Inside-Out Sun Protection

August 1, 2014

By Anna Varriano

I belong to a chapter of the Business Breakfast Club here in Ottawa. Every week, members share a one minute ‘infomercial’. Last week I spoke about the mounting research that is challenging the advice to stay out of the sun and use plenty of sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer. While I do believe that getting a sunburn isn’t a healthy thing, I’ve never thought that slathering our skin (which by the way, does a fantastic job of absorbing substances, both good and bad, straight into our blood stream) with chemically-laden sunscreens makes much sense.

Sun Exposure – A Double-Edged Sword?

One vitamin that has been repeatedly shown through research to reduce the risk of skin cancer (and cancers in general) is vitamin D, which our body can make naturally when UVB rays from sunlight hit our skin, converting a cholesterol-based substance into the biologically active form of vitamin D. Can you see where I’m going with the double-edged sword heading? Sun exposure can be part of optimizing our health and preventing disease providing we don’t get a sunburn.

When we think of sun protection, most of us think of protecting ourselves from the outside-in (e.g. with sunscreens, hats, clothing, umbrellas, etc)… but did you know we can also protect ourselves from the inside-out through what we’re eating? When we get too much sun, highly unstable molecules called free radicals are produced. Free radicals can damage our cells, tissues, and DNA. Luckily, we can counteract free radical damage with substances called antioxidants, which we can get from our food. The more antioxidants we consume, the more we will have in our skin helping to protect it. Not surprisingly, foods with the highest antioxidant powers are plentiful during the summer. Isn’t it great how Mother Nature planned all of this for us? Even though we’re in the home-stretch of summer, sunburns are still possible, so here are 5 seasonal foods with super-antioxidant powers that can help protect your skin from sun damage:

  1. Berries. Berries are loaded with nutrients that are known to be beneficial for the skin; in fact, many of them are used in skin-care products. The added bonus to including berry-derived skin-nourishing compounds in skin care products is that they smell delicious and often provide gorgeous, rich colours to lipsticks and blushes. I can remember my childhood friends and I biting into big, beautiful, dark red cherries and then rubbing them on our lips and cheeks to look like we had make-up on. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were definitely on to something!tomatoes
  2. Watermelon. Watermelon contains the antioxidant lycopene, which studies have associated with a decreased risk of skin cancer when regularly consumed. Watermelon also has a very high water content, which will help skin stay hydrated.
  3. Tomatoes. Like watermelon, tomatoes are a great source of water and lycopene, so it’s great that they’re so abundant at this time of year. Studies show that the lycopene in cooked tomatoes, especially when they are crushed and cooked with fat (think simple yummy tomato sauce with olive oil!), is more easily absorbed. I’ve written quite a few articles and recipes involving tomatoes, including how to freeze local and seasonal tomatoes so you can enjoy them year round. Make sure you check them out here!
  4. Carrots. Carrots are loaded with anti-oxidants, most notably beta-carotene. Human intervention studies have shown that beta-carotene can increase the skin’s protective mechanisms against sunlight.
  5. Dark leafy greens. Dark leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard, mustard and beet greens, and spinach, are loaded with antioxidants, many of which are emerging as being beneficial for skin health.

In addition to these local foods, a few others that have been shown to protect the skin from the damaging effects of the sun are: coconut oil, dark chocolate and green tea – and make sure you drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated so that it can do its job. If your skin is going to be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, you should use a good quality sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group’s annual Guide to Sunscreens is a great resource that will help you make make a healthy and effective choice.

Here’s to a few more lazy, hazy, crazy, and sunburn-free days of summer!