by Alexandra Owens
Getty ImagesAs someone whose DNA combines all the palest regions of Western Europe, I'm constantly looking for new ways to layer on the SPF. According to Jessica Wu, Los Angeles dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face (St. Martin's Press), I've been forgetting one of the most important: ingesting it. Can certain foods actually help guard you from the sun? Of course sunscreen is the first line of protection against UV rays, but some foods can definitely act as back-up. Patients have told me that they get burned even with sunscreen on or it rubs off. So in general it's a good idea to be as safe as you can, especially in the summer.
How do these foods protect you exactly? Foods like fruits and vegetables contain a mixture of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds which fight inflammation and the free radicals formed by UV rays that attack your DNA, skin collagen, and tissue, and lead to skin cancer and pre-mature aging. In studies, it's easier to measure the effects of UVB, the burning rays. Whereas UVA damage may not be as apparent.
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What are some foods that have SPF properties? Probably the greatest amount of research is on tomatoes, which are very high in an antioxidant called lycopene. One study showed that eating 40 grams of tomato paste a day reduced redness, swelling, and pain after UV exposure. Studies have shown that lycopene is absorbed much more easily through tomato paste than raw tomatoes. Another good source is chocolate--an experiment out of Germany showed that drinking cocoa with a high concentration of flavonols, the antioxidant found in cocoa beans, protected the skin from sunburn. But it needs to be at least 70% cocoa, the darker the better. Omega-3's in fish also increase natural SPF.
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What if you're traveling a lot during the summer and need a quick source? Cranberries and walnuts are a rich source of ellagic acid, another antioxidant, which has been shown to fight sun damage and premature aging. They block the formation of enzymes which break down collagen and elastic tissue. If you're out and about during the summer, it can be hard to pack tomato paste, so cranberries are a great snack, or I like to bring along the cranberry-walnut KIND Bars.
Do you have to eat a minimum time before going in the sun to get the benefit? That hasn't been studied. We do think the longer you've been eating these foods, the more protection you'll have, because in the tomato paste study the participants had 20 percent less sunburn after 4 weeks and 40 percent less after 10 weeks. So it seems like the results are cumulative.
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by Alexandra Owens