explained why dark chocolate is the healthy dessert of champions before, but it can be particularly helpful if you are concerned about your skin. The flavanols in cocoa increased the amount of UV radiation required to burn the skin by 15 and 25% after 6 and 12 weeks of treatment, respectively22. The cocoa also reduced skin roughness and scaling, as well as improving a few other measures of skin health. Nice.
5. Get more vitamin E and C in your diet. These two vitamins are your body’s primary fat and water soluble antioxidants, and well worth getting in your diet for optimal health. It appears that their antioxidant effects protect your skin along with the rest of your body. When consumed together in large amounts for 50 days, they nearly doubled the amount of UV radiation needed to cause sunburn23. A smaller dose of the combination was found to significantly increase the time to sunburn after only eight days of supplementation24!
Recommended Sun Protection Protocol
Nutrition alone is unfortunately not a sufficient strategy to combat sun damage. Many of the nutrients take weeks before they have any noticeable effect. In addition, to have a truly significant effect in practice, supplementation might be required.
That being said, nutrition can be a powerful tool in your sun protection toolkit.
There was a lot of information in this post, and there are many complications in our relationship with the sun. Here I will summarize some of the best practices that will help keep your skin safe from chemicals and UV radiation, while still getting enough vitamin D.
1. Follow the nutrition guidelines above. Balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and consume as many antioxidants as possible. You should consider supplementation. Antioxidant supplements will do more than just protect you from the sun, so it might be a justifiable expense. That’s up to you.
2. Get regular, small amounts of sun exposure during the middle of the day for vitamin D. A blanket recommendation for how much time to spend in the sun per day is impossible, because there are so many factors at play here. Your latitude and skin pigmentation are two of the biggest ones. If you live further from the equator or have darker skin, you need more time. Get exposure over a large portion of your body, without sunscreen or other sun protection.
3. Moderate your exposure to the sun. Try not to be exposed for long periods of time in order to avoid burning. As much as it may suck, covering up with clothes will help prevent sun damage, so do it if you must. There are very light, long sleeve shirts available for this purpose, most commonly marketed to hikers.
4. If you must use a sunscreen, find one with fewer chemicals. Here is a guide to choosing a safe brand of sunscreen. For a while my favorite were the spray-on kinds, but those are bad for you because you can breathe in the chemicals. Most of the safer ones don’t absorb into your skin, but rather stay on top of it, so they are more noticeable.
If you follow these recommendations, you’ll be able to balance the complicated needs of getting enough sun but not getting too much.