How can my diet help protect me from sunburn?

You might be thinking that the best way to avoid sunburn is to stay out of the sun for too long. If so, you are correct! Staying out of the sun is the best way to avoid sunburn. However, moderate amounts of sunlight can be important as it provides our bodies with vitamin D, a vitamin essential for maintaining proper calcium levels that promote strong teeth and bones. Therefore, it is recommended to enjoy some limited time in the sun without the use of sunscreens to optimize levels of vitamin D; however, it doesn't take much time to increase vitamin D levels and sunscreens are valuable aids to preventing damage to skin cells.

How sunburn works

Researchers have determined that our skins cells can take on a specific form—called sunburn cells, or SBCs—once they've been overexposed to sun. Different wavelengths of light cause different changes in skin cells, and we've learned a lot about sunburn by studying these different wavelengths and the changes they cause. Most sunscreens were initially developed to block ultraviolet-B (UVB) wavelengths, and UVB light remains most closely associated with sunburn. However, ultraviolet-A (UVA) sunlight—longer wavelengths of the sun's energy—may more readily damage the DNA in our cells and may be equally or more responsible for skin aging, and even for skin health problems like melanoma.

Studies on UVA and UVB sunlight have taught us that our cells essentially "shut down" when the damage caused by sunlight becomes too great. When certain kinds of skin cells (called keratinocytes) are overexposed to UVA and/or UVB sunlight, they experience metabolic stress, including one particular type of stress called oxidative stress. This stress can overload our antioxidant nutrient supplies, and it is one reason why I will tell you about the antioxidant-rich foods that can reduce your risk of sunburn. Damage to our DNA is also part of what happens in sunburn cell formation. In this situation, there may be a special role for nutrients that help protect our DNA and the foods that contain these nutrients. I'll tell you about these foods and what research has shown so far.

Olive oil and tomato paste

A fascinating study about sunburn protection from two antioxidant-rich foods—olive oil and tomato—was carried out by a team of German researchers with impressive results. Half of all subjects in the study consumed 10 grams of olive oil (about 2 teaspoons) and 40 grams (about 1/4 cup) of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks, in addition to a controlled diet. The other half did not receive this additional tomato paste and olive oil.

Prior to the diet changes, researchers measured the amount of sunlamp exposure it would take to produce reddening on a small patch of skin on the back of each subject. The minimum required amount was determined individually for each subject. As the study moved along, the amount of skin reddening in all subjects was measured by giving each subject 125% of the minimum sunlamp exposure required for reddening. By the end of the study, individuals whose diets included the tomato paste and olive oil were experiencing 35% less reddening than regular diet-only group. Although the results of this study did not show large amounts of skin protection from olive oil and tomato paste alone, the ability of these two foods to make a measurable difference in such a short period of time was significant. And given the lycopene in tomatoes and phenols in olive oil—phytonutrients that are especially valuable as antioxidants—these findings give us even more reason to think that the foods delivered added protection to the skin of these research participants.

So, olive oil and tomatoes would be at the top of my list for dietary help with sunburn protection.

Conventional antioxidants

Vitamin C, vitamin E, and the mineral selenium all have good track records as antioxidant nutrients that help skin cells maintain their vitality. I realize that vitamin E is sometimes used topically to soothe the results of sunburn, but what we're talking about here is not sunburn treatment, but sunburn prevention, and the ability of vitamin E to help prevent our skin cells from becoming SBCs (sunburn cells). On our website, you'll find ratings for all of the World's Healthiest Foods that are rich in these two vitamins. For vitamin C, I would strongly encourage the addition of bell peppers, broccoli, papaya, Brussels sprouts, and strawberries to your Healthiest Way of Eating. For vitamin E, at the top of our list would be sunflower seeds, almonds, olives, and dark green leafy vegetables. For all of the plant foods above, certified organic foods are your number one choice since pesticide residues can take a toll on your antioxidant supplies and partly (but never totally) offset the protection of these foods for sunburn protection. For selenium protection, I'd highly recommend mushrooms and many different types of fish, including cod, shrimp, tuna, halibut, and salmon.


When it comes to DNA damage and other skin cell changes caused by UVA sunlight, you'll find some of the World's Healthiest Foods to have some superstar phytonutrient components. Raspberries and blueberries would be skin support standouts because of their ellagic acid content. (Cherries would also be highly recommended in this regard, as well as for their supply of the flavonoids isoqueritrin and queritrin.) Also in the fruit category would be oranges, lemons, and limes with their skin-cell protective amounts of limonene.

Green tea would fall into a category all its own, since its epigallocatechins directly block DNA damage from UV light in studies involving human skin cells. You'll find a detailed profile of green tea and its health benefits on our website, with reference to many cutting edge research reports.

Since dietary changes have been shown help skin cells handle UV sunlight changes, you'll also want to make sure that lutein-rich and zeaxanthin-rich foods are part of your sunburn prevention Healthiest Way of Eating. These two carotenoids are also carefully profiled on our website. The dark green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach, collard greens, and turnip greens are best-bet foods for these carotenoids. Broccoli, corn, peas, Brussels sprouts, and romaine lettuce are also good choices here.

You can't swallow your sunblock, but .....

As I stated at the outset, avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight is your best bet for preventing sunburn. Even with a diet exclusively composed of the World's Healthiest Foods, you will not be swallowing your sunblock in a way that can replace the protection sunscreen gives to your skin cells. But you can boost the vitality and resilience of your skin so that UVA and UVB sunlight aren't as likely to transform you skin cells into SBCs. And you can enjoy brief, minutes-long steps out into the sunlight knowing that your skin is better supported by some carefully chosen, delicious foods.

Note: I recommend sunscreens that have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of 30 or higher since these sunscreens are capable of absorbing about 95% of UVB rays. I also recommend a sunscreen that is described as "broad protection" or one that specifically claims protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens that display the AAD (American Academy of Dermatologists) Seal of Recognition are also recommended.


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