Eat Your Way to Natural UV Resistance
Limiting exposure, applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing have long been the go-to recommendations for protection from the sun’s invisible yet harmful ultraviolet radiation. But research suggests there may be another way to help protect your skin – and it isn’t found in the sunscreen aisle.
Some studies suggest certain compounds in foods and beverages may help boost the skin’s defences against ultraviolet (UV) rays. Carotenoids (lycopene, beta-carotene), polyphenols (powerful antioxidants found in plants), some vitamins (C, E), and omega 3 fatty acids may improve the skin’s ability to fight off UV damage and sunburn or speed up the recovery process from damage caused by UV rays.
> Lycopene. Studies suggest lycopene may have photoprotective benefits, meaning it offers skin protection against UV light. Lycopene, a pigment found in red, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, can be obtained through tomatoes, watermelon, pink guava, red oranges, pink grapefruit, rosehips, carrots, bell peppers and papaya.
Lycopene is easier for the body to use when the source has been heated, meaning pasta sauce and tomato juice offer more lycopene than raw tomatoes.
Several studies have shown that consuming 10-16 milligrams of lycopene per day in the form of tomato paste with olive oil may offer photoprotective benefits. Compared to placebo groups, skin redness from exposure to UV light was significantly lower after consuming 10-16 milligrams each day for 10-12 weeks.
A delay in skin reddening after UV exposure suggests lycopene may help boost skin’s defences against UVB rays, which are most responsible for an increased risk of skin cancer.
> Astaxanthin. This is a red pigment responsible for the colour of many marine animals, such as salmon, lobster and shrimp, plus some bacteria and algae. A 2019 review and a 2020 systematic review of 11 clinical trials found it helped protect skin against UV-induced damage. Studies also showed astaxanthin minimises effects of ageing, such as wrinkles and sunspots.
> Beta-carotene. The pigment beta-carotene is found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables including carrots, sweet potatoes and winter squash, and in leafy green vegetables such as spinach and lettuce. Research investigating potential sun-protective benefits of beta-carotene date back to the 1970s.
A 2020 review found that beta-carotene had sun-protective benefits at doses ranging from 12-180 milligrams a day. A seemingly more important factor was how long participants took the doses – not necessarily how much.
Beta-carotene may provide some sun protection at a minimum dose of 12 milligrams per day when taken for at least 7 weeks. Studies show participants who followed this regimen could be exposed to UV rays longer before getting sunburned compared to those who weren’t taking beta-carotene.
A few animal studies found that beta-carotene reduced the risk of skin cancer, but human studies have not been able to reproduce the same results. For instance, one large human study had participants supplement with 50 milligrams daily and saw no significant reductions in skin cancer risk after five years.
(Caution: Anyone considering beta-carotene supplements should take caution – when it comes to dose, more may not be better. Two studies found that higher doses of beta-carotene – 20-30 milligrams – taken over several years increased the risk of lung cancer in some people.)
> Lutein and Zeaxanthin. These orange and yellow pigments are found in foods such as cantaloupe, corn, carrots, peppers and eggs. Other sources include kale, spinach, broccoli and peas. Although lutein and zeaxanthin may be better known for supporting eye health, early research suggests they may help protect skin against UV rays.
VITAMINS C & E
Most people get Vitamin C from citrus fruits, tomatoes and tomato juice, but other sources include red and green bell peppers, kiwifruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and strawberries. Sources of Vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, spinach, broccoli and kiwifruit.
While there is limited evidence (mostly from animal studies) suggesting topical Vitamin C can help limit skin damage from UV exposure, there is not much evidence suggesting oral Vitamin C supplementation can do the same. Likewise, while many studies have tested the potential photoprotective benefits of oral Vitamin E supplementation, the results so far suggest it may not offer much protection. However, when Vitamin C is combined with Vitamin E, studies show it may reduce the rate at which skin burns and reduce the amount of DNA damage after UV exposure.
Research suggests omega-3s may help reduce signs of ageing. A few cross-sectional studies found people with higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids had less skin wrinkling on sun-exposed areas and were less likely to have dry skin and skin thinning.
Common food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines.
Some studies have found sun-protective benefits in both topically applied and ingested polyphenols. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in plants, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and flowers. Many well-known sources include black and green tea, red wine and foods such as cocoa and dark chocolate, beans, soy, berries and artichokes.
In vitro and animal studies suggest polyphenols in green tea might have photoprotective benefits when ingested or applied topically. More human studies have been done on the benefits of topical green tea extract application, but some have tested the sun-protective benefits from ingesting green tea.
One study had participants (all females) drink a liter of green tea (containing 1,402 milligrams of green tea catechins) daily for 12 weeks and found it had skin-protective benefits after 6 weeks. Participants who drank the tea could be exposed to UV light longer before experiencing skin reddening.
After 12 weeks, the benefits were even greater and included better skin elasticity and structure, reduced water loss from the skin, increased blood flow in the skin and higher serum flavonoid concentration.
However, a separate study in which participants took capsules of 1,080 milligrams of green tea catechins per day for 12 weeks found no benefit.
In one study on cocoa powder, participants (all female) drank either a high (326 milligrams) or low (27 milligrams) flavanol-containing cocoa beverage every day for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, participants who consumed the high-flavanol drink saw less skin reddening when exposed to UV and had improved skin structure and circulation.
Another study found consuming 6 milliliters of high-polyphenol wine per kilogram of body weight over 40 minutes helped protect skin against UVB.
Coffee also may have sun-protective benefits. Researchers of one study examined food-frequency questionnaires of 447,357 non-Hispanic white people and found those who consumed 4 or more cups per day had a 20% lower risk of developing malignant melanoma after a 10-year follow-up compared to those who drank one or fewer cups.
Source: “SPF: Sun-Protection Foods”, Food & Nutrition (23 August 2021)