Foods That Help Protect Your Skin From Sun Damage

Aly Walansky

Image via Getty Images

We’ve all heard of SPF in a jar or bottle, but what about a snack?  Turns out food just may be a kind of internal sunscreen — a natural armor for our precious skin. Obviously, you shouldn’t just start replacing sunblock with food, but what you eat can offer additional protection for your skin from harmful UV rays, helping to reduce sun damage! Just like beauty itself, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Avoid sugar
Any refined sugars will activate inflammation in the body causing both stomach and internal organ problems as well as skin. “If there is one food that needs to be avoided when in the sun, it is definitely refined sugar — water with sugar flavors, soda, desserts, white flour, white pasta, sugar-coated salad dressings, mayonnaise, ketchup, coffee or tea with sugar, etc.,” says Dr. Daria M. Brezinski, a psychologist and speaker.

Turn to the dark side
Need yet another reason to embrace your dark chocolate addiction? “Research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that the flavanols in cocoa may actually help provide protection from UV damage,” says Joshua Duvauchelle, a NCAA-accredited certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise with nutrition certification from Cornell University. Look for chocolate that’s high in cocoa with little to no sugary additives — the excess sugar can create health problems of its own.

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“Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant with natural sunscreen properties (and anti-aging properties!),” says Dr. Jennifer A. Gardner, a pediatrician and wellness expert, and founder of Healthy Kids Company. Sun-dried tomatoes and canned or bottled tomato products — such as tomato paste, sauce, soups, juice, ketchup and tomato based chili or hot sauces — are a concentrated source of lycopene. But fresh tomatoes like those found in homemade salsa, gazpacho, or tomato salad still offer a respectable dose of good-for-your-skin lycopene.  Other foods rich in lycopenes include watermelon (watermelon actually contains more lycopene than tomato products!), purple grapes, pink or red grapefruit, apricots, plums, red bell peppers, papaya, and guava.

Carrots have betacarotene, another antioxidant that has natural sunscreen properties. “It may also help reverse sun damage and reduce the intensity of a sunburn!” says Dr. Gardner. Other betacarotene rich foods (think deep orange pigment) include sweet potatoes, apricots, squash, pumpkins, papaya and mango. Some non-orange foods also contain beta carotene, such as mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, beets and beet greens, cabbage, kale, and spinach.

Vitamin C
Strawberries, kiwi, oranges, and cherries contain high levels of vitamin C, which can reduce free radical damage caused by exposure to UV radiation. “Vitamin C also stimulates collagen production, important for skin’s youthful appearance. In addition to vitamin C, cherries contain melatonin, which protects skin from UV radiation and repairs sunburn damage,” says Dr. Gardner. One big exception: limes, which can actually cause the skin to burn more, so be sure to limit those sweet drinks with lime juice or peels when heading out in to the sun!

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Sunflower seeds, almonds, and pumpkin seeds are great sources of Vitamin E. “Vitamin E is another great antioxidant that helps protect the skin from sun damage,” says Carina Sohaili, Board Certified Celebrity Nutrition and Health Counselor and creator of Vibrant Healthy Life. Have a handful of almonds as a mid-morning snack or sprinkle pumpkin seeds on your morning Greek yogurt or salad for lunch. Avocado is also a great source of Vitamin E!

Red Apples
The phytochemicals found in the peel of red apples can not only help repair sun damage — they may also help prevent skin cancer. “A Japanese study actually found that apple polyphenol extracts, particularly flavonids called ‘procyanidins,’ inhibit skin cancer in mice. Another polyphenol, quercetin, protected DNA from human skin cancer cells,” says Britta Aragon, a green beauty and skincare expert, cancer survivor, and the founder of green skincare line CV Skinlabs.

Mushrooms (especially crimini mushrooms) contain the mineral selenium, which is essential for the production of glutathione peroxidase — an antioxidant that also happens to be a free radical warrior. Free radicals are produced by skin cells when exposed to the sun’s UV radiation.

Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine exposed areas of volunteers’ skin to intense ultraviolet light one to three days after applying a broccoli-sprout extract to the same area. The extract was all but rubbed away by the time of the exposure, but those areas had, on average, 37% less redness and inflammation!” says Aragon. 

Green Tea
Drinking green tea regularly has been shown in several studies to reverse sun damage. “This may be due to the high content of polyphenols in the tea. Add lemons to your green tea for a boost of vitamin C, another antioxidant that has been shown to help defend against free radicals produced by sun exposure,” says Duvauchelle.

Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which is a natural anti-inflammatory that may also protect against sunburn and cellular damage that may lead to skin cancer. Other fish oil sources of omega-3 fatty acids include herring, sardines, mackerel. Not into fish? Try green, leafy vegetables, flax oil and chia seeds.

Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, and cantaloupe are high in Vitamin A. “Foods high in Vitamin A help promote regeneration of sun damaged cells,” says Sohaili. Go for a handful of carrots and hummus for a 3 p.m. snack or a steamed sweet potato for lunch.