Have you ever spent the day at the beach swimming, running through the sand, and sunbathing, only end your day with a painful sunburn? You swore you put on sunscreen three or four times throughout the day but somehow you were still burnt. While sunburns can leave the skin blistered and red, the real damage goes skin deep. Ultraviolet rays from the sun are carcinogens, meaning they have the ability to turn into cancer. However, applying sunscreen isn’t the only way to prevent sunburns, we can eat it too.

Why do we get sunburn?

To begin, when we expose our bodies to harmful ultraviolet sun rays, the DNA of our skin cells becomes damaged.1 The proteins, prostaglandins and cytokines, synthesize differently due to this damage and cue the “dilation of the cutaneous blood vessels and recruitment of inflammatory cells.”2 This leads to the redness, pain, blisters, and swelling commonly experienced with sunburns.

You might be wondering why some people’s skin burns and some people’s tan. This is due to an individuals melanin level. Melanin is what gives skin its pigment and what protects us from sun.3 When we stay in the sun for too long and damage our skin, the body produces even more melanin to prevent further damage.4 People with darker skin produce more melanin, which is why they tan. People with lighter skin produce less melanin which is why their skin turns red and burns.5

Is sunscreen our only option?

So, what can we do to prevent sunburns? The answer that first comes to mind is typically to apply sunscreen. While there are natural, mineral-based sunscreens on the market, most sunscreens are chemical based.6 Oxybenzone, which is added to almost 65% of non-mineral sunscreens, can cause allergic skin reactions, the raising and lowering of testosterone, and the possibility to effect the length of pregnancy and the baby’s birth weight.7 

Many of the chemicals used in sunscreen, including Oxybenzone, have not recently been assessed for potential harm, due to The Food and Drug Administration grandfathering the ingredients in during the late 1970s.8 9 Are there other alternatives to using sunscreen to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays?

A more holistic approach

As most people know, having a healthy diet and a diverse gut microbiome can build immunity and prevent many health issues, like cardiovascular disease and hypertension. But did you know that you can use your healthy diet to fight sunburns as well? While these foods will not completely protect you during extended hours in the sun, they will fight against sun exposure on a regular day basis.

  • Tomatoes, carrots, and watermelon: All three of these vibrant foods contain lycopene. Lycopene is categorized as a carotenoid. Carotenoids help eliminate free radicals from the skin using its antioxidant properties.10 10 Pairing your tomato and carrot intake with olive oil will help the body absorb the lycopene. 11 Simmering your tomatoes and carrots in olive oil to make a pasta sauce is an easy way to incorporate the antioxidant food into your diet. Watermelon can be eaten on its own or added to smoothies and salads.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: This healthy form of fat contains anti-inflammatory elements. Seeing as the symptoms of sunburn like pain and redness are caused by inflammation, eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fatty acid is a logical method of preventing sunburn.12 Foods that include omega-3 fatty acid are fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.13
  • Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, a polyphenol antioxidant.14 This antioxidant has the ability to prevent your skin from UV light damage. 15
  • Green tea: Green tea contains polyphenols, an antioxidant that could possibly protect the skin from sunburns.16
  • Avocado: Avocados are packed with vitamin E, an antioxidant that eliminates and protects against free radicals. Vitamin E also have anti-aging properties, not only protecting you form the sun but also from the wrinkles caused by the sun!17
  • Strawberries: Strawberries contain loads of vitamin C, with 84.7 mg of it per one cup of strawberries.18 According to a study from the Vanavarayar Institute of Agriculture in India, “…vitamin C plays a ‘main role in fighting against free radical species that are the main cause of numerous negative skin changes.’”19

There is a common theme here: antioxidants. Antioxidants have the capability to prevent and possibly repair certain types of cell damage.20 While the foods listed above will certainly help protect your skin from sunburn, incorporating the following foods into your diet can further their effects.

  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Purple, red, and blue grapes
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Butternut squash and acorn squash
  • Black beans, lentils, black-eyed peas, kidney beans
  • Nuts. 21

Using mineral-based sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and limiting your time in the sun are all adequate ways to prevent sunburn. However, if you want to get ahead, sunburn prevention should start in the kitchen, long before you head out for a day in the sun.

  1. What Is Sunburn? A Look at What Happens to Your Skin.” SkinReading: The Skin Care Blog. February 08, 2018.
  2. What Happens When You Get a Sunburn?” Scientific American. August 6, 2001.
  3. What Causes a Sunburn and Suntan?” Ringworm | American Academy of Dermatology. 2018.
  4. EWG. “EWG’s 2018 Guide to Safer Sunscreens.” EWG. 2018.
  5. Reisch, Marc S. “After More Than A Decade, FDA Still Won’t Allow New Sunscreens.” CEN RSS. 2018.
  6. The Anti-Sunburn Diet: How Eating the Right Foods Can Protect You From Cancer-Causing Rays.” The Hearty Soul. September 22, 2017.
  7. Raloff, Janet. “Dietary Protection against Sunburn (with Recipe).” Science News. October 28, 2014. 
  8. “The Anti-Sunburn Diet: How Eating the Right Foods Can Protect You From Cancer-Causing Rays.”
  9. 12 Foods That Are Very High in Omega-3.” Healthline.
  10. Buckingham, Cheyenne. “7 Foods to Eat to Prevent Sunburn.” Eat This Not That. May 10, 2018.
  11. Antioxidants.” MedlinePlus. March 01, 2018.
  12. Magee, Elaine. “10 Nutrient-Rich Super Foods.” WebMD. 2010.