07/12/2015 09:45 EDT | Updated 07/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Heal the Burn: How Nutrition Affects Sun Protection


Co-authored with Jill Parnell

It's a beautiful Summer day. The sun is shining and you can't wait to get outside to go for a walk/bike ride/yard work/etc. You've got your summer clothes on, a hat and some shades... but what did you forget? Sunscreen... and you are going to pay the price the later! How many of us underestimate the strength of the sun or just how easy it is to get a nasty sunburn?

Fewer than 30 per cent of us regularly put sunscreen on all exposed skin -- that means face and arms, legs, etc. No wonder the internet abounds with cringe-worthy pictures of quite-literally-beet-red, blistering and peeling sunburns! According Consumer Reports, less than half of major sunscreen brands actually have the SPF they claim too. Is there anything else you can do to protect yourself from a painful sunburn, and by proxy reduce your risk of skin cancer? Is there a role for nutrition?

Just what exactly is a sunburn? Radiation damage to skin cells caused by UVA and UVB rays (and maybe infrared) -- the classic "lobster" red, painful skin is caused by inflammation and increased blood flow, and may also be accompanied by headache, nausea, chills, and in severe cases, blisters. Yikes!

But just because you cannot see a sunburn doesn't mean the solar rays are not damaging your skin. Rays penetrate the skin's surface damaging DNA and suppressing immune response -- wrinkles and premature aging on the minor side of the damage-spectrum, and increased risk of skin cancers like basal- and squamous-cell carcinomas and melanoma. In fact, having five or more significant sunburns (medical term: UV-induced erythema) between the ages of 15 to 20 years increases the risk of skin cancer 70 - 80 per cent (Usher-Smith et al., 2014)!

Risk of sunburn depends on several factors like age, skin tone, sun intensity and how long you are in the sun for. While complete sun abstinence is unlikely for most of us, sun "awareness" and proper sunscreen use are the most important things you can do to prevent sunburns and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Can you do more to protect yourself? There is growing evidence that the foods you consume may influence risk and offer some protection (Chen et al., 2014; Fernández-García E, 2014; Stahl et al., 2012; Guéniche A, et al., 2009).

Here are some of the nutritional compounds that have been tested in clinical studies:











There are other nutrients frequently cited as protecting against sunburn like vitamin D, garlic, genistein (soy products), and resveratrol (wine and grapes) BUT clinical studies in humans have yet to be conducted.

If you are unfortunate enough to experience a sunburn, there's no overnight "cure" -- you'll have to ride out the discomfort -- BUT you may be able to expedite healing with topical treatments (some are in your fridge!) and your diet. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods above will help, but make sure you are also drinking plenty of waterand getting enough protein. It may also be prudent to pop a multivitamin-mineral, a probiotic and additional vitamin C while you recover.

Our advice? Though far from conclusive, there is growing evidence that a healthy diet rich in antioxidants offers some photo-protection. Unfortunately, a lot of the supplements seem promising but doses are extremely high and findings have yet to be replicated. Our conclusion: there is no magic combo of foods or nutrients that will allow you to bake in the sun without consequences! We suggest going with food first - there's good evidence for vitamins C/E and carotenoids like beta-carotene and lycopene, so stock your kitchen with lots of fresh produce, especially bright reds and oranges.

In the meantime, we suggest you take a cue from the skin cancer capital of the world, Australia, with Slip! Slop! Slap! Being a notorious "burner" myself, I have suffered through many sleepless nights with burning hot skin. Thankfully, vanity has given way to wisdom - sunscreen, hats and shade are now a part of the repertoire too. The Canadian Cancer Society has some good tips here.

  • Wear good sunscreen on ALL exposed skin, not just your face.
  • Put on a hat -- it's a stylish accessory that might protect you from cancer. No sandals can say that.
  • Cover up and find some shade. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.
  • Do not fake and bake! There is a ridiculous abundance of research indicating a significantly increased risk of skin cancer with indoor tanning, particularly if tanning occurs < 25 years of age (Wehner et al., 2012).


Your Essential Sunscreen (and Skin Cancer Prevention) Guide