"You are what you eat." When it comes to sun protection, this age-old adage may hold some clout—but don't start gobbling up the SPF 60. Loading up on certain antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables could help to prevent sun damage from the inside out. Make nutrition, sunscreen, and sun-safe habits all a part of your safe sun arsenal.
Most Canadians are finally—and happily—soaking up some warm summer sun. While we’re aware of the importance of protecting our skin from sun damage during the hot summer months, did you know that what you eat could also be important in protecting you from the negative effects of sun exposure?
The carotenoids are a family of pigments found in many fruits and vegetables and are responsible for their yellow, red, and orange colours. In plants, carotenoids help to provide protection against excess light. It turns out they can offer us some sun protection too; both oral and topical uses of carotenoids have been shown to help protect human skin from the harmful effects of UV light.
The carotenoids include some names that you may already be familiar with: beta carotene and lycopene. Both have been shown, in clinical trials, to reduce our skins’ sensitivity to UV light and provide some protection against sun damage.
Regular intake of beta carotene supplements, for at least 10 weeks, has been shown to help protect skin from sunburn. Additional research has found that applying beta carotene topically (instead of using oral supplements) also has protective effects, but this approach is inferior to acquiring carotenoids in mixed forms from the diet. The constant regeneration of our skin layers makes dietary intake of carotenoids a longer lasting and more consistent approach than using these substances topically.
Lycopene, found in high amounts in tomato products, has been shown to provide the skin with some sun protection after 10 to 12 weeks of regular intake. Tomato paste is a rich source of lycopene and is often used as a lycopene “supplement” in clinical trials such as these.
In addition to the carotenoids, other antioxidants as well as essential fatty acids and green tea may also help to protect our skin from the sun.
The severity of photo-aging (sun-related skin damage) appears to decrease with omega-3 fatty acid intake. In a study of almost 3,000 adults, higher dietary intake of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) was associated with less photo-aging.
High intake of EPA (via supplement use) has also been found to increase the skin’s tolerance to UV radiation, meaning that the dose of UV radiation required to cause burning was higher with increased EPA intake. Topical application of EPA has also shown some evidence of protective effects, although regular dietary intake will provide more consistent EPA levels.
Topical vitamins E and C
At least two studies have shown that topical products containing between 1 and 2.5 percent vitamin E and between 5 and 15 percent vitamin C can help to protect the skin from damage caused by UV light exposure. Some manufacturers have already begun to add these or other antioxidants to their sunscreens.
Green tea catechins (GTC) are also of potential use as photoprotective agents. One study found that 12 weeks of using GTC supplements was associated with a reduction in the harmful effects of UV radiation exposure. Topical use may also be helpful: in a study that added green tea components to sunscreen, photoprotective effects were observed.
Remember to cover up!
A last—but critical—point: while boosting your intake of nutrients such as carotenoids and EFAs can help to protect your skin from the sun, they are not an adequate substitute for standard sun precautions such as protective clothing/hats and sunscreen! So continue with your usual sun-smart habits while boosting your fruit, veggie, and essential fatty acid intake for optimal sun protection this summer.
Topical versus oral
In boosting skin-protecting nutrients, oral intake of nutrients tends to provide more consistent day-to-day benefits compared to topical use. Many of the antioxidant nutrients also work better in combination, as they are naturally found in food.
10 foods for sun protection
- red peppers
- sweet potatoes
- leafy greens
- green tea
- fruits, especially strawberries, kiwis, and oranges
- oily fish, such as salmon
- nuts and seeds
Did you know?
While supplements, both oral and topical, are a helpful approach to boosting nutrient intake, diet should always be the primary focus. Regular dietary intake of fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids has been found to effectively increase skin levels, while stress, smoking, fatigue, and significant illness have all been shown to decrease skin carotenoid levels.
So, boosting your fruit and veggie intake while watching stress levels, getting adequate sleep, and avoiding smoking could improve and protect your skin health, in addition to a long list of other potential health benefits.