Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Jul

8 Natural Ways to Prevent a Sunburn (And Sunscreen’s Not One of Them)

As summer descends upon the world, a young Primal eater’s fancy turns to playful frolicking in the sunshine. And when you’re frolicking, the last thing you want to do is slather a bunch of horrible-smelling, greasy, overpriced sunblock all over your body. It makes you slippery and imbues your countenance with a deathly pallor that is very unbecoming. If you could, you’d love to avoid the nasty practice altogether. You’d love to use more alternative methods. Methods that may not have the support of the medical community, but for which supportive research does exist. Seeing as how a common refrain throughout the newly Primal is that sunburns seem fewer and further between than ever before, I’m guessing that there’s something to it. Dietary? Supplementary?

I’ve noticed the same thing in myself and my family, so I got to wondering: what about going Primal, exactly, might be having this effect? And if something is protecting us from the sun, and it’s not just in everyone’s heads, what else can we do to bolster our natural sunblock? What can we recommend to friends and family who aren’t quite on board with the whole deal but still want protection from the sun? Let’s take a look at some potential supplements and dietary strategies. I’ll reference research as often as possible, but I’ll also draw on anecdotal experience, both personal and from the community at large.

Eat Some Lycopene

Lycopene, that famous carotenoid found in tomatoes, has been shown in a recent in vivo RCT to protect humans against sun damage. Healthy women, aged 21-47, who ate 55 g of tomato paste containing 16 mg of lycopene every day for 12 weeks experienced significant protection against acute – and potentially long term – sun damage. Remember that cooked tomatoes, and tomato products like paste and sauce, offer far more bioavailable lycopene than raw tomatoes. If you’re counting, 55 grams of tomato paste is a hair over 3 tablespoons worth.

Get Some Astaxanthin

The super-antioxidant astaxanthin is found in algae, the organisms that eat it, and the organisms that eat those organisms (like salmon, shrimp, and pink flamingo – the pink/red color gives it away). It has been getting some attention as an “internal sunscreen.” Does it stack up? Well, here’s a study on isolated human skin cells, in which astaxanthin definitely protects against UVA damage. And here’s another study on isolated skin cells showing its protective effects. But those are limited. Does the effect persist in real life settings? In other words, does ingesting astaxanthin supplements or food that contains astaxanthin offer protection from UVA? This hairless mouse study suggests that it might; astaxanthin was more effective than even retinol. I’d say it looks promising, and I’m always interested in an excuse to dine on pink flamingo thigh.

Get Some Vitamin D

A common anecdotal report is that supplementing vitamin D increases sun tolerance and protection against sun damage, and a recent study seems to confirm this. Various forms of the vitamin D prohormone offered various protections against UV damage in a mouse model: reduced sunburn, lowered incidence of tumor development. Huh, imagine that! Getting sun gives you vitamin D, which in turn protects you from too much sun. It’s funny how these things work out. Nature can be very elegant.

Get Your Long-Chain Omega-3s and Ditch the Omega-6s

A recent study out of Australia found that adults with the highest serum concentrations of DHA and EPA had the least “cutaneous p53 expression.” What’s the significance of cutaneous p53 expression? When your skin is in danger of damage from the sun, p53 expression is upregulated to protect it, and high p53 immunoreactivity can lead to melanoma. The fact that high DHA/EPA meant low p53 immunoreactivity suggests that the omega-3s were protecting the skin. And although the study’s authors noted that high serum omega-6 content didn’t seem to correlate with high p53 activity, I think a likelier explanation is this: omega-6 is so prevalent in the modern Australian diet, that even “low” levels are still above the threshold for increased susceptibility to sunburn. Going higher than that threshold won’t make things any worse, and it won’t show up in the statistics. Drop that omega-6 intake to 2% of calories, though, while getting an equal amount of omega-3s? I bet you’d see some incredible UV-resistance.

Eat Plenty of Saturated Fat

This is slightly redundant in light of the last suggestion – after all, if you’re limiting PUFAs, you gotta eat some saturated fat – but I think it’s worth mentioning. I hear about people bumping up their saturated fat intake and improving their UV-resistance all over the place, and I’ve experienced the same thing myself, but I’d never seen it mentioned in the literature. Well, here’s a cool rodent study in which mice were either given a saturated fat-enriched diet or a PUFA-enriched diet. No word on the exact composition of the two diets. When both groups of mice were injected with melanoma cells, “the initiation time required for visible tumor growth in mice receiving the polyunsaturated fat diet was significantly less than that in mice receiving the saturated fat diet.” A higher-saturated fat diet was protective, while a higher-PUFA diet was not. If you’re gonna be out in the sun, better eat your butter, palm oil, and coconut oil, eh?

Drink Tea

Tea, especially green tea, offers a complex arsenal of antioxidant compounds. How it works and what’s doing it isn’t fully understood, but it’s generally accepted that drinking green tea is a smart move and a mainstay of many healthy traditional cultures. Unsurprisingly, there’s also evidence that dietary green tea, specifically its polyphenols, inhibit the development of skin tumors by controlling inflammation and preventing DNA damage. Topical green tea extracts applied directly to the skin also offer photoprotection.

Get Some Proanthocyanidins

Proanthocyanidins, which can be found in wine and grape seeds, berries like blueberries and chokeberries, nuts like hazelnuts and pistachios, and certain niche grains like sorghum and barley, have been efficacious in preventing UV damage in hairless rodents. Whether it works for hairless apes remains to be seen, but drinking wine and eating berries sound like fine ideas regardless of their photoprotective efficacy. Actually, score one for the hairless apes who quaff wine: a recent study found that people who supplemented with grape seed extract (high in anthocyanidins) had a significantly lower risk of skin cancer. It sounds promising.

Consider Resveratrol

Resveratrol gets a lot of publicity for its possible anti-cancer, cardioprotective, and lifespan enhancing qualities, but it’s also gaining steam as a potential photoprotective agent. This study found that once incorporated into skin cells, resveratrol protected them from UV damage. Topical resveratrol seems viable, too, but I can imagine rubbing resveratrol into your sun-exposed skin would get expensive rather quickly.

Well, that’s what I came up with. I think the first four appear to be the most effective, but if you have a real problem with burning, it might be worth checking out all the strategies I mentioned. I’m also interested in what’s worked for you. Have you tried the above methods? Did they work? Fill us in and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I have been getting a rash like raised bumps from sun exposure for the last several years but this year it has been better but not completely gone. I am going to try using more coconut oil and butter and less olive oil for cooking, I have been using it more in the past year which has probably made the improvement, but I still tend to reach for the olive oil for certain things. Here in Las Vegas we get sun just about every day. I will have to see where I can sneak in some tomato paste, too I have to be careful of carbs to lose weight since I am very carb sensitive and tomato paste is pretty high in carbs.

    AmyNVegas wrote on July 20th, 2011
  2. I take astaxanthin to help prevent macular degeneration, but it’s good to know that it may be helping with skin protection too.

    Mark – How about an article on eye health? Macular degeneration is on the increase and is one of the leading causes of blindness in old age.

    French Margaret wrote on July 20th, 2011
  3. I’ve been using only coconut oil on my skin for about 4 years now. I’m very light in the complexion department, but the only time I’ve burned in 4 years has been when I haven’t slathered on the oil

    In fact, my husband and friends like to make fun of me, but a couple summers ago we all went camping. We all had the same exposure and everyo fried except me. Coconut oil helped them recover from their bad Burns quickly though. Ha…

    Kari wrote on July 21st, 2011
  4. I would like to try coconut oil externally but I have read all over the net that it is comedogenic, so I’m nervous to use it on my face…

    Charlotte wrote on July 21st, 2011
  5. I went to the beach yesterday with a bunch of friends and was the only one who didn’t get burnt!

    Unshod Sarah wrote on July 21st, 2011
  6. I started taking vitamin D supplements 5 years ago after reading about it on a low carb forum, titled “The Great Vitamin D Experiment”. I have not had a sunburn since, stay slightly tanned all winter long. Besides that I have not had a cold or the flu either, even when the swine flu was around.

    Jo tB wrote on July 21st, 2011
  7. I have all of my vitamins crushed and stored in a jar, part of the vitamins contain about 1800 IU’s of vitamin D. I take a small teaspoon of my vitamins and mix it in with a tablespoon of coconut oil. It makes it much more palatable to swallow. Sometimes I put a few drops of Steva in it.

    Brenda wrote on July 21st, 2011
  8. And if you get burned?

    Aspirin, 350mg every four hours until the skin no longer feels painful.

    Scott Jenkins wrote on July 21st, 2011
  9. Lay off the carbohydrates as well because they will lower your tolerance to sunlight…The hormone Insulin is aweful stuff and it does lots of damage to the body. A good way to “darken” your tan after being in the sun…Eat a few eggs after sun exposure…The darker orange the yolk, the better. Trust me…It works!

    Mary A. wrote on July 22nd, 2011
    • Yeah, insulin is awful stuff. Try living without it.

      Rex wrote on July 22nd, 2011
      • Insulin is what your body produces when there is a toxin ingested…Yeah…You can’t live without it. Insulin does damage to the body like turning cholesterol into plaque.

        Mary A. wrote on July 22nd, 2011
        • People do not realize that Insulin is really bad for you and that you should NEVER consume poisons like carbohydrates, starches, and alcohol that kick off your Insulin production.

          Where do you get eggs with dark orange yoke in the USA? I have never been able to find them since I moved there from Europe. The eggs in the USA are just flavorless nothings.

          Lucy wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  10. Charlotte, I whole-heartedly agree with you.
    Much of the advice and science on this website is brilliant and really interesting too, but this particular article is really irresponsible. Also there are people posting here saying that they went red in the sun but it died down the next day…that doesn’t make it OK, people! You still got sunburn and you have damaged your skin and potentially increased your chances of getting skin cancer in the future.
    One final point…our bodies might have evolved in a way which gave us *some* protection from the sun, but a) I doubt primeval man was busy lying on a sun lounger all day – he was probably running about in the shade of the forest, and b) How about the thinning of the ozone layer?
    Have some common sense, people.

    Erica wrote on July 22nd, 2011
    • You’re beginning to see that Grok is a crock.

      Rex wrote on July 22nd, 2011
    • People who use the word “irresponsibe” are usually just indoctrinated twits. Anyone talking about an ozone layer IS an indoctrinated twit. there is no ozone layer.

      Tam P. Ahn wrote on July 22nd, 2011
      • There is no ozone layer? Which planet do you live on? Mine has an ozone layer!

        Erica wrote on July 23rd, 2011
        • Do you even know what Ozone is?
          LOL! Geeezzzz people! Study physics and chemistry and stop listening to what scum like Al Gore and MSM tell you.

          Tam P. Ahn wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  11. If your’re a grok, you’ve gone barefoot all your life and thus have 1″ callouses on your feet and need no shoes. You also have a nice fur coat and are thus impervious to sunburn, nor to you need clothing – maybe just penis gourd. You also have perfect teeth because you don’t eat wheat or anything made from it.

    Grok is a crock.

    Rex wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  12. (Had to fix the errors.)

    If your’re a grok, you’ve gone barefoot all your life and thus have 1″ callouses on your feet and need no shoes. You also have a nice fur coat and are thus impervious to sunburn, nor do you need clothing – maybe just a penis gourd. You also have perfect teeth because you don’t eat wheat or anything made from it.

    Grok is a crock.

    Rex wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  13. I have no research or anything scientific to back up what I say but I haven’t used anything in the sunscreen department in over a decade. I spend very long hours in the sun year ’round training on the bike in the hottest parts of the day. While I would suffer the occasional burn and peel I haven’t experienced that in the last few years as I accelerated my adherence to a diet that could be considered more “primal”.
    For the record I am about as fair skinned as they come. I eat as much fat as I can. Lots of avocado.

    Keith Snyder wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  14. What do you recommend for aomeone early 20’s with systemic lupus and alergic to the sub very light skin and hair?Thanks

    anita wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  15. I take mushroom pills which are cheap at swanson .com, maybe cheaper elsewhere but don’t know. I think these are very good for immune system – haven’t gotten sick since taken them. Since excellent at improving immune system I think also very good anti-cancer supplement.

    charlie wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  16. ah

    charlie wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  17. This is incredible . . . For the first time in my life, I haven’t been sunburnt this summer (as I have very fair skin)I have been eating primal for the last three months and supplementing with 5000 units of vitamin D, Resveratrol — No sunburn at all this summer and I am out in the sun more than ever! I am actually tanning for once — I wondered what the deal was until I saw this article . . . Thanks Primal Blueprint!

    arbie wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  18. I live in phoenix and the sun here is strooong..
    I have been eating tomatoes every day, but I just got some sea vegetables yesterday. I love seaweed and need to add those into my regular diet! thanks for the post!

    anyway a quick question, i never get sunburn ever in my life. (i am thai so those melatonin under my skin works really well). But would eating these kinda food help preventing getting ‘too’ dark or just preventing sunburn– just curious 😉

    Giftty wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  19. Some reasonable points regarding general dietary antioxidant protection, but it’s sensationally misleading to suggest as done in your headline that dietary antioxidants will prevent sunburn for the following reasons:

    1. All the studies you cite utilize much higher concentrations of antioxidants than are dietarily bioavailable to human skin. These studies’ real relevance to sunburn prevention is minimal. Some demonstrate antioxidant protection, which is only part of the sunburn story.

    2. The relative quanta of damage that occurs to skin during exposure to sunlight is a massively higher number than the protective effects of dietary anything. Even wearing a quality zinc oxide sunscreen can result in sunburn because sunscreens ‘screen’ or filter sunlight, they do not block it entirely.

    If you wished to be truly responsible in your recommendations about sunburn prevention, you should omit the sensationalism and incorporate other modes of protection. Using a quality petrochemical-free, zinc oxide sunscreen and staying in the shade should be on your list of ways to reduce the risk of sunburn and longer term UV damge.

    It’s good to keep in mind that correlation and cause are entirely different animals. Too few do.

    Erik Kreider wrote on July 22nd, 2011
    • From a reputable Dr’s website:

      Few health recommendations have had as damaging an effect as the advice that you should never leave your house without sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen effectively blocks your body’s production of vitamin D, which happens naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight. In fact, sunscreens reduce vitamin D production by as much as 97.5 to 99.9 percent.

      The widespread acceptance and adoption of this faulty doctrine has contributed to severe vitamin D deficiency on a grand scale, which in turn claims about one million lives a year from 16 different types of cancer and other common diseases such as:
      – Heart disease
      – Diabetes
      – Inflammatory bowel disease
      – Rheumatoid arthritis
      – Multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis

      However, that’s not to say that sunlight can’t be harmful. Of course it can be. Anyone who has ever gotten a sunburn knows that sunlight, at a high intensity over a long enough period, most certainly can damage your skin.

      But how can you protect yourself from overexposure SAFELY?

      From the research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we now have further proof that a very large portion of commercially available sunscreens are NOT safe to use, do NOT last as long as promised, and may NOT protect you from the most damaging rays of the sun.

      In fact, many of them give you a false sense of security that encourages excessive sun exposure and can lead to skin damage. They’re also likely carcinogens all by themselves!

      Wow. Triple health hazards for the price of one!

      Ultraviolet light from the sun comes in two main wavelengths – UVA and UVB. It’s important for you to understand the difference between them, and your risk factors from each.

      Consider UVB the ‘good guy’ that helps your skin produce vitamin D. UVA is considered the ‘bad guy’ because it penetrates your skin more deeply and causes more free radical damage. Not only that, but UVA rays are quite constant during ALL hours of daylight, throughout the entire year — unlike UVB, which are low in morning and evening, and high at midday.

      If you’ve ever gotten a scorching sunburn on a cloudy day, you now understand why; it’s from the deeply penetrating UVA!

      Since UVA’s are inherently more damaging, AND persistently high during all daylight hours, wearing a sunscreen that doesn’t protect you from UVA is going to give you virtually no benefit, and be detrimental to your overall health.

      Two non-toxic ingredients that scatter both UVB and the more damaging UVA rays are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They’ve been used all over the world for over 75 years as safe sunscreens.

      A study in the April 2004 Journal of Chromatography found that there was significant penetration into the skin of all sunscreen agents they studied. And slathering a carcinogenic agent onto your skin may in fact be worse for your health than ingesting it, as it goes straight into your blood stream.

      By following experts’ recommendations to apply generous amounts of sunscreen every few hours to prevent skin cancer, you are likely absorbing a fair amount.

      Making matters worse, scientists are not even sure whether sunscreen prevents against melanoma in the first place. They’ve suggested that sunscreen may prevent sunburn, but may fail to actually protect against cancer because most sunscreens only screen out UVB, which makes vitamin D, not the UVA that causes most of the damage.

      Some studies have even found a link between melanoma and the use of commercial sunscreen! Additionally, potentially harmful chemicals such as dioxybenzone and oxybenzone are some of the most powerful free radical enerators known to man. And yet other studies have linked specific chemical UV filters with the transsexualization of male fish and coral reef degradation.

      In light of that, I believe it’s imperative to do your homework, and to ONLY use a natural sunscreen with safe, non-toxic ingredients, so as to not add to your toxic load, and perhaps still not be protected from damaging UVA.

      As you can see from this list, compiled from the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website, there are lots of potential dangers lurking in your sunscreens.

      Fortunately, there ARE all-natural ways to protect yourself from sunburn that you can use instead of resorting to the toxic infusions of commercial sunscreens. The most obvious and safest option is to put on a long sleeved shirt, pants and a hat once you’ve reached your limit of sun exposure (you can tell you’ve had enough right when your skin turns the lightest shade of pink).

      At this point, I’m sure you’d agree that commercial sunscreens are out of the question.

      Your next best bet is to find an all-natural, non-chemical sunscreen. There are several on the market.

      The only proven safe ingredients are the UVA/UVB-protecting titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Your choice of sunscreen might also include any or all of the following all-natural ingredients such as:
      – Sunflower oil
      – Vitamins A, D and E
      – Coconut oil
      – Jojoba oil
      – Shea butter
      – Eucalyptus oil

      John D. Pilla wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  20. I have become aware that all teas pull enormous amounts of fluoride out of the soil. A typical cup of tea contains 6mg of fluoride.

    Fluoride: The Bizarre History – Full Documentary

    Joe in Missouri wrote on July 23rd, 2011
    • You are correct, however … keep reading! Unfortunately, tea also contains high levels of two toxins, fluoride and aluminum. Studies have shown that little of the aluminum in tea is absorbed by the body because it is bound by catechins (flavonoids) in the tea. Yet, squeezing LEMON in tea dramatically increases aluminum absorption, somewhere close to 700 percent. If you must flavor your tea – use mint instead. The lowest levels of both of these toxins are found in white tea, the highest levels in black tea. Green Tea is in-between black and white tea. Same plant, different stages of being harvested.
      Brick tea, which is made from black tea using both the leaves and the stems, has tremendously high levels of fluoride, so high that it regularly causes luorosis, which can destroy the skeleton, teeth and can even damage organs, including the brain.
      Both toxins (Flouride and aluminum) are absorbed from the oil, and the tea plant has a unique ability to concentrate them within its leaves. High levels of these two toxins in the soil are a particular problem with tea grown in India and communist China. White tea, because it is harvested earlier than other forms of tea and is inimally processed, has a higher concentration of catechins, quercetin, and other nutrients. It also has far less fluoride and aluminum.

      John D. Pilla wrote on July 25th, 2011
  21. Seriously??? Are you actually proposing that people try these things? If you want to avoid sunburn, keep out of the sun! It’s completely irresponsible to suggest that people can avoid the potentially fatal implications of too much sun exposure by these unproven anecdotal “preventatives”!

    Alice Harris wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  22. Mark,
    The best way to avoid a sunburn is to take plenty of Vitamin C prior to sunning. You will just tan instead of burning. Try it!

    Jillian wrote on July 26th, 2011
  23. Obviously not from Australia where:
    Australia has the highest skin cancer incidence rate in the world.
    Australians are four times more likely to develop a skin cancer than any other form of cancer.
    Approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70.

    To avoid skin cancer wear a shirt, sunscreen, hat, and avoid the sun. Suppliments may protect your urine from the sun but there is no evidence of this.

    AustraliaGuy wrote on July 27th, 2011
  24. I think you missed out ‘RICE’. In South East Asia, traditionally people use rice powder paste as their sunblock. It’s calming the skin and it has SPF (I have no idea how much). Ever since I move back to SEA 3 years ago, I only use rice powder mixed with water for my face daily, unless I go to fancy party then I use foundation and Western branded make up. I heard SK-II a branded skin prod. from Japan uses rice based too to fight aging. I think rice paste works for the aging too.. people thought my mom and I are at least 10 years younger.

    Triesti wrote on July 29th, 2011
  25. I can’t find the video, but I saw one a few years ago that showed topical vitamin C reduced sun damage by 30%. It’s also good for your skin in general. You can make it at home (must be fresh, only lasts a few days refrigerated) from vitamin C crystals.

    I used to burn badly but haven’t in years, including 2 months living in Mexico, trips to SE Asia and Europe in the summer. My main advice:

    – build up a base tan. Limit your time in the sun until you have
    – eat primal, supplement with vitamin D
    – coconut oil seemed to be effective sunscreen when I was in Mexico

    rs wrote on August 18th, 2011
  26. Resveratrol.
    I started taking a high quality one (the one that was used in the famous study) this past summer 2011.
    I didn’t suffer from sunburn when I did not use any sunscreen.
    And I’m talkin about sun exposure on the beach for 7 days straight- 6 hours a day from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m..
    Now that I read this article my thoughts were confirmed that it must have been the resveratrol.
    I wasn’t even looking for that benefit, but I noticed that no matter how much sun exposure I got- it never set in the next day like it always did the many years before.
    Almost like I was impervious to it.

    Tom wrote on January 17th, 2012
  27. According to William Dufty in his book “Sugar Blues” avoiding sugar [and I assume he also means foods that convert to glucose quickly ie: grain based foods]decreases the incidents of sunburn…paleo/primal diet is low sugar/carb/starch…so I would suggest sunburn is a diagnostic tool telling you that you still are still having too much sugar/starch/carb.

    Jo-Anne wrote on April 16th, 2012

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