Sunscreen You Can Eat
Yes, the right diet can help protect your skin! Find out which foods offer sun protection and get 16 easy recipes to enjoy them.
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Above: Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad; photograph by Olga Ivanova
Here’s an astounding fact: More Americans get skin cancer each year than every other cancer combined. Nearly 10,000 people are diagnosed every day in this country. And more than 85% of all skin cancers can be traced to sun exposure. The good news is, daily use of sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher reduces your chances of developing it by 40-50%.
Nobody would ever say you should skip slathering on sunscreen in favor of food, but a growing body of research shows that your diet can help protect you from the sun’s damaging rays. Which means that on days when you forget to apply sunscreen (hey, it happens), you’ve got a backup safeguard. It’s all a matter of focusing on the right nutrients.
To be clear: Eating a single meal won’t give you instant protection — food doesn’t work like actual sunscreen. The idea here is to build up the amount of these nutrients circulating in your body, so when you’re exposed to sunlight you’re primed and ready to fight it off.
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Natural sun protectors: carotenoids, polyphenols, and two vitamins
Scientists have been digging into the potential for eating our sun protection for at least fifty years. Most of the research into food-as-sunscreen has drilled down to three types of nutrients:
Carotenoids are the pigments that give plants their red, orange, and yellow coloring. They offer antioxidant benefits. That means they help fight off free radicals, compounds inside your body that can lead to a variety of diseases including cancer. Researchers have found that carotenoids like lycopene and beta carotene can protect your skin from UV damage. (More on those below.)
Polyphenols are another category of plant compounds, found in many foods including chocolate, coffee, tea, berries, and red wine. Scientists have identified more than 8,000 different types. They also act as antioxidants, and help with inflammation. Studies have shown polyphenols can help protect your skin from ultraviolet light.
Vitamins C and E have both been found to have antioxidant properties, too. You’re probably familiar with food sources for vitamin C, like citrus fruit. You’ll find vitamin E in certain fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, and some fish. In studies, the sun protection worked best when participants ate the two vitamins together.
Lycopene: watermelon and tomatoes
One carotenoid with sun-protection properties is lycopene. The natural pigment that colors red-fleshed fruits and vegetables has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny for its support of skin health. For instance, participants in a study who ate 40g of tomato paste (that’s just under 1.5 ounces) daily for 10 weeks showed 40% less sunburn than participants assigned to eat olive oil daily. Other foods high in lycopene include guavas (they’re highest of all, in fact), watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, and red bell peppers.
This juicy melon is good for more than just summer refreshment. Here, it’s combined with arugula, mint, feta, and chicken and turned into a light dinner — and it’s on the table in just 10 minutes. Make sure to use red watermelon, since it has the most lycopene.
Talk about easy! Toss some frozen watermelon chunks and lime juice into a blender, then add sparkling water (the recipe calls for coconut-flavored) and pour into a glass. Pull up a seat under the patio umbrella and enjoy the day.
Cooked tomatoes have much more lycopene than raw ones, so using canned tomatoes is a great way to maximize your intake. This Middle Eastern twist on the classic chilled tomato soup uses a large can of crushed tomatoes as well as walnuts (a great source of vitamin E) and roasted red peppers (which have plenty of vitamin C). The mixture gets seasoned with tart lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, garlic, and Aleppo pepper.
Ready in just five minutes, this salsa saves you chopping time by using lycopene-rich canned, fire-roasted tomatoes and a food processor. Canned green chilies and fresh jalapeño keep things spicy. Serve it with your favorite tacos or just grab some tortilla chips and dig in.
Beta carotene: carrots and sweet potatoes
Another carotenoid, beta carotene, has been the subject of studies since the 1970s. Researchers have found that it can actually absorb UV light in your body, which keeps the rays from damaging cells. You’ll find beta carotene in orange, yellow, and dark green produce — that includes butternut squash, cantaloupe, and dark leafy greens — but two orange options, sweet potatoes and carrots, top the list.
Shredded carrots get tossed with chopped parsley and a bright dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and honey. Simple and elegant, this quick side salad uses an entire pound of carrots. That’s a lot of beta carotene.
A luscious soup ready in just 35 minutes, this recipe uses both carrots and sweet potatoes. It gets its spicy kick from green or red Thai curry paste as well as some curry powder, while coconut milk makes it creamy.
Maybe you’d rather drink your beta carotene. All three of the main ingredients here — carrots, pineapple, and cantaloupe — offer some. Add a little ginger and turmeric to keep things lively, and start sipping.
Sometimes you want your nutrients to feel less… nutrition-oriented. Oven-baked fries made with nothing but sweet potatoes, olive oil, salt, and pepper give you that yummy junk food sensation, but they’re really good for you.
Polyphenols: cocoa, coffee, and tea
With so many different types of polyphenols, most plant-based foods contain at least some. Particularly rich sources include dark chocolate, coffee, green tea, grapes (and red wine), pomegranates, and olive oil. When it comes to certain sources, caffeine may make a difference in sun protection — for instance, several studies found that decaf coffee didn’t offer the same protection against melanoma as the eye-opening kind.
Strong coffee and cocoa powder, two polyphenol-packed foods, meet up with banana, yogurt, and other good-for-you ingredients for a breakfast that tastes like a milkshake. Pro tip: Freeze your coffee in ice cube trays for a frostier version.
Green tea’s polyphenols join mango’s beta carotene for a perfectly invigorating, sun-protective pick-me-up. This’ll get you through even the roughest mid-afternoon slump, and it takes almost no effort.
If you’re not already keeping overripe bananas in the freezer, you will be after this: When you whir them in the food processor, they become a thick, creamy, vegan substitute for ice cream. Add instant coffee or espresso powder, cocoa, and chopped dark chocolate for your polyphenol (and flavor) boost.
This ridiculously easy treat has just two ingredients, both packed with polyphenols: dark chocolate and pomegranate seeds (aka arils). The juicy explosion when you bite into one of these is kind of like grown-up Pop Rocks.
Vitamins C and E: broccoli and more
Individually, both of these antioxidant vitamins offer minimal sun protection, but research shows that together they’re stronger. To give you the greatest benefit, the recipes that follow all have ingredients that combine vitamins C and E — and with so many tasty options for each vitamin, the possibilities are endless.
Romesco sauce is a sophisticated Spanish sauce that happens to be chock-full of vitamin C, thanks to roasted red peppers, and vitamin E, thanks to Marcona almonds. It’s meant to be served with seafood, and shrimp have plenty of vitamin E, too, so yup, this is one elegant source of sun protection.
Raw chopped broccoli meets a bold, mustard-and-lemon dressing, creamy avocado, crunchy pine nuts, and salty cheddar cheese for a dinner salad you’ll want to eat every night. Broccoli is a great source of vitamin C (surprise!), and both avocado and pine nuts provide vitamin E.
This beautiful bowl has sun protection almost everywhere you look. Three types of berries, all with vitamin C, plus spinach, avocado, and almonds for vitamin E? Slivered basil and goat cheese add only flavor, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Toss it with your favorite tangy-sweet vinaigrette for a lovely summertime lunch.
This might be the most delicious way possible to get your sun-protective antioxidants. Shakshuka is a Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in a rich sauce made with red bell peppers (for vitamins C and E) and canned tomatoes (for lycopene). This version adds some baby spinach as well, for an extra dose of vitamin E. But you won’t care about how nutrient-packed the meal is once you taste it. Be sure to serve it with pita or some other bread so you can scoop up every last bit.
Eat to stay healthy
Everyday foods can go a long way to help support your body. Learn more in these next articles.