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Can Your Diet Protect You From Sunburns and Skin Cancer?

Here’s what the latest science says about eating for sun protection.

Ask any runner and they can likely tell you how many miles they ran the week prior. Some can even tell you how many they ran in the entire past year. But while we’re tracking time on the pavement, are we also tracking how that translates to time under the sun?

Skin cancer and damage from the sun are a risk to runners year-round, not just in the summer when the sun is most visible. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the majority of skin cancers (the most common type of cancer) are attributable to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. And for all the hours upon hours runners spend outdoors, sun protection should be a high priority. 

You likely already know about the benefits of sunscreen and protective clothing, but emerging research is showing there is one more method of suncare to add to the arsenal: UV protective food. 

RELATED: The Biggest Mistake Runners Make When It Comes to Sun Protection

A wide range of studies have shown that some vitamins (namely B3, C, and E), carotenoids (the yellow, orange, and red pigments in fruits and vegetables), fatty acids, and polyphenols (micronutrients found in plant-based foods) may delay the process of sunburning, thus protecting the skin.  

A lot of the research is still emerging around the specific chemical compounds, dosage, timing, and degree of protection but the promise that good food can protect the body’s biggest organ is becoming apparent. 

There’s another interesting thread to come out of this cumulation of research: healthful eating should be a year-round habit. Meaning, you can’t eat a slice of watermelon and then expect to throw away that bottle of sunscreen. Many of these studies found that you need to eat the specific nutrient in question for weeks on end in order to get some amount of sun protection, but never nearing 100 percent.  

This meta-analysis from 2007 found that the benefits of beta-carotene, for example, required a minimum of 10 weeks to be considered effective. If anything, the research just further advocates that eating a well balanced diet should become a long-term habit for the sake of our health. 

Looking at the research just reinforces the healthy eating habits that dietitians already recommend, says sports dietitian Dawn Holmes. “But here’s a new benefit to it,” she says.

If you’re ready to start eating for skin health today, here are some food choices that may offer a little UV protection. 

8 Foods for Sun Protection

There’s not one way to incorporate these healthful boosts into your diet.

“A cup of tomato soup would give you 26 milligrams of lycopene,” says Holmes. You could also have a wedge of watermelon, a cup of carrots, and cantaloupe for a snack later on. “All of this would be sort of cumulative over the day.” Off the top of her head she mused about a spinach salad with shredded carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, salmon for protein, and a salad dressing with a fat component to help your body absorb the nutrients. 

These are just eight out of many foods that give your skin a little extra protection. 

Salmon

This fish carries three key sun-protecting compounds that your skin will love: vitamin B3, omega-3 fatty acids, and astaxanthin. 

Studies show that omega-3s reduce redness when taken for a minimum of four weeks. Some studies also suggest that it may reduce the signs of aging, such as wrinkles. You can also add mackerel, herring, and sardines to your shopping list if you’re looking for other high omega-3 options. 

The lesser known astaxanthin is a keto-carotenoid responsible for pigment in marine animals like salmon, lobster, and shrimp. A 2020 systematic review found consuming 3 to 6 milligrams of astaxanthin every day in the form of a supplement for 4 to 16 weeks helped protect skin against UV-induced damage and also helped improve skin texture, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and improve moisture retention. 

Peanuts

Like salmon, peanuts are a source of vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Unlike the other research looked at in this article, B3 may be the only fast-acting source of sun protection. A 2020 study out of Italy looked at the vitamin and found, “it should be consumed no later than 24 to 48 hours before sun exposure,” says Lara Camillo, a research student involved with the study.  “Our study indicates that increasing the consumption of vitamin B3, which is readily available in the daily diet, will protect the skin from some of the effects of UV exposure, potentially reducing the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers.” 

Peanuts are also a source of vitamin E, which in combination with vitamin C may also protect skin from UV damage. 

RELATED: Asian Chicken with Peanut Sauce

Tomatoes

Tomatoes have been a more widely studied food item as a source of sun protection, but as with the others there still is a bit of mystery behind how, why, and if they do offer protection. 

Jessica Cooperstone, Ph.D., a food scientist and associate professor at The Ohio State University lead a 2017 study on animals that found that those who ate tomatoes got fewer tumors than those who didn’t. “I would be interested to find out exactly why that is–what is in the tomato that is imparting this benefit? This is something we still do not know,” she says.

It’s hypothesized that their biggest boost comes in the form of lycopene, a carotenoid (Cooperstone says that is inconsistent with her study). Still, other studies have shown that consuming 10 to 16 milligrams of lycopene through supplements or food, reduced skin redness from exposure to UVB light. 

A food tip: lycopene is better absorbed when it is heated, so the benefits are exemplified in a warm tomato sauce, soup, or stewed tomatoes. 

Tomatoes are also a source of vitamin C. Remember, on its own, vitamin C doesn’t seem to do much but some studies have found that when combined with vitamin E, it can delay the onset of sunburn. 

Bell Peppers

Bell peppers, a crowd-pleaser for their mild flavor and crunchy texture, are full of vitamin C and lycopene—two compounds we’ve touched on already. They are also a source of the carotenoid lutein.

Lutein is most known for its property of boosting eye health, but some animal studies have shown it may also provide skin protection. More research is needed. 

Broccoli

As mentioned before, the skin-saving properties of vitamin C only work in conjunction with a vitamin just a few hops down the alphabet: E. Broccoli is a good source of both (one cup is a whopping 135 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C). 

Carrots

Carrots are a nutritional powerhouse. And it turns out that these orange sidekicks may also have UV-fighting properties in the form of beta-carotene. However, the studies highlighting the UV-protective benefits of beta-carotene (at doses of 12-180 mg per day) found that it was only effective at a minimum of 7 weeks of consumption.

Carrots are also a source of lutein (the eye health hero) and lycopene. 

Green Tea

Green tea is full of polyphenols that researchers suspect could protect against UV protection. For example, one small study of all women conducted at the Institute of Experimental Dermatology in Germany found that 12 weeks of drinking a liter of green tea daily showed that sunburns were reduced by 25 percent. As a bonus, those women also benefited from better skin elasticity, structure, hydration, and increased blood flow in the skin. 

Red wine, beans, berries, and artichokes are also good sources of polyphenols. 

Watermelon

A summertime favorite, watermelon is a significant source of lycopene, containing 9–13mg per cup and a half, well within that beneficial range.

Watermelon also has a little bit of niacin and vitamin C. Eat it in season when the flesh is red, ripe, and at its most nutritious. 

RELATED: This Watermelon Gazpacho Recipe is Summer’s Favorite Soup

While there is nothing wrong with trying to get a little more goodness out of your diet, Cooperstone reminds us that it’s not yet a solid preventative measure against skin cancer. “Some have hypothesized that diet-derived UV protection would impart something like the equivalent of SPF 2,” she says. A lot of the research groups are still too small and lacking a diversity in skin tones to make definitive statements of effectiveness as true sun protection.

“My best recommendation to people would be to wear sunscreen and re-apply it regularly,” says Cooperstone.

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