Foods That Can Actually Protect You from the Sun (But Yes, You Still Need Sunscreen)
Summer is (finally) here, and that means that it’s time to start kicking our sun protection plan into high gear. This year, we’re focusing on practicing good “sun hygiene,” or having a holistic lifestyle plan in place to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays. There are several healthy sun behaviors to remember for optimal sun hygiene: seeking shade, avoiding the strongest rays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and of course, wearing a reef-safe, non-nano mineral-based sunscreen of SPF 50 or higher.
But it also turns out that what you eat can have a powerful impact on your skin’s health. By making the right food choices, you can boost your overall sun protection substantially. For those who want to go the extra mile this summer with sun protection, it’s time to start strategically planning your diet around outdoor activities — and it’s a surprisingly delicious way to eat.
When you spend excess time in the sun, UV radiation produces free radicals in the skin. “Free radicals are unstable atoms that damage cells, cause chronic disease, and accelerate aging,” says Deepa Verma, MD, founder of Synergistiq Wellness. “Free radicals are naturally produced in the body, but toxin exposure, smoking, alcohol, unhealthy diets — all of these factors increase the production of free radicals.” Free radical damage can lead to premature aging, inflammation, redness, and hyperpigmentation.
So what can we eat to combat oxidative stress from the sun?
According to Meghan Pendleton, RD, to combat the harmful effects of the sun’s rays through diet, you should focus on antioxidant consumption. The best way to consume antioxidants is through whole foods — preferably seasonal produce.
“Antioxidants from food can neutralize free radicals by giving them an electron,” says Pendleton. “And it’s important to note that every antioxidant will work differently, so vitamin C will do different things than vitamin E.”
Pendleton stresses the importance of getting a wide variety of antioxidants in a healthy diet to make sure you’re getting all the great benefits from each.
Rossmy Barrios, MD, head of the anti-aging department at The IM Clinic and aesthetic medicine specialist, agrees — and she has three specific ingredient recommendations for a boost in sun protection.
“If you really want to go the extra mile, eat avocados, which are rich in vitamin A, a nutrient that helps cells regenerate, and also high in vitamin E, which fights the aging process,” Barrios says. “The vitamin C in tomatoes helps boost collagen production, which maintains skin elasticity, strengthens tissue, and helps skin regenerate. Oats are another great choice — they actually have a lot of silicon and zinc, which helps boost skin elasticity and collagen production.”
This is critical because elastin and collagen help maintain the skin’s firmness, prevent sagging, and keep skin healthier for longer. If you want to maintain optimal skin health for as long as possible, Barrios explains that excessive exposure to the sun causes 80-90% of premature aging symptoms, which include wrinkling, sagging, sun spots, and more. Worse yet, not adequately protecting your skin from the sun could lead to skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or even melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer.
The shopping list for your best skin protection
There are plenty of antioxidant-rich foods you can consume before and after sun exposure to help boost your protection. Green tea, red wine, and dark chocolate are famously packed with polyphenols, but did you know that other foods like apples, onions, and red cabbage are also strong sources of the powerful, skin-saving antioxidants? During your next trip to the grocery store, consider grabbing a few skin health-boosting items from each of these categories:
Fatty fish like salmon, oysters, mackerel, and tuna contain a significant amount of skin-loving omega-3 fatty acids, which promote a healthy skin barrier. A healthy skin barrier helps skin remain more resilient against environmental aggressors like free radicals. Look for wild-caught, when possible.
“One of my favorite foods for healing sun damage? It’s a fun one: dark chocolate,” says Verma. “My favorite foods to protect against and heal sun damage are those loaded with phytonutrients, and dark chocolate contains a phytonutrient called flavonoids.” She notes that eating chocolate has actually been shown in studies to significantly protect skin from UV light.”
Citrus fruits are a major source of vitamin C, which is amazing for skin health because it boosts collagen production. Vitamin C is also very skilled at fighting off free radicals from excess sun exposure, so give yourself permission to load up on lemons, oranges, and grapefruits this summer. Citrus fruits also contain flavonoids, another powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant.
Berries, like blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and fruits like grapes and cherries get their dark, vibrant color from a polyphenol group called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are absolute powerhouses of health — for the whole body, not just your skin. They have been shown to be anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial, and have even been linked to reduced diabetes risk. They are also very powerful in neutralizing free radicals, so load up on a bowl of berries before your next pool party.
Barrio loves brightly-colored vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, which are rich in carotenoids, extremely powerful antioxidants that have been shown in studies to have skin protective effects. They help prevent the degradation of collagen, elastin, and fibrillin, all of which are essential for healthy skin.
Dark, leafy greens
Here’s a fun fact you might not know: greens that are tinged purple have even higher amounts of polyphenols than the purely dark green ones — which are already packed with these important antioxidants. Look for kale, spinach, collard greens, purple greens, turnip greens, or arugula during your next trip down the produce aisle. And remember, the brighter or more deeply-pigmented the plant is, the more antioxidants it contains.
Green tea and black tea
Teas of all kinds are an excellent source of polyphenols called “catechins,” which have been linked to all sorts of health benefits, including being great for brain health and heart health. They’ve also been shown to increase energy, reduce oxidative stress, and potentially even boost your sun protection. Pendleton likes to make a big pitcher of green tea with lemon keep it in her fridge for a polyphenol boost before spending time outside.
Your post-beach menu
Some foods are so powerful in their skin protecting impact, Pendleton actually calls them “sunscreen foods” (but yes, you do still need to wear SPF and a hat, sorry). She helped us come up with a perfect polyphenol-rich menu after a long day at the beach, and it looks like this:
Dinner: Grilled salmon and spicy honey-lime sweet potato slices, served with a purple kale salad with a lemon-anchovy vinaigrette.
Drink: Cold brew iced green tea with a big squeeze of lemon juice
This is an ideal summertime menu in a lot of ways — it’s well-balanced, made of whole foods, and most importantly, it tastes fantastic. Eating for skin health (and for your wellbeing in general) should always be joyful and flavorful, as well as healthful.
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