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:

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  1. I found out the hard way that hydrating/foods werent enough. Regular sunscreens would severely irritate my skin but i’ve had alot of success preventing sunburn with coconut oil. http://coconutoilinformation.com/coconut-oil-homemade-sunscreen-recipe/ has the best recipe i’ve found.

    Great article btw!

    Lisa Halvorsen wrote on May 12th, 2012
  2. Hey all,

    Mark- Great article. I fully believe that diet is tied to sun tolerance, and since going Paleo I’ve noticed that it takes me much longer to burn, if at all.

    Just to add my 2 cents, I’ve found that using raw unrefined shea butter has helped my skin tremendously while in the sun. It has a natural SPF of 1-3, which just means that you have to reapply it more often – a common misconception about SPF is that it simply means stronger protection, whereas higher SPF actually means (supposedly) that one must reapply it less often. So, shea butter is a good all-natural sun protection, and it’s full of vitamin E and is a good fat to put on your skin in my opinion.

    Erock wrote on June 30th, 2012
    • That’s not exactly correct, you’ve misinterpreted the fact that a higher SPF means you can stay in the sun longer without burning…

      The reason you can stay in the sun longer with a higher SPF is that it filters a higher percentage of UVB.
      In general:
      SPF 2 blocks 50 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 4 blocks 75 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 8 blocks 87 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of UVB rays
      SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB rays

      Sun exposure is cumulative so two hours at 50% sun is the same as one hour at 100% sun, so to speak.

      So, if you normally burn in 1 hour w/o sunscreen then if you wear SPF 2 you can go 2 hours before burning.

      It doesn’t matter you reapply every 30 minutes, if you use SPF 2 you are still only filtering 50% of the UVB and you will burn in twice the amount of time it takes you to burn w/o sunscreen.

      You have to reapply to keep the SPF at full strength, but it does not extend the amount of time you can stay in the sun beyond what the SPF factor itself allows.

      Hope that makes sense and helps! :)

      And of course this really says nothing about nasty UVA, which needs to be addressed separately from burning.

      Bobby wrote on August 13th, 2012
      • It’s also important to note that the scale is logarithmic in nature. Is 99% really that much better than 93% or even 87%? No, not really, not unless you’re in a heated transparent dome in the arctic circle spending 24 hours a day nude baking in the full sun! 😛 Actually, the UV index is not very high at that lattitude, so no, not even then!

        This is why any SPF above about ~5 will prevent *most* people from burning during an average day at the beach, provided it’s reapplied frequently enough to keep it at full effectiveness.

        Bobby wrote on August 13th, 2012
  3. Whenever I go to the beach to play beach volleyball I always get burned even when I put sun screen on. Now that it is summer I will try out these tips and see if they work for me. Thanks.

    John Oxnard wrote on July 9th, 2012
  4. I think it probably has something to do with the higher antioxidant load in general that you get with a primal diet. All those synergistic compounds from vegies and fruits must have some protective effect against oxidative damage.
    Conversely the lower levels of proinflammatory chemicals from not eating grains, omega 6’s etc reduce the potential inflammatory effects from sun damage also.

    Brad wrote on July 19th, 2012
  5. Homeopathically speaking, and without using a remedy, the fastest way to get rid of a burn is with heat. Like cures Like. Heat cures heat. So, for a sunburn or any other burn, bathe (under running water) the affected area in hot water, as hot as you can stand without causing further damage. You will notice almost instant relief. For an all-over burn, take a HOT shower.

    Janice wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  6. Dr. Mercola wrote a book about the sun. I was still getting his newsletter before the book came out. He put a lot of it in the newsletters including eating grain free, omega 6:3 balance, and saturated fat. Last year, I read a comment on a blog where a woman said she goes to her beach house every summer. When she added a few tablespoons a day of red palm oil as a supplement, she didn’t burn. I was inspired and bought some from wilderness family naturals. (I’m a sucker for testimonials…..) I googled what she said and I haven’t seen it anywhere. Thanks for writing about it!

    I read of a study a few years ago that said wearing sunglasses puts you at risk for more sunburn. Because the body is one whole unit, the light coming into the eyes warns the skin about the light it is receiving. If you are wearing sunglasses, your skin thinks it is in the shade and doesn’t protect itself. Skin also has light receptors but wearing shades makes a difference. Our eyes need full spectrum light as well. I try to limit sunglasses for driving. When I go out for the day I use a visor or a hat.

    ValerieH wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  7. Great post! I must add though, that green tea contains so much fluoride that it should be consumed with caution, if at all.

    LisaLisa wrote on August 4th, 2012
  8. So I’ve been doing the omega3, vit D and saturated fat for a while now, more so recently. I just added 10 mg lycopene and 4 mg astaxanthin and now not only do I not burn but I can’t seem to add any color either! It’s amazing. One hour per side lounging in full sun (UV Index ~7) and I can’t even tell the difference! Guess I need to cut back on the new supplements because I want to get a little more color. lol

    I am just completely shocked at how well this works!

    Now, to play devil’s advocate… and this may be a dumb question, but just because we don’t burn anymore or even tan that well, does that mean we are protected from all the harmful effects of UV and the skin cancer risks? Or are we just preventing the obvious symptoms that warn us of the damage?

    Bobby wrote on August 13th, 2012
  9. It’s also important to note that the scale is logarithmic in nature. Is 99% really that much better than 93% or even 87%? No, not really, not unless you’re in a heated transparent dome in the arctic circle spending 24 hours a day nude baking in the full sun! 😛 Actually, the UV index is not very high at that latitude, so no, not even then!

    This is why any SPF above about ~5 will prevent *most* people from burning during an average day at the beach, provided it’s reapplied frequently enough to keep it at full effectiveness.

    Bobby wrote on August 13th, 2012
  10. Number 9 – Sunbathe Naked ?

    Our family lives right on the beach in Sydney, but we mostly prefer to go to a nude beach about 30min away….What is really strange is that we have started to notice that when sunbathing nude we all seem to have more tolerance to sun.

    We first noticed this recently when one of our two daughters decided to keep her dress on, while the rest of us completely nude. The 3 nudies were fine while the one wearing the dress got quite sunburned much to our surprise.

    We’ve been watching more closely to see if there is a correlation and while it’s only been a few weeks, it seems quite a noticeable difference for all of us.

    We also started noticing that the worst burn always seems to be right next to bather lines. Given that we tan naked a lot and wear different bathers often, we don’t have much in the way of tan lines.

    We are wondering if our skin has a natural defense to the sun and bathers confuse the skins defense system.

    Wondering if anyone else has similar experience or observations ?

    Steve wrote on January 3rd, 2013
  11. I think this really depends on where you live – I am very fair skinned and where I live there is a 3-4min burn time. It is very dangerous to repeatedly go out in the sun without protection – whether that is shade or sunblock.
    Skin Cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers in my country – because people go out without assessing the risk to their skin.

    Rachel wrote on January 21st, 2013
  12. I am fair skinned and I don’t want to get tan. I want to keep my light skin. Do you mean that eating these things protects the skin from tanning as well?

    Angela wrote on June 6th, 2013
  13. I like this article and find it very interesting however I live in south florida and I just don’t feel it is safe to go out without protection. I go out without sunscreen for a 30 min. walk each morning but anything after 9:30 am that sun is brutal. I follow the guide on EWG.org and get the best sunscreen I can and I have a sun umbrella. There is no way I would go to the beach here unprotected and I do consume lots of coconuts and tomatoes and I have medium skin tone. I guess I feel like its too much of a risk. But I do think I will bump up the fats during the summer for added protection.

    Kris wrote on July 16th, 2013
  14. I’m really fair and have always burned stupidly easily. My arms would seriously burn from driving with the windows down. But, I’ve noticed that this summer I’m not getting painful red burns anymore. Actually, for the first time EVER, I’m getting a tiny bit of a tan! In the last eight months, I’ve gone “primalish” (I still do some rice), started cooking everything in coconut oil and bacon fat, changed from a vegan to a meat eater, started supplementing vitamin D and taking cod liver oil. I have no idea if one of these things, or all of them, is responsible, but I’ll take it!

    I bet I could probably still get a sunburn if I worked really hard at it, but I’m not gonna try. Lol. I’ve been out hiking and swimming several times this summer with little to no sunscreen, and the worst that’s happened has been a pink flush around the shoulders. Pretty exciting…!

    Kit wrote on July 17th, 2013
  15. We live in San Diego, and it has been a pretty mild summer so far. I think that explains my lack of sunburns this season. I only switched to paleo a couple of months ago. I’ve seen numerous health benefits already, but I never stopped to think about the effect of our diet on how our body reacts to the sun. “Food for thought.”

    I was diagnosed with a basal cell cariconoma (a non-malignant form of skin cancer) on my right cheek when I was only 29. It freaked me out, and I’ve used an SPF 15 skin lotion on my face every day since then (for the last 9 years). No other skin problems since then. I’m going to continue to use the lotion, but I’ll probably look for something with natural ingredients (I’m using Clinque M Lotion now.) I hope that the natural food I’m eating will be beneficial in the long run, too, even with the late start I’m getting. I love being outdoors, but I hate being sunburned. So when possible, I also use another extremely primal form of sunscreen… shade!

    Sandy wrote on July 21st, 2013
  16. I’m quite pale and burn SO easily – I got sunburnt once after only 10-15 minutes being in the sun! Because of this, whenever I know I’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors I simply have to put sunscreen on: I don’t have much choice.
    But I don’t use chemical sunscreens which have even given me a rash before. I recommend zinc/titanium sunscreens as these work as a physical barrier to the sun – much like your clothes but without the extra heat when you don’t want it.

    Emma wrote on September 23rd, 2013

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